Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Inevitability of a Fat America? 

Washington Post staff writer Michael Rosenwald, in his article Why America Has to Be Fat, argues the inevitability of a fat America. He cites economic expansion for growing waistlines and says his being 60 pounds overweight is actually good for the economy.

What was he thinking?

In all fairness, his article may have been tongue-in-cheek, but, nevertheless, his assertion that America must be fat is unfounded. The truth is that we don’t have to carry around that extra weight.

Rosenwald did have some good observations on why Americans struggle with their weight, though. He notes, for instance, that our society has fostered industries that can cheaply and efficiently meet the demands of our busy lives via junk food and the fast food industry—which may appear to be good for the economy, but are not good for our health.

Less physical labor involved in work is another point Rosenwald makes. He says we work in easier, better-paying jobs that support our modern lifestyle, but that this “efficient economy produces sluggish, inefficient bodies.” (Incidentally, Rosenwald says he belongs to two gyms in hopes that guilt will motivate him to visit at least one of them.)

In short, Rosenwald suggests that Americans have grown accustomed to a comfy lifestyle—even if the tradeoff is their health and costs that may be high. Ironically, Rosenwald also points out that his being fat makes him a top contender for unhealthy blood sugar levels, cardiovascular unhealth and maybe even knee or hip problems. (That doesn’t sound too comfortable to me.) He also notes that he’s in “familiar company, with about two-thirds of the U.S. population now considered overweight.”

Rosenwald highlights that overweight Americans have fattened the bottom line. Seattle University management professor, William Weis, says that revenue from the “overweight industries” topped $315 billion in 2004, including $133.7 billion from fast food restaurants and $124.7 billion for weight-related medical treatments. The Mintel Group, a consumer-research firm, says we drank $37 billion in carbonated beverages and spent $3.9 billion on cookies in 2004. In 2003, we spent $57.2 billion on restaurant meals and bought $6.2 billion in potato chips.

Our overindulgent lifestyles may feed the economy, but Rosenwald seems to contradict this point when he cites how extra weight can be a double-edged sword to the economy. “The $10,000 of extra medical care that the overweight require over their lifetimes certainly makes a doctor’s wallet fatter, but it could bankrupt the health insurance industry,” he says. 

Rosenwald continues, “Much of the long-term financial burden for being overweight will fall on the shoulders of U.S. corporations, which already fork out billions of dollars a year in sick time and insurance costs related to being overweight, and on American taxpayers, through their contributions for programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. What's more, shorter life spans will more quickly take millions of educated people out of the workforce.”

Rosenwald’s scenarios don’t sound good for the economy to me, and they also don’t convince me that we have to be fat. We don’t. We’re in control of what and how much we eat, as well as how much exercise we get—and that’s good news for those of us who don’t ascribe to the American “inevitability of fat” principle.

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