Wednesday, September 13, 2006

It's a Fat, Fat, Fat, Fat World

Oops, there goes another rubber-tree plant. No more jokes about rich, fat people. It seems obesity is the new mark of poverty. Whatever the reasons, slim good health is becoming the mark of the well-kept upper crust of society, not only in America but world-wide. Gwynne Dyer writes...

Being fat is the new normal, but it won't last. The global surge in overweight people is concentrated among lower-income city-dwellers, and some may choose to slim down as they climb further up the income scale. (You can never be too rich or too slim.) But the real guarantee of a slimmer world, unfortunately, is climate change.

"Obesity is the norm globally, and under-nutrition, while still important in a few countries and in (certain groups) in many others, is no longer the dominant disease," said Dr. Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina recently at a conference in Queensland, Australia. Popkin studies "nutrition transition," the changes that accompany the shift from a traditional rural diet to a modern urban diet, and he has concluded that, thanks to high-speed urbanization, the fat now outnumber the starving.

...Mexicans of all ages and both sexes are now on average as fat as Americans. In Kuwait, Thailand and Tunisia, 25 to 50 per cent of the population is suffering not only developed-world levels of obesity, but also similar plagues of "non-communicable" obesity-related diseases like diabetes and heart failure. South African and Egyptian women are as fat as American women (although their men lag behind their American counterparts).

In some places, specific local factors play a role as well. In much of Africa, for example, fatness in women was traditionally seen as testimony to the wealth and generosity of their husbands, and recent research in South Africa has revealed a new, additional factor: the fear that being slim will make people think you have AIDS.

Half of all women in South Africa are overweight, compared to only a third of South African men, and the problem is particularly acute among black women, one-third of whom are clinically obese. "Regretfully," says Tessa van der Merwe of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, "there is a perception that if a black woman is thin, she might have HIV/AIDS or that her husband can't afford to feed her well."

This Slate article is an eye-opener. Tons of links here following the opening ad. (PDF links embedded without warning -- one of my peeves.) More data than you ever thought possible. Pretty air-tight case making the point. This time I think I got it. Time to start watching my weight.
Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut are spreading across the planet. Coca-Cola is in more than 200 countries. Half of McDonald's business is overseas. In China, animal-fat intake has tripled in 20 years. By 2020, meat consumption in developing countries will grow by 106 million metric tons, outstripping growth in developed countries by a factor of more than five. Forty years ago, to afford a high-fat diet, your country needed a gross national product per capita of nearly $1,500. Now the price is half that. You no longer have to be rich to die a rich man's death.

Soon, it'll be a poor man's death. The rich have Whole Foods, gyms, and personal trainers. The poor have 7-Eleven, Popeye's, and streets unsafe for walking. When money's tight, you feed your kids at Wendy's and stock up on macaroni and cheese. At a lunch buffet, you do what your ancestors did: store all the fat you can.

That's the punch line: Technology has changed everything but us. We evolved to survive scarcity. We crave fat. We're quick to gain weight and slow to lose it. Double what you serve us, and we'll double what we eat. Thanks to technology, the deprivation that made these traits useful is gone. So is the link between flavors and nutrients. The modern food industry can sell you sweetness without fruit, salt without protein, creaminess without milk. We can fatten you and starve you at the same time.

...In country after country, service jobs are replacing hard labor. The folks who field your customer service calls in Bangalore are sitting at desks. Nearly everyone in China has a television set. Remember when Chinese rode bikes? In the past six years, the number of cars there has grown from six million to 20 million. More than one in seven Chinese has a motorized vehicle, and households with such vehicles have an obesity rate 80 percent higher than their peers.

Now I'm depressed. Can't decide if I should have a candy bar, ice cream or soft drink to make me feel better. Thanks to Coming Anarchy for the link. And check out their comments thread for some interesting feedback.

1 comment:

John said...

I'd add another factor that seems to have gone missing in this analysis: overcompensating relief from hunger.

When societies that have intimately known hunger (and starvation) suddenly reach a level of economic security, the kinds of foods they would eat only occasionally (and usually at celebratory events) become affordable on a daily basis. These foods are typically rich in fats, sugars, and packed with protein.

The normal diet (pre-"affluence") would be heavy on starches, but low in fats, sugars, and proteins.

Take a look at the Arab Gulf region. Prior to oil income, the daily diet would be rice or bread, dates, and milk or yoghurt, leavened with whatever green stuff might be available (typically, onions and garlic). An animal might be slaughtered for a feast.

After the oil, it was lamb, beef, and chicken every day. (Notable is the fact that in much of the region, chickens could not survive the heat. They require air conditioning to make it. Consequently, some of the largest air conditioned henhouses are now found in the Gulf States!)

Instead of dates and date syrup, and occasionally honey for the sugars, refined sugar made it way into the kitchen and into many, many foods.

Oils went from butter and olive oil to the various processed vegetable oils.

Caloric consumption doubled, tripled, quadrupled.

Latent diseases like diabetes have become raging epidemics, as has heart disease.

The problem, of course, isn't restricted to the Middle East; it's now a "development disease" as people change their patterns, but their bodies haven't caught up.