• Cathy Newman: “Why Are We So Fat?” National Geographic magazine; August 2004; Photographs by Karen Kasmauski.
Cathy Newman’s latest piece, “Why Are We So fat”, feels strangely out of place with the usual National Geographic fare. Accompanied by exposes on cephalopods and surfing hippos, the August cover story sticks out like a sore thumb. Instead of exploring a natural or anthropological wonder, Newman proffers her two cents on the obesity debate. She tackles a tired issue from a tired angle. The story could have easily been copied from any number of lesser publications.
Beginning with the premise that our luxurious American lifestyle is killing us, Newman asks, “Why are we so fat?” From there, she explores the possible causes and cures of obesity. To Newman’s credit, the author’s voice remains fairly neutral. However, the piece’s underlying assumptions and expert testimonials tend to reveal a fatalistic, liberal bent.
Newman starts with the personal interest story of Linda Hay. At 5 feet 5 and 314 pounds, Hay is classified as morbidly obese. Twenty years of failing to lose weight have finally culminated in desperation — Hay has decided to undergo gastric bypass surgery. Gastric bypass shrinks stomach capacity and reconfigures the small intestine. The altered digestive system cannot process a large meal and most patients lose about two-thirds of their excess weight within a year of the operation. Though largely successful, the surgery has a 15 percent failure rate with a 7 percent chance of complications. One out of a hundred cases result in death.
Hay’s doctor agrees that such operations are a last resort for the desperate. “Surgery is a drastic solution, but then obesity is a drastic problem,” the doctor told her. To give us a grasp of this problem, Newman begins to cite statistics. She uses a series of charts and numbers to reveal some potentially disturbing trends. The average American ate 228 more pounds of food in 2000 than in 1970. While vegetable consumption is up, potato chips and french fries accounted for a large percentage of the increase. Additionally, Americans tended to eat processed carbohydrates instead of healthy grains. To be fair, these numbers warrant consideration.
Under the heading of “a widening problem,” Newman attempts to catalog the percentage of over-nourished people worldwide. The populations of wealthy nations like Great Britain and the United States had the highest incidences of obesity. The citizenry of newly industrialized nations also tended to toward obesity. From this, Newman theorizes that increased marketing for high-calorie foods, replacement of labor with machines, and the rise of videogames are laying the foundation for a global epidemic.
It is crucial to note that all of Newman’s statistics on obesity rates are calculated with the body mass index, or BMI. This index is a one-size-fits-all categorization chart, used to classify humans as underweight, healthy weight, overweight, obese, or morbidly obese. Needless to say, there is no such thing as a flawless classification system. While the BMI may be a useful tool, it does not evaluate one’s genetic heritage, personal history, or body structure. More than likely, the index classifies many healthy individuals as overweight and vice versa. Thus, the utility of Newman’s theorizing is limited.
While it must be acknowledged that many Americans would benefit from dropping a few pounds, many more have taken today’s dieting craze far too seriously. At some point, one’s efforts to lose excess weight become more dangerous than the weight itself. Countless stocky, sturdy, thickset Americans would be ill-advised to seek a thinner physique. Many individuals simply appear heavy at their ideal weight. Finally, declaring weight loss the end goal may prove dangerous. The objective should be to maintain a healthy bodily state. Sometimes, as with the Atkins diet, the goals of health and weight loss contradict.
If you are willing to accept that Americans are incapable of resisting the primordial urge to gorge themselves on sugar and fats — if you are willing to accept that discipline and free will are mere ghosts at the dinner table — then you ought to beg Uncle Sam to save your children from McDonalds and Pepsi. However, this country was founded on freedom and the principles of individual autonomy. Today, we have the privilege of evaluating the net benefit of consuming a burger and fries. Linda Hay decided that dropping 162 pounds was worth the considerable risks of surgery. Others may decide that experiencing the joy of cola is worth gaining a few pounds. These free choices are the cornerstone of America. Here’s to hoping no one removes it.