Friday, April 22, 2011

#20 Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World by Greg Critser

232 pp, Houghton Mifflin, 2003

As someone who used to order up the #2 value meal Super Sized for much of the 1990s (that was the 2 cheeseburger meal) this book showed me something that I did not know. Namely, that my beloved value meal did not exist before I was a junior in high school. On the eve of the 1990s, McD's and the other Purveyors of Possibly Food finally gave us what Critser says we wanted: bigger size fries with a side of bigger, fatter burgers. This then led to relaxed fit and baggy fit jeans, spandex and the Gap increasing its largest closing size to a House/Mama Cass-esque 16. I wear relaxed fit jeans because the crotch size in the "slim" cut jeans cannot handle my junk. That's right. I said it.

The first three chapters point out the increasing size of the meals, and our increasing likelihood of eating out more often. I like the organization, as it shows that the ever increasing size of fast food (check out Del Taco's "Macho Taco") both worked in our favor (more for less) and will eventually kill us and reduce our children to quivering blobs of diabetic fat. As one study cited by Critser concludes, "Human hunger could be expanded by merely offering more and bigger options." (28) Within this section, Critser discusses the impact of increasing intrusion of fast food into public schools. Yes, we still have public schools. Taken along with the late 1990s book Affluenza, Pepsi, Coke, Pizza Slut and the rest should be banned from schools. Kids eat more if the pizza is from Little Seizures; I would rather eat the box, as it tastes better and has more nutritional value. Why were "evil" corporations allowed to turn kids into fatty minions at lunchtime? Well, it is the same reason our roads suck. What? Government workers are fat and lazy and the Lunch Lady Local 242 of the International Sisterhood of Hairnets went on strike? Well, no. Schools gotta get money from somewhere, and less is coming from us. You cannot cut the football team in schools, but you can cut phys ed courses.

 In chapters 4 and 5, Critser tackles why the calories stayed on us, and what fat is and what fat is not. This is the true heart of the book, as it addresses the ties between obesity levels and income. "By the mid 1990s, CDC studies found that among people with $10,000 or less of annual income, 33% of blacks were obese, 26% of Hispanics, and 19% of whites." (110) One may ask, well, if you are poor, how can you afford to eat at McD's? Enter the Value Menu, 99 cent menu and the rest. Add in the "aggressive cultivation of poor inner city neighborhoods" by these businesses, and they may be the only place to eat out. (112) Also, one must consider the true lack of grocery stores in these neighborhoods. By the mid-to-late 1990s, inner cities were hosts to fast food joints, check cashing places, liquor stores and convenience stores. This is also true of poor rural neighborhoods in the south, contributing to the "food desert" phenomenon. Having lived in a town of 1000 people in downstate Illinois with no grocery store, two gas stations and three taverns, this phenomenon exists.

A person working minimum wage takes home $290 a week for 40 hours, $1160 a month, $13,920 per year. Critser rightfully points out that most people who take home $290 a week cannot pay to join a gym or health center. In Morgan Hill, the adult membership rate is $55 per month, with a $50 payment fee. Non member resident classes cost $14 bucks each. If you are of the "working poor", you aren't gonna lose that gut in any of these places. Critser lauds the "safe neighborhood" programs to build parks that are well maintained and policed. However, in these budgetary times, this won't happen. I have always found it interesting that the kids who don't play outside anymore because of "stranger danger" are the ones who really aren't in any danger.

Critser's synopsis of the media treatment of exercise is well written and should cause you to not trust any of the media types talking about exercise. We are getting larger because we exercise less and eat more. Period. And, eating a high protein Atkins diet will not make you thin. A far better predictor of fitness level for the yoga pant wearing, SUV driving, rushing-kids-from-karate-to-soccer-to-tutoring set is income level. So the next time you hear some rail thin 45 year old say "No carbs this week" feel free to laugh. Critser's short history of the Atkins Diet is an illuminating bit of chapter 2. All in all, this book was quite good.

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