Only the Rich Can Afford to Stay Thin

One man's progress is another's Big Mac.

It’s not easy to run in my neighborhood. I considered this the other day as I slogged down Richmond Street lurching over potholes, avoiding cars and choking down the exhaust of a half-dozen construction vehicles that seem to be getting surprisingly little done despite their near constant belching. Still, at least three times a week I pull on the Asics, wrap a bandana around my head and brave the wilds of Fishtown all in the name of staying fit and healthy. (Then I come home, take a shower, and spend the next 10 hours sitting on my ass in front of an iMac. Now that’s what I call progress!)

Eating well isn’t exactly a piece of cake either (forgive the pun); usually it requires making the decision to stay in and cook—something I do enjoy, when time permits—instead of succumbing to a night of duck-fat French fries and house-made charcuterie at one of Philly’s seemingly endless number of gastropubs.

Come to think of it, those of us who care about such things expend an awful lot of time and effort trying to keep the weight off.  That’s because the modern world is tailored to make us fat and keep us that way. If you live in a city, staying fit is almost a full-time gig. And there are more of us living in cities than ever before. In the U.S., where well over 75 percent of us are urbanites, the number of fat people has tripled over the past three decades, so that today, two-thirds of adults and a third of children qualify as overweight. That’s more than 200 million people.

So why should we care? Well, for starters, complications from obesity account for more than nine percent of all medical spending, according to the Centers for Disease Control; and weight-related illnesses are now the second leading cause of preventable death. In a country where the issue of health care is becoming a decisive factor in our choice of president, I’d say that’s a pretty big deal.  But if that’s not enough, consider that in fighting obesity, we are spending millions of dollars more attacking the symptoms of a problem while largely overlooking its causes. The bottom line? Obesity is expensive as shit and we have yet to address—or for the most part even recognize—why so many people have gotten so big so quick.

It’s easy to look for culprits to blame. Today, public-enemy number one is sugary beverages (before that it was saturated fats). And while it’s true that foods and drinks high in calories, saturated fats and simple carbohydrates are important contributing factors to the obesity epidemic, at its root, malnutrition (be it starvation or obesity) is a social problem. And like lots of social problems, more often than not it is caused by economic inequality.

Now, before you call me a closet Marxist, let me state for the record that I think people should have the right to eat anything they choose and businesses should have the right to sell it to them. But there is pretty convincing evidence that a person’s propensity for obesity is less about choice and more about circumstance—with the least fortunate among us the most likely to suffer.

It hasn’t always been so. For centuries a little extra girth around the midsection was recognized as a sign of economic prosperity and was therefore valued as an attractive physical trait. Rich people got fat; kings and nobles got fat. Peasants typically did not. Today the reverse is true. Numerous studies show that as countries “progress” from so-called underdeveloped to developed status—through a combination of industrialization, modernization and urbanization—a funny thing happens: Poor people get fat, and disproportionately so.

In March, the American Journal of Human Biology published an article that seeks to get to the bottom of this paradigm by considering how economic factors and global food policy have led to our current toxic nutritional environment. The author, the biological anthropologist Jonathan C.K. Wells, says that it all started when farmers in developing nations were encouraged (a.k.a forced) by colonialists to stop growing subsistence crops and instead pool their resources toward growing export crops like coffee or bananas for their new masters. The resultant shift in local food production meant people who had been self-sufficient for thousands of years now had to depend on imports of nonnative foods to feed themselves.

Colonialism led to industrialization, which forced a massive population shift, as entire families abandoned the country and moved to cities. Along the way they dropped their traditional diets of whole foods and began eating more processed and high-calorie foods. Researchers call this “nutrition transition,” and they blame it for completely disrupting the eating habits of millions of people.

According to Alexandra A. Brewis, author of the book, Obesity—Cultural and Biocultural Perspectives:

The transition begins when diets rich in whole grains, vegetables and relatively lean proteins … are replaced over time by diets based on more processed foods laden with sugar, saturated fat and sodium. The dietary changes track associated lifestyle transitions, such as shifts in occupation and leisure-time activities, which tend to promote relative sedentism. Together these trends explain at a broad level why more people are overweight and obese now than in the past.

Over as little as a generation or two, according to Wells, these traits are passed from mother to child creating a genetic propensity for obesity he calls a “metabolic ghetto.”

Here in the U.S., where “progress” has made it possible for us to live and work in the same room and get nearly our entire daily caloric intake from a single Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast sandwich without having to leave the car, the fallout has been staggering. Meanwhile, farmers and corporate bioengineers have been working overtime to meet the needs of an increasingly urbanized population seeking cheap, easily accessible calories by bulking up food sources by any means necessary.

The average beef steer is 300 pounds heavier today at slaughter than it was 30 years ago, and if you haven’t seen what they are doing to chickens these days, I invite you to visit my local Superfresh where you’ll find breasts that make Dolly Parton look like a parakeet. Meanwhile added sugars in Americans’ food options increased 19 percent between 1970 and 2005, according to the American Heart Association, and solid fat and sugar now make up make up 35 percent of total calories in a typical American diet. Critics blame farm subsidies to agribusiness that favor junk food additives like high-fructose corn syrup for helping further skew the American diet toward less healthy nutritional options.

The global obesity crisis was created, and is being perpetuated, by the lure of profit. Food, like so much else in our consumerist culture, has become a commodity, where the goal is to get the most bang for the buck for the least amount of work—for both consumer and provider. Food is also something no one can do without. Unlike smoking (which falls just ahead of obesity as the leading cause of preventable death), we can’t just choose not to eat. Luckily consumers are beginning to pay attention to what they put in their mouths; sadly that choice is easier for some more than for others.