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> Columns > Boston Globe > Excesses of the 'war on fat'

Excesses of the 'war on fat'

By Cathy Young | March 11, 2002

Have you noticed that we may be on the brink of a national war on fat? Late last year, shortly before the end of his tenure, US Surgeon General David Satcher released a ''call to action'' on obesity, warning that excess weight would soon emerge as the leading cause of preventable early death in this country and calling for various measures to address this problem.

Many conservatives and libertarians regard these efforts as yet another egregious example of Big Brother meddling in our lives. The last thing we need, they say, is a federal food police watching our plates. They warn that the antitobacco crusade offers an alarming example of what we can expect from yet another public health crusade, no matter how well-intentioned: punitive ''sin taxes'' on high-calorie foods, bans on soft drinks and fast food in school cafeterias, and, quite possibly, lawsuits against the food industry to recover medical costs related to overeating.

One conservative who takes a more optimistic view of the war on fat is Michael Fumento, a medical journalist, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of the 1997 book ''Fat of the Land: The Obesity Epidemic and How Overweight Americans Can Help Themselves.''

Fumento's book documented the alarming patterns that are also discussed in the surgeon general's report. Today, over a third of adult Americans are obese (defined as more than 20 percent over one's ideal weight), up from about a quarter in 1962. Childhood obesity is on the rise as well. The risk of premature death for an obese man or woman is 50 to 100 percent higher than for a person of healthy proportions. Obesity is associated with elevated risk for many potentially lethal or crippling medical conditions, from heart disease, stroke and cancer to diabetes and arthritis. Every year, an estimated 300,000 Americans die early because of excess weight.

Why are we so fat? The answer, according to Fumento, is simple: We move too little and eat too much. Part of the blame also lies with fad diets and damaging myths about weight loss - for instance, that the most important thing is to cut down on the fat content of your diet (what really matters is overall calorie intake). But there is another culprit: a politically correct movement that seeks to promote ''fat acceptance'' and destigmatize obesity.

Advocates for ''people of size'' typically argue that people have no control over their weight. But if that's true, why are people in other countries so much thinner?

''Fat acceptance'' activism, which taps into our laudable concerns about fairness to people who differ from the norm, has made some headway in recent years. Entertainment magazines celebrate plus-size actresses and models. Major newspapers and magazines publish articles bemoaning antifat prejudice and discrimination. Some communities such as Ithaca, N.Y., have even held a ''size acceptance month.''

The mindset of some people in this movement is best illustrated by their response to a harrowing incident several years ago, when a 13-year-old girl who weighed 680 pounds died of heart failure and her mother was charged with child abuse for allowing her daughter to reach that condition. Activists such as Marilyn Wann, editor of a magazine called FAT!SO?, seemed more concerned with the alleged antifat prejudice of the prosecution than with the child's death. ''It is not a crime to be fat, and it is not a crime to have a fat child,'' Wann declared.

''Obesity is a national issue and a public health issue,'' says Fumento. ''We need to use the good parts of the antitobacco campaign'' - such as public awareness of the health risks - ''while keeping out the bad parts, like people winning lawsuits because they claimed they didn't know smoking was bad for them. People have known tobacco is harmful for over three centuries. Yet, amazingly, there are people who continue to say there's nothing wrong with being grotesquely obese.''

Given our culture's propensity to take good ideas to absurd extremes, it may not take long before the excesses of the war on tobacco are replicated by the war on fat. It would be unfortunate if, instead of taking responsibility for their own lives, people started suing food companies for addicting them to junk food. But maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing if groups that deny the harm of obesity came to be seen in the same light as the infamous Tobacco Institute - not as champions of civil rights but as promoters of dangerous myths.

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