Others have noted Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker article-disguised-as-a-book-review, "XXXL: Why are Americans fat?", but they have not noted that the piece fails to reveal the true answer to the question posed in its title. I will reveal that answer below, but first some random notes on Ms. Kolbert's essay.
Ms. Kolbert discloses, inadvertently, that official studies may actually underestimate the true percentage of overweight individuals in the general population. She describes the official standard in these studies in such a way — "a woman who is five feet tall would count as overweight if she was more than a hundred and forty pounds, and a man who is six feet tall if he weighed more than two hundred and four pounds" — that it strikes me that we may be "defining 'overweight' down" by fair margin. Six feet and 204 pounds, unless those pounds are primarily muscle, certainly seems more severe than merely "overweight." Not outright "obese," perhaps, but certainly "significantly" overweight by my estimation. (I'm six foot myself, and rather less than 204 pounds, and my missus will be happy to tell you that I still qualify as at least somewhat "overweight." And she would not be wrong. But enough about me: what do I think this is, some sort of blog?)
I do recommend the New Yorker piece for its store of intriguing anecdotal evidence, such as this one, to explain how we got this way:
In the early nineteen-sixties, a man named David Wallerstein was running a chain of movie theatres in the Midwest and wondering how to boost popcorn sales. Wallerstein had already tried matinée pricing and two-for-one specials, but to no avail. . . . [O]ne night the answer came to him: jumbo-sized boxes. Once Wallerstein introduced the bigger boxes, popcorn sales at his theatres soared, and so did those of another high-margin item, soda.
A decade later, Wallerstein had retired from the movie business and was serving on McDonald’s board of directors when the chain confronted a similar problem. Customers were purchasing a burger and perhaps a soft drink or a bag of fries, and then leaving. How could they be persuaded to buy more? Wallerstein’s suggestion — a bigger bag of fries — was greeted skeptically by the company’s founder, Ray Kroc. Kroc pointed out that if people wanted more fries they could always order a second bag.
'But Ray,' Wallerstein is reputed to have said, 'they don’t want to eat two bags — they don’t want to look like a glutton.' Eventually, Kroc let himself be convinced; the rest, as they say, is supersizing.In the words of those svelte reasoners Tweedledum and Tweedledee: "That's Logic." One bag, even if it contains as much as two bags, is still just one bag, which makes it all all right.
Writing at the Atlantic, Derek Thompson links Kolbert and reduces it all to a combination of price and "elasticity of appetite." Food prices overall have gone down in recent decades, with fast fatty foods declining the furthest and, well, fastest. Meanwhile, we humans are structured such that if it's there to eat, we tend to keep on eating it whether or no we have already eaten Enough.
I propose, however, that Thompson too has missed the true cause of our ballooning citizenry, even though he reproduces The Chart in which All is Revealed. That chart, which comes from a May 5 post by Katherine Rampel on the New York Times' "Economix" weblog, compares the populations of various nations by cross-referencing the time (minutes per day) that the average citizen spends eating against the percentage of the national population that is overweight. Ms. Rampel suggests that "Slow Food" enthusiasts may be on to something, as countries in which the populace spends more time eating — presumably taking in similar quantities, but at a more leisurely pace — are to some extent also the countries with a less pressing weight problem.
I draw a different conclusion, and I am at a loss to understand why no one else seems to have cottoned to it. Here is Ms. Rampel's chart. What is most noticeable about the weight-gainin' nations of the world?
Yes, that's right: with the exception of Mexico, an obvious statistical outlier, the overweight populace is heavily concentrated in countries whose principal language is English. The US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand: we're rounder because we're always rollin', and we're rollin' because, by jingo, We Speak English!
How to explain Canada's combination of superfast dining with more constrained waistlines? Clearly it results from the counterweight, so to speak, of having an entire province speaking French!
So forget Bally's, forget 24-Hour Fitness, forget Weight Watchers, and forget Jenny Craig. The answer to the nation's weight problem more likely lies with Berlitz and Rosetta Stone. Write the President and your representatives now, and demand immediate action: a constitutional amendment and individual mandate compelling each of us to be learning and speaking nothing but Esperanto by 2015. Thank you.