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Jewish World Review June 19, 2001 / 29 Sivan, 5761

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Consumer Reports

Obesity v. tobacco -- FAT is not fit.

In significant ways, fatness even tops smoking as a health hazard, according to a new study from the RAND Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. To its surprise, researchers there discovered that obese people have twice the rate of chronic health problems as people of normal weight. Their health woes are slightly worse than those of the poor, and far worse than those of daily smokers and heavy drinkers. The study was published in the British journal Public Health.

Being overweight or obese describes almost 60 percent of America's adult population. And one doesn't have to be very fat to be unfit. Just an extra 20 pounds, what some people blithely call "middle-aged spread," has harmful health effects.

And the more overweight one is, the greater the increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, a variety of cancers, other diseases - and premature death.

An easy mathematical formula tells you where you fall in the weight wars. Multiply your weight in pounds by 703. Divide the result by your height in inches. Divide by your height in inches again. That's your body mass index or BMI, today considered the best gauge of adult weight health. If your BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9, good for you. (The American Cancer Society says the ideal for women is 22 to 23.4, and for men 23.5 to 24.9) Between 25 and 29.9, you are overweight. Obesity sets in at 30. Tragically, Americans are not only fat but we are getting fatter faster than at any time in our history. From 1987 to 1997, adult Americans gained an average of eight pounds apiece. American children are also experiencing an epidemic of obesity.

Studies have shown that being overweight causes 300,000 deaths a year, second only to smoking as a killer lifestyle. Thanks to the newest RAND study, we now know being overweight is even more dangerous than smoking in terms of the chronic health conditions it imposes. So where is the concern and moral outrage that was long ago attached to cigarettes?

It's not only absent, there seems to be a kind of moral high ground surrounding obesity today. There's the ridiculous notion that "fat can be fit," evidenced in everything from books like "Big Fat Lies" and "Your Fat is Not Your Fault" to the ever greater use of "beautiful" overweight models decked out in sporting gear to depict the image of health, to groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance. This group's Web site features some humongous honeys, and claims that ". . . valuing thinness over fatness is a cultural bias." It says it's dedicated to improving the quality of life for fat people, but of course if it really were it would tell its members to lose the weight. And for the most part they can - it's not "in the genes." Science writer Mike Fumento explains that while there may be some genetic link to obesity, most researchers now agree that it's extremely modest and is certainly outweighed, so to speak, by behavioral factors. But this should be obvious anyway, given that obesity rates for American adults are up almost 70 percent just from 1991 to 1998.

Still, obesity has virtually become a protected phenomenon in our culture. So, when one study, highly regarded by the medical and scientific community, showed that post-menopausal women 44 pounds or more overweight at least doubled their chance of getting breast cancer, the news was largely ignored by the mainstream press usually eager to cover every aspect of this particular disease. The researchers were, typically, accused of "blaming the victim."

And maybe that's why social crusaders show such little concern at the early graves so many Americans are digging for themselves and their children with their forks, why there are so few truth-tellers intent on giving overweight Americans the painful facts about what they are doing to themselves, even when there is surely such a thing as "second-hand obesity," meaning the more fat people we see, the more people think it's OK to be fat.

It may all be about creating a new victim class for the overweight. Which, ironically, puts the health of the overweight in even greater peril --- in a real sense victimizing them. But it may also have something to do with the fact that while going after cigarette makers offers prestige and potentially huge cash awards, going after Hostess cupcakes and McDonald's somehow just isn't the same.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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