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Corriere della Sera, Italy


America Discovers “La Dolce Vita” of Fats


By Massimo Gaggi


Translated by Michael Devine


January 19, 2008


Italy - Corriere della Sera - Original Article (Italian)


New York – Too little, too late: many economists and nutritionists are convinced that the current efforts to combat the obesity epidemic in the United States are insufficient and that it remains a threat to the health of many Americans.  In order to actually alter the present situation (1/3 of adults are obese, another 1/3 are overweight), which is itself a reflection of the nature of economic growth in the last half century, people will have to radically change their habits, spending – among other things – more than ever on fresh foods and gym memberships.  And yet, after decades of a continual deterioration in food nutrition, something is beginning to move in the U.S.


Thanks to an agreement mediated by Bill Clinton, carbonated and high sugar beverages have been replaced by mineral water and fruit juices in school dispensers.  Health providers and employers are now offering incentives to those who commit themselves to improving their diets and exercising more.  Some restaurant chains – in particular McDonald’s – have salads and low fat foods on their menus.  By and large America has plunged into urgency – obesity seems to require immediate combating.  It is even to the point where someone like the ex-governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, is aided in his bid to the White House by his successful battle against fat: he used to weigh 135 kg (297 lbs.) and has managed to drop 55 (120) of them. 


But according to some ‘nutrition economists’, all this will help little: the evolution of the system of food production and of the social habits that have brought America to this point – sweets and fatty foods produced a low costs, sedentary lives, cities designed for automobile use, long work hours – does not seem to be reversible.  Moreover, many obese are beginning to consider the extra weight as an acceptable price for their relaxed and somewhat decadent lifestyles.  Fatness has not become trendy, but it can be an acceptable compromise: Advertising, which for spots now uses models that are becoming more and more chubby, encourages this new psychology.  And medicine also helps.  Certainly, though, the obese know that they will be more vulnerable to diabetes and hypertension and will have life expectancies much lower than those of thin people. 


But new treatments allow for a better controlling of the situation and at any rate the obese risk less than another category of people who have decided to not give in to the pleasures of a healthier lifestyle: smokers.  Eric Fenkelstein, celebrated ‘nutritional economist’ from Duke University, has conducted an investigation of various groups of the population, finding that the obese think that their lives will last 74 years on average, four less than the average for those who are in shape: a gap that does not scare them enough to the point where they are motivated to change and face the costs and discomforts of a completely new and healthy life.  In his new book, The Fattening of America, Finkelstein contends that obesity is a natural consequence of an advanced economy.  Comparing energy content, for example, fruits and vegetables cost ten times more than then energy-equivalent foods that are high in fat and calories and which are also easier to save and distribute.  These are differences that cannot be overcome by some small incentive. 


And the problem was not born yesterday: since the end of the 1950s, when President Eisenhower called on Americans to eat less and to reflect on the consequences of mass ‘motorization,’ the rate of obesity in adults has risen from 13% to 33%.  In the world, Finkelstein notes, only the richest ex-nomad pastors of Saudi Arabia are fatter (35% of adults).  The efforts of society and individual commitments still carry on.  But in order to bring about significant results any efforts would have to be put into effect hard-and-fast.  Richard Graboyes, Professor of ‘Economics of health’ at the University of Virginia, suggested some time ago in Forbes Magazine an extreme recipe to those who wanted to truly take on the titanic effort it takes to lose weight: “Set a goal for yourself of losing 26 pounds in 26 weeks.  Give $6,000 to a sponsor.  If at the end of the timeframe you have reached your goal, he will give you the money.  Or else he will give it not to a charity, but rather to an ‘enemy’ of yours.  For example, if you are a liberal of the left, he would be able to choose to donate the money either to the NRA or to the Presidential Library of George W. Bush.”


It is a paradoxical recipe that reflects the difficulty of any reversal of course.  Change can be very difficult and is not a goal sought by everyone: the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance – the organization sprung from the ‘Fat Liberation Movement’ of the 1970s – has re-raised its head, while the ‘calorie watch’ is being overlooked once again in the chain restaurant industry which is now – in contrast to McDonald’s – betting everything on extreme food offerings: the famous ‘Monster Thickburger’ from the Hardee’s chain – a mega-sandwich with 1410 calories and 107 grams of fat – is outdone by the ‘Double Burger’ of Carl’s Jr. (1520 calories and 111 grams of fat) while the ‘Double Quarter Pounder’ of McDonald’s, with barely 740 calories, struggles behind the front line, surpassed now even by the ‘Baconator’ (830 calories and 51 grams of fat) which was just introduced to the market by Wendy’s.  Jay Leno, prince of TV satire, honors these products with gags (“extraordinary sandwiches, they give you them in a box shaped like a coffin”) that in effect praise the consumers of these products instead of scaring them.  And CKE, the parent company of 3,000 restaurants of the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chains, claims sales records: 31% higher than in 2000.  No one else in the restaurant industry has managed to make as much.