Advice Goddess Blog
« Previous | Home | Next »

American Pie


Two tourists, Hot Springs, Arkansas

America: Land of the free with a fork, and the home of adult onset diabetes. Or, in other words, witness where your health care dollars will be going. Should there be "bad living" supplements to premiums?

I saw a story on and other places, "Is Fat The New Normal"? Here's the deal from a ScienceDaily press release:

American women have gotten fatter as it has become more socially acceptable to carry a few extra pounds, according to a new study.

Florida State University Assistant Professor of Economics Frank Heiland and Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Economist Mary Burke are the co-authors of a paper published in the academic journal Economic Inquiry that argues that the ballooning weight of the population has fed even more collective weight gain as our perception of what is considered a normal body size has changed.

"This is a social force that we are trying to document because the rise in obesity has occurred so rapidly over the past 30 years," said Heiland, who also is affiliated with FSU's Center for Demography and Population Health. "Medically speaking, most agree that this trend is a dangerous one because of its connection to diabetes, cancer and other diseases. But psychologically, it may provide relief to know that you are not the only one packing on the pounds."

The paper, "Social Dynamics of Obesity," is the first to provide a mathematical model of the impact of economic, biological and social factors on aggregate body weight distribution. It also is one of the first studies to suggest that weight norms may change and are not set standards based on beauty or medical ideals.

Many economists believe that people eat more -- and thus gain weight -- when food prices drop, but that's just part of the story behind the nation's dramatic weight gain since the late 1970s, according to the researchers. The full price of a calorie has dropped by about 36 percent relative to the price of consumer goods since 1977, but prices leveled off in the mid-1990s. And yet American women continued to get bigger.

Heiland and Burke's "social multiplier" theory offers a potential reason why: As Americans continue to super-size their value meals, the average weight of the population increases and people slowly adjust their perceptions of appropriate body weight. Given that these changes in perception may come about gradually, Heiland and Burke suggest the nation's battle of the bulge may extend into the future.

...The researchers also looked at self-reports of women's real weights and desired weights. In 1994, the average woman said she weighed 147 pounds but wanted to weigh 132 pounds. By 2002, the average woman weighed 153 pounds but wanted the scales to register 135 pounds, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

The fact that even the desired weight of women has increased suggests there is less social pressure to lose weight, Heiland said, citing a previous study that 87 percent of Americans, including 48 percent of obese Americans, believe that their body weight falls in the "socially acceptable" range.

While it seems thinness is increasingly idealized in popular culture -- images of waif-like models and stick-thin celebrities are everywhere -- there is a gap between the cultural imagery and the weights that most people consider acceptable for themselves and others, according to Heiland.

Posted by aalkon at December 22, 2007 1:13 PM


Interesting theory about the gap between cultural imagery and personal weight. I've already put a new commitment to wellness and weight loss on my personal goals list for 2008.

Thanks for pointing out the picture is of tourists to Hot Springs. Although we have plenty of healthy folks living here, we're often portrayed as "pig country."

Recently geographer Warren Bland named Hot Springs, Ark. the No. 1 place in America to retire, thanks in part to our healthy living environment.

I gotta admit, Hot Springs is a pretty cool place to live, even for those of us who aren't yet retired...or totally fit!

To see short documentary-style video clips from Hot Springs, check out SpaVlogger.

Rebecca McCormick,
Travel Journalist, Hot Springs Village Voice

Posted by: Rebecca McCormick at December 22, 2007 5:10 AM

Does the study account for all of the baby-boomer women who have gone through menopause since the '90's, and are now dealing with much slower metabolisms?

Posted by: Michelle at December 22, 2007 7:31 AM

I'm with your buddy Gary taubes on this one. When dietary fat became villified, it was replaced in the American diet with more refined carbs/sugars/high fructose corn syrup. It's not that we're eating more overall, it's that we're eating more of the stuff that causes most of us to pack on the weight.

Posted by: deja pseu at December 22, 2007 7:42 AM

..hit "post" too soon.

My very tiny paternal Grandmother used to have a rule about "only one starch per meal" (e.g. either bread or potatoes but not both) and used to put butter on our sandwiches to make them "more filling." She also used to have a small dessert after every dinner.

Posted by: deja pseu at December 22, 2007 7:46 AM

Personally, I'm at my best after I eat a nice rare steak.

Gregg took me to "The Little Door" on Beverly the other night. The prices there seem ridiculous -- but I think my rib-eye ($40) was one of the best steaks I've ever had. Of course, the price of any meal I eat is cut in half because I almost always bring half home (in America).

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 22, 2007 7:50 AM

And Michelle, I didn't read the study, so I can't tell you. But, I will say that if you look at photos of previous generations, I think older people were not enormously fat like they are now.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 22, 2007 7:53 AM

How come they keep harping on women? I see plenty of double chins and spare tires on the menfolk these days.

Posted by: JoJo at December 22, 2007 7:54 AM

They studied women. Comparing like to like. I'm guessing there are other studies of men with similar findings. Or will be.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 22, 2007 8:01 AM

I'm with ya on the steak, Amy. Actually had a really good one at Daily Grill recently, their strip steak. Got three meals out of that one! It was lovely sliced and cold on a salad the next day.

Posted by: deja p at December 22, 2007 8:17 AM

"...if you look at photos of previous generations, I think older people were not enormously fat like they are now."

Good point - also makes me miss my grandma. I had forgotten about the old photographs.

Posted by: Michelle at December 22, 2007 9:41 AM

HOw did McCormick get away with all those links in one comment? She should teach us how to do that

Posted by: Crid at December 22, 2007 10:20 AM

Shoulda mentioned that. She didn't. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, do e-mail Amy to tell her you think you put too many links in a comment.

One per comment. You need to post two? Post two comments.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 22, 2007 10:41 AM

One other thought about the study: perhaps rather than people getting larger because they feel it's acceptable, instead they're becoming more accepting of a larger size because they're getting larger and figuring out that once you do is pretty tough to get smaller.

Posted by: deja pseu at December 22, 2007 10:43 AM

Last line, "is" should be "it's".

Posted by: deja pseu at December 22, 2007 10:45 AM

On a regular basis there are newspaper articles complaining that women depicted in popular media (fashion, movies, etc.) are too thin. Which, so the theory goes, leads young women to various types of harmful behavior (anorexia, bulimia, etc.)

On a regular basis there are newspaper articles complaining that women in real life are too fat. Which, so the theory goes, will lead to massive health care costs to be borne by everyone but the overweight women and their families.

Fine, so there is some healthy "norm" ALL women are supposed to aim for. But they'd better be perfect or else their slightly "non-norm" body part will invite ridicule. (See: Jennifer Lopez's butt.)

Seems to me that all of those obsessing about someone else's body size and type should probably pour themselves a big, cold mug of "Mind Your Own Fucking Business", with a shot on the side of STFU. Just my own humble, very humble, opinion.

Posted by: David Crawford at December 22, 2007 11:46 AM

Body image concern among women is actually more common in Iran, where they wear burkhas and generally aren't exposed to western media. Scroll down in this entry for a quote about it.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 22, 2007 1:05 PM

Not sure what planet David's on, but on mine, Jennifer Lopez's butt only invites longing stares.

Posted by: snakeman99 at December 22, 2007 2:29 PM

I don't think many people would object to what fat women are doing if those women could bring themselves to say this:

"I know that men are visual creatures and that my failure to maintain my ideal weight reduces my attractiveness and worth to them. However, I really enjoy eating and am willing to make this sacrifice."

Knowing how important loving relationships are to women, I'd find it sad to hear a woman say this. But I would certainly respect it.

However, it's difficult to respect fat women who insist that they are also entitled to the good treatment that thinner women receive from men.

By the way, whenever Amy writes about her tendency to not finish restaurant meals in one sitting, and then later posts pictures of her great figure, I think about this
clip from an Australian comedy.

Posted by: Jamie B. at December 22, 2007 8:22 PM

Aww, thanks, for the "great figure" remark. But, the link didn't work. Can you please just past in the URL? You don't have to make it into a link.

And I'm with you on what you say above. They deny it, though, and I've gotten fired from papers from pointing out the reality of it.

Posted by: Amy Alkon Author Profile Page at December 22, 2007 9:00 PM

damned right Americans are getting fatter. The plus size fashion industry has gotten a lot larger (pardon the pun) over the past decade.

Not too long ago, one of the big model agencies in NYC was holding an open call for plus-size models. Requirements were you had to be between a size 12-16, minimum height 5'9". A size 12 in a "plus" size is the same as a 4-6 in a "misses" size. That demand for larger models wasn't out there in the 90's.

The saddest trend I've seen recently has been junior plus sizes. I like to buy my pants from catalogs (only way I'll find anything long enough to fit me). I've seen sizing up to 24-26, for clothes marketed for younger people! And yes, I have seen many larger teen girls at the shopping mall, etc. I want to run up to them and convince them to eat more fruits and vegetables, or something.

Posted by: alissab at December 22, 2007 10:19 PM

... previous generations of elderly were poor - this is certainly true of the pre-Social-Security era.

And food was more expensive relative to income - which is probably one factor in why restaurant portions and other food expectations were smaller then.

AND things like cars and elevators were less widely available. Even an office worker back then had to walk much more and climb more stairs.

AND less of the population was in those cushy desk jobs.

So they were thinner.

I don't think it really matters what you eat - when a "regular" beverage is a liter or more, and you're sitting on your butt all day... you are going to gain weight.

Interestingly, something similar happened during the Gilded Age - the advances in food preservation and transportation made more food more widely available than before, and a culture of large-portion, multi-course gluttony developed in major cities. Despite the corseted fashions, many 19th century media images display a pretty zaftig model of beauty.

Posted by: Ben-David at December 23, 2007 11:34 PM

I read about an interesting study last month: obese folks hang out together, and seeing most, if not all, of those around them also carrying around extra weight, think they are normal - or at least typical.

Also, there is still a socioeconomic basis to obesity. The higher your income, the less likely you are to be overweight (the same goes for smoking, by the way).

Full disclosure: I am 5'11"; I weighed 340 before finding out I was diabetic. I am now 280 and still losing. Every time I see a fat kid I shudder; I am their future.

Posted by: Steve Thomas at December 24, 2007 4:43 AM

Wow, sorry to hear about the diabetes. Will it go away if you get thinner?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2007 4:49 AM

Food is the cheapest vice.

Posted by: Bob K at December 24, 2007 4:50 AM

In America, we tend to eat large quantities of packaged, tasteless food. I'm thin not only because I exercise 20 minutes a day on a bike with moving arm thingies, but because I learned how to eat from going to France. The French, they might be commies (Sarko's working on it!), but they do the day-to-day stuff of life far better than we do. They tend to eat meals -- small portions of beautifully prepared, nutrient-rich food, and they aren't snacking all day. There are more and more packaged foods in their society, and there's an increasing amount of obesity, but you really don't see monstrously obese French people like you see monstrously obese Americans.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2007 5:00 AM

Here's an example of a meal from France. This is not a ritzy place we went to -- it's an old rugby pub, tiny and crowded. My dinner cost 32 euros, including dinner, appetizer, and desert. Gregg and I split a carafe of wine for 12 euros.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2007 5:03 AM

I blame 20 years of claiming that there is too much pressure on girls to look like Barbie, and the absurd political agenda to accuse any woman or girl who is properly thin of being anorexic or bulimic.

Young girls today are decidedly chunkier than when I was a kid.

Posted by: Skyler at December 24, 2007 5:07 AM

From an article I wrote for The Internet Party site:

Remember the original Food Pyramid? The old one suggested we load up on bread, cereal, rice and pasta, while cutting back on those nasty fats, oils and sweets.

That was the government's sure-fire cure for our growing girths. But the fool-proof, low-fat dietary regimen was ... a big fat lie.

The unintended consequence? Our government nutritionists were accomplices in the larding of America.

A July 7, 2002 New York Times Magazine article summed it up well:

What if "they (government and the American medical establishment) find that their very own dietary recommendations -- eat less fat and more carbohydrates -- are the cause of the rampaging epidemic of obesity in America?"

What's So Bad About Fat?
Just when the government released its famous pyramid, the public girth started to expand. A coincidence?

Until the late 1970s, doctors knew that fat and protein protected us against overeating. You felt sated after eating a thick steak, deep-fried potatoes and bearnaise sauce. It was accepted that carbohydrates, like pasta, made you fat. Italians (oh, oh, we're profiling) were traditionally heavy because of their pasta-laden meals.

That dietary view changed, although the science didn't.

Carbohydrates still affect blood sugar and insulin production. People need to eat more carbohydrates to be sated and for blood-sugar levels to rise. Result? You eat more with a carbo-heavy diet of pasta, rice and grains. The statistics bear this out: Americans are eating more today, on average, 400 calories more per day. It's because we're hungry -- not sated.

Who's the villain here?

Dakota or Bust
There are lots of suspects. But I like to place the blame on that famous nutritionist, George McGovern.

Yes, that George McGovern, the kooky anti-war, pass-out-checks-to-everybody, socialist-spouting candidate for President in 1972.

The Times reports:

"The case was eventually settled not by new science but by politics. It began in January 1977, when a Senate committee led by George McGovern published its 'Dietary Goals for the United States,' advising that Americans significantly curb their fat intake to abate an epidemic of 'killer diseases' supposedly sweeping the country.

It peaked in late 1984, when the National Institutes of Health officially recommended that all Americans over the age of 2 eat less fat. By that time, fat had become 'this greasy killer' in the memorable words of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the model American breakfast of eggs and bacon was well on its way to becoming a bowl of Special K with low-fat milk, a glass of orange juice and toast, hold the butter -- a dubious feast of refined carbohydrates.

"In the intervening years, the N.I.H. spent several hundred million dollars trying to demonstrate a connection between eating fat and getting heart disease and, despite what we might think, it failed. Five major studies revealed no such link."

Who would have guessed that McGovern's most profound legacy wouldn't have anything to do with Nixon, Watergate, Vietnam or election reform?

Here's my entire article:§ion_type=com

Posted by: Kim at December 24, 2007 5:15 AM

That's it! No more sugar for me. I'm switching to cocaine.

Posted by: Chairman at December 24, 2007 5:42 AM

That article you refer to is by my friend Gary Taubes, who wrote a masterwork on the subject -- Good Calories, Bad Calories, the product of seven years of investigative science journalism -- about the "science" masquerading as science that made America fat.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2007 5:54 AM

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2007 5:55 AM

I'm nutrition expert but I don't understand why people expected us all to *lose* weight when prices levelled off. Seems to me that if food intake is tied to price then we would still be eating too much, and therefore continuing to gain weight. To lose weight food prices would have to go up again, not level off.

Posted by: mcg at December 24, 2007 6:06 AM

Uh, I can afford food aplenty, and I'm not fat.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2007 6:10 AM

Kim's last post is entirely on target. We are eating WAY too many carbs and are too afraid of fats.

Let me tell you what has happened to me over the last 6 weeks.

I am male, 52 years old and weighed 235 lbs. While always muscular and stocky, I could not comfortably carry this amount of weight like I could 10-20 years ago. I felt like crap.

In the first week of November I heard a radio interview with guest Gary Taubes, who had written a new book, Good Calories, Bad Calories. He was advocating the same facts that Kim posted. Mr Taubes is an award winning science journalist, whose job is to dissect scientific literature. He set his sights on our diet 6 years ago and this book is the result of his efforts.

I read the book and became convinced.

I chose a "diet" that is akin to the Atkins Diet. The results are astounding.

This morning I weighed 210 lbs. My blood pressure was 144/86 at Thanksgiving and this morning it is 106/64. I did not have any blood chemistry done at the onset to establish a baseline, but I do know my blood glucose has hovered around 90 during the past month.

25 pounds in 28 days!!

What do I eat?

My limit for carbs is 30 grams a day. I get 80-100 grams of protein a day. I pay zero attention to fats.

I eat a lot of eggs, bacon, sausage, butter, fish, beef, poultry, spinach, and lettuce.

Folks, we have been sold a bill of goods concerning our diet.

Posted by: Duke at December 24, 2007 6:11 AM

I stumbled across an article (should have bookmarked it!) a few weeks ago about the introduction of hydrogenated fats (read: Crisco) to replace "unhealthy" lard. As in the case of food colorings, which were only supposed to be used by the pharmaceutical industry to color drugs so that people wouldn't take the wrong one, the purpose of shortening was to make pie crusts that wouldn't become rancid. It was known at the time that the stuff was worse than eating axle grease, but since it would be eaten only "every once in a while" it would be ok.

Well, read some labels. It's nearly impossible to escape eating shortening and food colorings, high-fructose corn syrup and other better-living-through-chemistry ingredients, unless you cook from scratch.

When I was a kid (born in 1954) kids looked like Beaver Cleaver. Most of us had meat on our bones, but weren't fat. Now when I go to my son's high school I see heavy girls along the line of Monica Lewinsky, but many more of the extremely long-limbed variety with no blubber anywhere, hipbones jutting out skeletally from above their extremely low slung jeans. They look like flamingoes. There were no flamigoes in my high school.

There have been huge changes in what we eat, and what it's made of, in the last generation, and these changes in the aggregate cannot be ignored when trying to understand why Americans are fat. When I was a kid, I remember stopping at the A&W once a month or so for a soft-serve ice cream cone. But we ate meals at home, and if we were going to be gone a long time, we packed sandwiches. We didn't drive through somewhere and buy our lunch. I'm certain that part of this was because my parent's couldn't afford to do otherwise, but it was just not as easy to have lunch handed to you through a car window.

I don't think that obesity can be blamed on any one thing, but I also doubt that it is new. Can anyone say Rubenesque?

Posted by: MathMom at December 24, 2007 6:13 AM

Go look at that Paris link, mcg. Note how food is sold in tiny baskets. The emphasis is on eating small portions of wonderful food, not parking oneself at a trough.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2007 6:13 AM

As for the Rubenesque link (here's a tighter shot --, compare that picture to that of the ladies in the photo at the top of this post. Quite the dif, huh?

And congrats, Duke!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2007 6:15 AM

...uh, parents, not parent's in previous comment.

Posted by: MathMom at December 24, 2007 6:15 AM

And sorry, screwed up the link to the Rubens. Here it is so you can get to it:

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2007 6:16 AM

Deja pseu: "Seems to me that all of those obsessing about someone else's body size and type should probably pour themselves a big, cold mug of "Mind Your Own Fucking Business", with a shot on the side of STFU. Just my own humble, very humble, opinion."

I would agree with you only if all those who overeat and fail to exercise agree they won't expect me to pay for their medical care with my taxes. If they expect any government provided/supported medical care, then their body size is very much my business. Further, all too often the obese are also not the most productive (high tax paying) members of society.

Posted by: Mike at December 24, 2007 6:18 AM

Bless you for posting Taubes. I had saved it but lost it when my computer crashed.

Posted by: Rich Cook at December 24, 2007 6:41 AM

On the other hand, I have been steadily gaining weight since just prior to reaching 40. In fact, many Italians in my family seemed to share this common trait of the age of 40 triggering some metabolism shift which makes us gain weight so friggin' easily. I mean, discouragingly so. I had maintained a 1200 calorie-or-less per day diet, and I regularly exercise by walking or running about 3 miles per day (a habit which I have maintained since youth, it's just "my thing"). It seems that may family has that Italian "Methuselah" gene which creates situations where you have a lot of these very overweight Italians who eat all kinds of crap, yet continue to live easily into their 80s and frequently into their 90s. (My grandfather "died young" at 80.) Just to maintain the extra pounds I do have, I know I cannot stop exercising, no matter how much my feet, ankles and knees complain as I get older. When I do stop, I gain more.

This makes me wonder: What is the percentage of Americans which have genetic predisposition to heavy weight? How has our gene pool grown over the years? Has the Methuselah gene or ones similar, for instance, infiltrated a good percent of our population? What about genes that up the weight but do not confer obvious longevity? How are those genes spreading globally?

I also wonder what the correlation has been between the average American weight over the entire population versus the number of average smokers in this country? How much can a reduction in smoking be correlated to gain of average weight? (My sister saw her weight shoot up as a result of kicking the smoking habit, but she too was also approaching 40 at the time. The only way to correlate for her would be to have her start smoking again--bad idea.)

Posted by: Nicole Tedesco at December 24, 2007 6:47 AM

What I have noticed is that more of the "thin" adolescent girls are exhibiting bulges of fat stored in the abdomen. I keep thinking about what to feed pigs to make them fatter - corn, corn, corn. Perhaps the high preponderance of processed foods that contain corn syrup solids is having an unforeseen impact. And yes, food (especially the junky kind) is the cheapest vice, and the cheapest way to reward people.

Posted by: FrayDna at December 24, 2007 6:49 AM

FrayDna writes:

"I keep thinking about what to feed pigs to make them fatter - corn, corn, corn. Perhaps the high preponderance of processed foods that contain corn syrup solids is having an unforeseen impact."


Stay away from foods that contain high fructose corn syrup.

And that is just about any kind of processed foods these days.

Posted by: Duke at December 24, 2007 6:57 AM

Obesity, diabetes and Alzheimer's all got cranked up when McGovern's Senate committee declared war on fats -- with no science to back up their claims. (Read Gary Taub's "What if its All Been in Big Fat Lie" in the NYTs.)

Suger -- including potatoes, rice, bread, popcorn -- makes us fat, sick, and old. Fat, with the exception of transfat, is ESSENTIAL FOR GOOD HEALTH AND KEEPS US SLIM.

Posted by: Buffy at December 24, 2007 7:07 AM

Portion control isn't just a problem here in the U.S. The essence of Eastern European hospitality is to always be able to offer more than your guest can consume and then do it.

The mystery seems to be how people can eat so much and still be reasonably fit!

The gostilna's (a type of rustic restaurant with popular peasant fare) in Slovenia and Hungary (and the Czech Republic to some extent if you are going to eat "authentically") serve up veritable cauldrons of golaz (meat-stuffed cauldrons of soup and gravy) pounds of potatoes, dumplings, and HUGE portions of meat. Of course all of this is accompanied by various types of seed breads and, in the C.R., soft pretzel bread sprinkled with coarse salt. One has to look long and hard for what we Americans call a dinner salad.

In Prague my husband tackled a mixed grill plate while I opted for sheep cheese gnocchi. I have never seen such carnage on one plate. It contained about two and a half to three pounds of meat total: beef, sausage, pork, duck, boar, etc. We washed it down with a bottle 18 point Master beer and waddled across the street to our apartment.

Despite the enormous portions (even to our American sensibilities,) we lost weight. It could be because one has to travel all the way to Ljubljana (the capital of Slovenia) to find a McDonald's. I never was a fan anyway. Instead, we ate burek (a lovely, savory Balkan pastry very popular in Slovenia which is cheese, various meats, or spinach stuffed between flaky layers of filo dough.)

So bring on the farmer's stews, the cheese soups and sauces, the dumplings, the creamy custards, the wild boar, and the pounds of roasted potatoes! Before my people came to America, that's what they dined on! That's a diet I can stick with!

Posted by: Emmy Bee at December 24, 2007 7:11 AM

Taubes points out in the book, I believe, or maybe it was when I interviewed him for a column, that it's very hard to get fat from eating meat. At a certain point, you just can't eat anymore. It's not like cookies. Once again, Taubes' book:

Good Calories, Bad Calories

And just search "Gary Taubes" in the search box above on my blog and you'll find a number of postings about his work.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2007 7:24 AM

"any more."


Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2007 7:30 AM

Sally Rand weighed 200 lbs.

I read a recent study that moderate "overweight" had health benefits.

Posted by: M. Simon at December 24, 2007 8:23 AM

A little - known fact is that the food industry asked the FDA to investigate both the Hydrogenated oils and High - Fructose syrups when they were initially being developed. Food marketers like Kraft had scientists on their staffs that were concerned about the long - term effects of these ingredients on the populace, and even though they wanted these ingredients ultimately approved because of their decreased costs in manufacturing and/or storage, the FDA gave absolutely no consideration to any negative health effects in the years ahead.

This is not a defense of the food industry, which continues to insist that they can't replace these ingredients at this point (which is untrue, as we see the EU common standards have forced companies like McDonald's to switch from hydrogenated oils to the more healthful oils like Olive) - but the problem was quite a bit more complicated than most press reportage has made it out to be.

Posted by: Dmac at December 24, 2007 8:33 AM

Would anyone care to comment on the
simultaneous rise in feminism and
increase in weight?

Posted by: paul a'barge at December 24, 2007 8:47 AM

You have to add in age to the equation! Women tend to get the "apple" shape sometime in their early forties...slowly, so that the next time you put on your jeans...yikes! they won't cross the thighs...

I have added 2-3 pounds every decade and it is not only impossible to lose, it is financially draining. I eat right, exercise right but my hips grow an inch a decade as does my waist!!

Posted by: Sue at December 24, 2007 8:54 AM

The real reason is obvious, bush and his neo-cons. If it doesn't put the $$ in their pocket the rethugs have decided that it's not important.
Impeach bush and rid the country of conservatives and the weight problems will go away.

Posted by: Rainlillie at December 24, 2007 9:02 AM

I'm 48 and I fit into size 6 Lululemon yoga pants.

Posted by: Chrissy at December 24, 2007 9:42 AM

Two comments, now that I'm back from work.
(1.) Amy: Yes, once I get down to 180 or so, I should be able to maintain normal blood glucose levels without any prescription drugs. I'm lucky - I have type 2 diabetes, and started working on it before I could degenerate to type 1, which is where you must inject insulin. (2.) I second Duke's diet listed above. Many diabetics limit themselves to no more than 300 calories a meal, and no more than 30 grams of carbs, as a way of keeping their BG level from spiking. Others of us try to keep below 30 grams of carbs per day. It works, and you lose weight at a nice rate - as long as you also work out.

Posted by: Steve Thomas at December 24, 2007 11:02 AM

Two authors who I think would be interesting to compare with Gary Taubes - Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan. Specific book - "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan.

I know Gary taubes interviewed Marion Nestle, but I'm wondering if he references Michael Pollan at all?

Posted by: veggie at December 24, 2007 1:30 PM

"Unhappy Meals." - Michael Pollan, New York Times Magazine, January 28, 2007

Posted by: veggie at December 24, 2007 2:22 PM

Deja pseu: "Seems to me that all of those obsessing about someone else's body size and type should probably pour themselves a big, cold mug of "Mind Your Own Fucking Business", with a shot on the side of STFU. Just my own humble, very humble, opinion."

Mike, think you've quoted someone else and attributed to me.

Posted by: deja pseu at December 24, 2007 2:22 PM

I know Gary taubes interviewed Marion Nestle, but I'm wondering if he references Michael Pollan at all?

I'll go look.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2007 4:38 PM

Nope, Pollan isn't in there. Didn't his book come out relatively recently?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 24, 2007 4:44 PM

I live in Southern California, the land of the beautiful people. This past summer I went to Maryland to visit family and was amazed at the difference in the two populations. People believe and are brain washed to imagine all Californians as bronzed beauties. Nothing could be further from the truth! I saw far fewer overweight/obese people in MD, PA, and DC compared to California. The best place to see the huge difference(no pun intended)is the neighborhood Wal-Mart.

Posted by: Bwaaman at December 24, 2007 4:55 PM

Back when Grandma was a 5'1" 100 pounder, cocaine and heroin were still legal and everybody smoked.

Posted by: Bad Penny at December 24, 2007 7:12 PM

I'm not going to comment on obese adults, other than to say that eating disorders and obesity are two separate problems, not two poles on a continuum. The former is a serious psychological problem that often leads to severe ill-health and a high rate of recidivism, while the latter appears to be primarily an artifact of culture.

But on childhood obesity, it's pretty obvious where the main problem lies— it lies in the fact that people don't shoo their kids out the door in the morning and just tell them to be home for dinner. A kid who is playing outdoors is getting exercise and sunlight, and is away from easy, calorie-laden high-fructose snacking.

And why don't they? There have been decades of stories on the dangers children can be in if they play without adult supervision (even though most of the parents were allowed to play outside themselves without such supervision.) Parents are scared of strangers, and rapidly shifting neighborhoods mean that all the "neighbors" are, in fact, strangers. Suburbs seem to be designed with cars alone in mind and often don't even have sidewalks, so it's not safe to walk anywhere. And if a parent dares buck the trend and allow her ten-year-old to go to the park only accompanied by friends, she well might get CPS called down on her head for "neglect."

Most parents, after working all day, find it easier to plop the kid down in front of the television instead of going outside to supervise the kid running around by his lonesome. The very fact that the term "play date" is very well recognized should show you how hard it is for kids just to run around with their friends.

And we wonder why kids are getting obese?

Posted by: B. Durbin at December 25, 2007 10:21 AM

Barry Glassner pointed out in The Culture of Fear that these are pseudo dangers, these fears that one's children will be abducted. Here's a link:

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 25, 2007 10:55 AM

Whatever the answer, the Gap is one of a number of major U.S. retailers that have been trying to influence shoppers' sales decisions by offering inflated sizes. Across the country, at stores like DKNY, French Connection, Old Navy and J. Crew, retailers are giving relatively large clothing a lower, more flattering size label, a practice known in the industry as "vanity sizing."


Posted by: Doobie at December 25, 2007 11:18 AM

It's super-annoying. I bought size 8 Donna Karan pants (luckily, for only $8) on eBay, because I wear size 8 in Donna Karan -- or rather, wore size 8. They fit like a size 10. They need to be taken in. Now, I'm 5'9", and slim, but now I'm size 6? I don't think so. In vintage American clothes, I wear a size 10. In France, I'm a 40 or 42. So, when people say Marilyn Monroe was a size 14...that doesn't mean she was a chunky.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 25, 2007 11:36 AM

From AP, yesterday:

Parents Don't Realize Kids Are Fat

A startling number of parents may be in denial about their youngsters' weight.

A survey found that many Americans whose children are obese do not see them that way.


Posted by: Doobie at December 25, 2007 7:52 PM

Gary Taubes helped save my life. I was 5'4", 297 lbs. and probably would've had diabetes by now or worse if not for his Times article. I've lost 125lbs. and feel better at 33 than I did at 23.

Everyone here has made great points about HFCS, portion size etc. However, a person who is morbidly obese is that way not just because of what they put in their mouth, but also why they put it there. Carbs just allow you to get fatter faster.

The first step to conquering obesity is mental reprogramming. You have to deal with whatever is making you self-medicate with pie.

That being said, losing a large amount of weight is easy if you eat a natural human diet as opposed to the low-fat, low-calorie nonsense that we've been force fed.

Posted by: nightwitch at December 26, 2007 1:33 AM

nightwitch, that's great to hear. Congrats on losing that weight, and on the mental reprogramming. A book that's great for the mental reprogramming (i.e., eat because you're hungry, not emotionally hungry) is Diets Don't Work.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 26, 2007 2:16 AM

Actually, my dad and I were having this same conversation on the 24th when I commented to him that it seems that young women today are generally a bit larger than they were when I was pursuing them twenty tears ago or so. I think part of it has been a result of success in the "ignore stick-thin models as ideal" messages. The unasked question is if the positive effects vis-a-vis anorexia and other eating disorders has been worth the negative effects in weight-related health effects.

Personally, I think most women would not go to the extremes exhibted by those who suffer from anorexia simply because of "societal pressures." This argument has always seemed akin to the idea that violent video games are going to turn an otherwise mentally healthy teen into a sociopathic phycho killer. I do think, however, that positing a thinner ideal did encourage some to maintain healthier diets and watch their weight a bit closer. All social pressure and norms are not bad, despite what the "if it feels good" and "let it all hang out" crowd tell you.

Posted by: submandave at December 26, 2007 7:54 AM

Thanks for the book recommendation, I'm always looking for ways to add new "lines of code" to my program.

Posted by: nightwitch at December 27, 2007 4:13 AM

You're welcome. P.S. Your earlier comment became part of a new blog item I posted:

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 27, 2007 5:21 AM

I'm currently a size 6 but I used to be a size 12. My body is exactly the same as it was 20 years ago, but now I'm half the 'size'. I think it's so people can be in denial about their weight gain.

Obesity is very rare in Toronto, and I'm wondering whether it has to do with the fact that over half the population was born and raised in another country and they brought their eating habits with them.

I only eat the highest quality of food, and have no carbs in the house (bread, potatoes, pasta) and no junk food. It's a lot of mental self-discipline and work, but the end result is worth it. I also do yoga and weight lifting. I'm 5'10 and weigh 134. I have low blood pressure and no health problems of any kind.

Posted by: Chrissy at December 27, 2007 7:38 AM

You pretty much describe me. And I just bought a Tadashi evening dress at Loehmann's yesterday...size 6! The 8 was ENORMOUS. And in a few other dresses, I wore an extra-small!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 27, 2007 7:40 AM

I'm glad I found this post, Amy. After a long holiday weekend of indulging in rich food I had to go to the doctor yesterday morning for some bloodwork. I'm having some health problems, and she just wanted to check everything under the hood. Keep in mind I ignore the popular warnings; I eat an egg nearly every morning for breakfast, my preferred snack is a fistful of pistachios or a wedge of sharp cheese, I still drink milk at age 36, I cook with butter, and I dearly love a good steak.

The first results to come back were my cholesterol and blood sugar. Both were normal bordering on optimal. The nurse said to me, "Whatever you're doing, keep it up!"

I think genetics definitely had a hand; my father, a chain smoker and devout carnivore, had the cholesterol levels of an Olympic athlete until the day he died. Even so, the American Super Sized High Fructose Fat Free Applebee's diet is killing us. I think Gary Taubes is on the right track.

Posted by: Rebecca at December 27, 2007 11:27 AM

Thanks so much, Rebecca, for letting me know.

Here's a link to a free lecture by Taubes, from Berkeley:

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 27, 2007 11:34 AM

Science Daily featured this story yesterday:

Here's an excerpt:

Overeating And Obesity Triggered By Lack Of One Gene
ScienceDaily (Dec. 31, 2007) — According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, close to one-third of the population in the United States is obese and another third is overweight. Excessive weight gain is elicited by alterations in energy balance, the finely modulated equilibrium between caloric intake and expenditure. But what are the factors that determine how much food is consumed?

Part of the mystery is unfolding in the laboratory of Maribel Rios, PhD, at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. Through their work, Rios and colleagues have demonstrated for the first time that a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is critical in mediating satiety in adult mice.

Mice in which the BDNF gene was deleted in two of the primary appetite-regulating regions of the brain ate more and became significantly heavier than their counterparts. "Prior to this study, we knew that the global lack of BDNF and/or its receptor during development leads to overeating and obesity in young mice. However, it remained unclear and controversial whether BDNF mediated satiety in adult animals. Our recent findings demonstrate that BDNF synthesis in the ventromedial (VMH) and dorsomedial hypothalamus (DMH) is required for normal energy balance. Additionally, because the mice examined in this study were genetically altered in adulthood, we were able to establish that BDNF acts as a satiety signal in the mature brain independently from its putative actions during development of the brain. This important distinction might help define disease mechanisms and critical periods of intervention for the treatment and prevention of obesity disorders," says Rios, corresponding author and an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Sackler School.

The obesity exhibited by BDNF-depleted mice appears to arise solely from overconsumption of calories. "Normal body weight was restored in mutant mice when food access was limited to that of normal mice, indicating that deletion of the Bdnf gene in the VMH and DMH does not affect the expenditure side of the energy balance equation," adds Rios.

Posted by: Kim at January 1, 2008 5:51 AM

Great thread Amy. I learned a hell of alot and now have to crank up changing my food eating habits.

Posted by: Richard Cook at January 1, 2008 3:46 PM

Leave a comment