A Fat Nation
America's `supersize' diet is fattier and sweeter--and deadlier
Pretty, dark-haired Katie Young has been successful at most things. She's a nearly straight-A student, a big hitter on her softball team, and a good dancer. But like so many Americans--kids and adults alike--the New Orleans 10-year-old struggles with one thing: keeping her weight under control.
When Katie started day camp in June, she discovered a snack bar where she could buy pizza, hot dogs, candy, ice cream, chips, soft drinks, and more. "Katie went nuts," says her mother, Judy Young. In the first two weeks of camp, Katie stole nearly $40 from her mother's purse for snack foods. "I bought a lot of pizza," Katie says. "It's good, of course, because it's from Pizza Hut. And I bought candy and everything. I didn't feel good seeing the other kids eat those things. I wanted them too."
Of course she did. Katie was acting on a basic driving force of human biology: Eat whenever food is available and eat as much of it as possible. Throughout most of human history, food was scarce, and getting ahold of it required a great deal of physical energy. Those who ate as many calories as they could were protected against famine and had the energy to reproduce. "As a result, humans are hard-wired to prefer rich diets, high in fat, sugar, and variety," says Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. The problem today, Brownell adds, is that there's "a complete mismatch" between biology and the environment. Or as University of Colorado nutrition researcher James Hill puts it, "Our physiology tells us to eat whenever food is available. And now, food is always available."
National girth. America has become a fat nation. More than 61 percent of adults are overweight, and 27 percent of them--50 million people--are obese, according to a U.S. surgeon general's report released last December (box, Page 42). In the next decade, weight-related illnesses threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system. New evidence from the Framingham Heart Study shows that obesity doubles the risk of heart failure in women. A man with 22 extra pounds has a 75 percent greater chance of having a heart attack than one at healthy weight. Gaining just 11 to 18 pounds doubles the risk of developing Type II diabetes--an illness that has increased by nearly 50 percent in only the past decade.
Weight is also taking a heavy toll on the nation's children. The percentage of 6-to-11-year-olds who are overweight has nearly doubled in two decades, and for adolescents the percentage has tripled. Pediatricians are treating conditions rarely before diagnosed in young people. In a recent study of 813 overweight Louisiana schoolchildren, for example, 58 percent had at least one heart-disease risk factor, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, or insulin levels. Four percent of adolescents now have "adult onset" (or Type II) diabetes, and in some clinics teens represent half of all new cases.
Too much food. Obesity has been linked to everything from the decline of the family dinner to the popularity of computers and video games to supersize portions of fast food. But it all comes down to a simple calculation, says Colorado's Hill: "The primary reason America is fat is that we eat too much compared to our activity level."