Friday, August 26, 2011

All that Fast Food in Tonga is making them Fat

Writing a book about fat and dieting means when I see a related news story, I read it.  I'm a contrarian when it comes to the idea that an "obesity epidemic" in the US is the fault of eeeevil Big Food corporations who sneak extra sugars and fats into our food and force us to buy it.  My research convinces me that obesity isn't foisted on us, or grew because we're spoiled and lazy and victims of too many Cheetos flung in our faces. It's a much more complex phenomenon.

So I was amused to find a scolding Reuters piece distilling four Lancet articles about the state of the globe's obesity.  Oh, we Americans are fat.  Depending on who you believe, a quarter to a third of us are obese.  And the world, too, is going to health hell in a breadbasket, warn researchers from Columbia University, as Reuters reports: "Due to overeating and insufficient exercise, obesity is now a growing problem everywhere and experts are warning about its ripple effects on health and health care spending."

A quarter of Brits, Canadians and New Zealanders are obese. Mexico boasts 30%, Chile and Ireland 22%. Iceland and Luxembourg 20%.  Seventy-five percent of black women in South Africa are obese.

Then there's the South Seas island of Tonga, where ninety percent of the population is obese.  Must be all that fast food.  Must be the Cheetos and eeevil Big Food Corporations.  We in America are exerting pressure, and threatening legislation, to force food-makers to make products healthy.  Must Tongans more urgently do the same?

An interesting article in The Guardian explains Tongan's source of flab:  they like to eat fatty meat.  Roast pig is a great treat. Corned beef is an everyday staple. They eat the taro root and yams they grow there.  And they value heft as beauty.

I don't know obesity trends in Tonga, but are we to believe that its citizens have only recently fattened into obesity, just as we in America are almost daily alarmed by new studies warning that we're inflating and soon to bust?

Except that it's not true.  Women's obesity rates in America stopped swelling a decade ago.  While at significantly higher rates than 1980, when the stats climbed after little change since records were kept, obesity figures have even dropped slightly since the overall peak six years ago.

Also, US obesity rates have risen in tandem with an increases in life expectancy.  Correlation does not imply causation, but isn't that an interesting co-incidence?  Paul Campos, in The Obesity Myth, discusses the lack of evidence that rising body weights can be blamed for disease.  In fact, being overweight is associated with longest life and best health outcomes.

That's why the headline "Half of Americans to be Obese by 2030" makes me chuckle, though I'm sure it makes many well-meaning folk gag.  First off, we're not on a trajectory to balloon endlessly. And secondly, the admonition that our horrendous food options and choices are for sure the cause of obesity (along with the eeeevil computer that keeps us sedentary) is simplistic and unproven, and after all these years of mandatory health education, ineffective in changing the fat of the land.


  1. Very interesting. Thanks for posting.

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