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Yes Virginia, Americans are fat as a group

2009 October 13
by Ian Welsh

Chicago Dyke has started a conversation about food and obesity in America which led to some amusing denial (though there are some legitimate methodological issues with how overweight is defined.)

But no foreigner who travels to the US has any doubt that Americans are, as a group, fat. I notice it the second I get on an airplane traveling to the US, and I notice it for the trip, and I really notice it when I get home and go on the subway, and the average person is so much thinner. It’s brutal.

Too much of the wrong type of food, not enough exercise. I first noticed it when I traveled to Boston in 05. I was on a corporate account and we ate out every night, and the plate sizes were huge. At first I choked it all down (raised in one of those “clean your plate” households) eventually I just stopped eating it all.

Less, better quality food is far healthier.  But less better quality food costs more and restaurants and supermarkets both charge more if you want to eat well.

The rise of suburbs and the car has also left much of the country walking unfriendly, and most Americans get essentially no exercise.

(International airlines put aside more weight for Americans than other nationalities, btw.)

I think a large reason Americans let themselves be abused by their elites is that they are fat and heavily medicated. The number of Americans on anti-depressants (a drug class which is more addictive than opiates, btw) is staggering. You’re drugged to the gills so that you will put up with the way you’re absued rather than taking to the streets.

Being unhappy when your life is shit is natural folks. Drugging yourself to make yourself tolerate is a palliative, not a cure.

And a lot of these drugs also lead to weight gain. Bonus.

Notice that your elites as a group (there are exceptions, like Summers) are not fat.  In fact, they are exercise fanatics who watch what they eat very carefully.  Between that and actually getting good health care, they live and work into their seventies.

But fat drugged unhealthy Americans are easier to control, so what they do for themselves, they sure as hell don’t do for you.

31 Responses
  1. CoyoteCreek permalink
    October 13, 2009

    I resemble that remark!

    Well, not quite. I exercise a lot and eat pretty healthly. But you’re on point with what we see all around us.

    Happily – no narcotics needed at our house.

  2. Ian Welsh permalink*
    October 13, 2009

    I think I’d rather Americans were hooked on narcotics than on SSRIs. We have a good idea what opiate addiction does (after all, it’s been traditional for centuries), and as serious addictions go, it’s far from the worst. (The worst is probably meth/amphetamine addiction, though I could make a case for cocaine…)

    But I was startled to find that SSRIs are actually considered MORE addictive than heroin. As someone who’s been on a lot of opiates for pain at various points in his life (morphine and codeine, not heroin) that piece of information floored me.

  3. whiskyrebellion permalink
    October 13, 2009

    fat, drugged americans are also easier for our elites to despise. bonus.

  4. October 13, 2009

    Read The Space Merchants…

  5. October 13, 2009

    Concern about unhealthy diet and portion sizes is appropriate. Attacking psychiatric medications is not. It’s extremely unfair to anyone who has ever suffered from a mental illness, and is outright ableist.

    SSRIs are “addictive” only in that they cause significant withdrawal symptoms (you’re messing with the brain–this should NOT be surprising). This is nothing like the high of recreational drugs. Comparing SSRIs to drugs that are psychologically addictive is incredibly ignorant. SSRIs are about as addictive to a person suffering from (serotinin-related) depression as insulin is to a diabetic. This is NOT the same as opiate addiction. And as for “fat, drugged Americans” and “taking to the streets?” The scenario you’re describing–emotionally numb people who simply don’t care about events around them–more accurately describes an unmedicated person suffering from depression. If you want to target a med used to intentionally numb people psychologically, go pick on the benzos.

    Can we please get past the idea that SSRIs are happy pills that our evil evil society uses to numb the masses? Most psych meds are absolute hell for a person who doesn’t legitimately need them, and can still be hell for a person who DOES need them. These meds work by correcting chemical imbalances in the brain. They DO NOT GET YOU HIGH.

    If this helps explain any at all: to a person who suffers from a mental illness, what you said here is about the same as going on a rant about wheelchairs causing obesity and laziness. This is absolutely not acceptable.

  6. October 14, 2009

    I can’t speak for people who take SSRIs or the other alphabet soups, but I’ve known quite a few, and have had several in my family. I notice a short term improvement, but in the medium to long term I don’t see how they are any better off (and to me they seem worse), especially as they seem to end up on more and more drugs to help with sleep or whatever side effects pop up. To the point where some people I know have ended up in mental hospitals where they have to go to withdraw long enough for the docs to find something else to put them on because their depression or anxiety or sleeplessness has somehow transformed into full blown bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or whatever after a couple years.

    I’ve had plenty of people (seems like they were all Obamabots types who got high on Hope(tm), but there I go stereotyping again) tell me I should get on them myself and I always say HELL no. Why would you trust Big Pharma to sell you safe products? You’re just a profit center for them. Plenty of studies question whether these drugs are effective at all beyond a placebo effect. If you blame bad brain chemistry for your problems, do you really feel safe being a guinea pig for the lasting effects on your brain of whatever your pshrink decides to prescribe this month? Not to mention the effects on your liver, kidneys, and other vital organs. No thanks, I’ll take my chances being depressed.

    But I think Ian is wrong about one thing. I don’t think long term depression is normally a response to shitty life circumstances. The worst ones in my family thrived on adversity, and yet in good times they became erratic or highly irritable or could barely function. Adversity and struggle seemed to be the constant, and when externalized they were highly functional, but without external adversity their struggles became internalized. Also, I’ve read that depression is almost unknown in extremely poor societies (although when you “give up” in those places, you probably die long before anybody would diagnose you as depressed).

  7. Bolo permalink
    October 14, 2009

    Portion size. My nemesis. Eating at restaurants is always bad for me, as I am one of those clean-plate people too. Problem is, I’m big enough to clean most plates without much trouble so I don’t realize just how much I ate.

    Then, add to the portion size the caloric load of most restaurant meals–especially at the chain restaurants here. Have you taken a look at a Chili’s menu lately? I used to eat there a lot. After discovering that my favorite salad had 1400 calories and 89 grams of fat, I stopped. Most food that we get when we dine-in or takeout is just awful for us. Restaurants just want to make it taste good so you’ll come back for more, so they add in tons of fat, sugar, and salt.

  8. October 14, 2009

    tc:

    The fact that the risks of a psychiatric medication outweigh the potential benefits for you is a very strong indication that you don’t need them. That’s a great thing, but don’t assume it’s the reality for everyone.

    About your family. Psychiatry is an extremely crude science. We don’t understand enough about the brain to do much more than guess. We don’t fully understand how a lot of psychiatric medications work. That doesn’t mean they aren’t effective, and it doesn’t mean they’re unnecessary. It simply means it takes a lot longer to find an effective treatment for someone suffering from a mental illness (assuming we’ve even developed one yet), and that the medications we use are more likely to have unwelcome side effects (because they’re most likely doing a lot more than we specifically need them to). The effects on vital organs can be extremely scary, but patients are definitely not ignorant of these, and they don’t take the risks lightly. For many, it comes down to a decision between the chance for a healthy life in a compromised body, or the chance for a compromised life in a healthy body. For some, there is no decision: many mental illnesses are more likely to kill them prematurely than the medications themselves. (And I assure you, these meds are a great deal more than placebos.)

  9. Lori permalink
    October 14, 2009

    DeToqueville commented on the portion sizes in American restaurants or whatever they were called back then. I could be wrong, but I think Henry James had something to say about it as well. We’ve always eaten a lot in this country.

    The unwelcome point I was trying to make is that we are not that much heavier than we were at the turn of the twentieth. And when you factor in longer lifespans and increased height, the change is fairly minimal. Kolata, at the NYTimes, says it’s seven pounds. A couple other people have said between 25 and 35 pounds more since the beginning of the 20th century.

  10. October 14, 2009

    Eh. I think you suffer from at least some amount of observation bias. You are comparing living in downtown Toronto and taking the subway to the general population of the USA travelling on airplanes. But most of Canada is not like downtown Toronto. I’d like to see you live in, eg, Edmonton or Saskatoon and thereafter tell me what you think. Conversely, most of the USA is not like New York City.

    There may be some truth to the claims about American obesity, and the problem may indeed lie with the food industry—and of course with poverty and inequality. And absolutely, walkability and the car-oriented nature of the suburbs (don’t I know it *sigh*) has something to do with it. But there’s a large amount of media moral panic in it, which surely drives people to take more anti-depressants.

    And I think your claim about the nonfatness of the elite is kind of part of that moral panic. The elite you see on TV is less fat because said public elite is selected to be telegenic and/or lives in NYC.

    Finally, here and here. I guess I’m just not pleased with the concept of connecting weight and moral degeneracy, even collective moral/political degeneracy, which I feel is implied in your post.

  11. October 14, 2009

    Ooops, I committed the sin of multiple links, which means that Ian must now dig out my post from the spamulator :)

    Suffice it to say that I have a lot of problems with the overall obesity moral panic thing. The fat are one of the last groups that liberals feel some liberty to mock. I have the 1000-comment flamewar thread experience at Sadly No to prove it.

  12. October 14, 2009

    fp,

    I’m not suggesting that medications can’t ever help. But I’ve seen people with very temporary depression (such as from breaking up with a boyfriend) asking for and getting Prozac or similar drugs from their docs with no problem. And when they’ve only taken them temporarily, I haven’t seen them have horrible consequences. But when taken long term, what I mostly see is changing and increasing meds year after year. Basically people who did not seem to have major mental illness becoming increasingly neurotic and drug dependent. And I don’t agree with you that most people go into a drug regimen aware of all the side effects. They’re warned, but when they are asked for a decision, they often just trust their doctor’s judgement, who may have just come from some junket sponsored by a drug company. They want a fast fix and they don’t want responsibility for the decision, that’s what they pay the doctor for. Certainly the ones who blithely offer to share their Valium or whatever when they think you could use one don’t seem to have a healthy respect for drugs.

    And despite the warnings, I doubt many are told how difficult and dangerous it can be to go off their meds once they’re on. When I’ve gone in for a physical the last few years I always seem to get some sort of questionnaire that seems to be designed for my doctor to bring up the subject of depression and prescription antidepressants. And the questionnaires seem to define depression very broadly. I strongly disagree with that sort of aggressive and proactive drug treatment. Sorry, but I find it scary that almost any GP in the US can prescribe Prozac and godknowswhatelse.

    Maybe you did/do your homework, but most people do not have the background, resources or the temperament for that, and have entirely too much confidence in anyone with a white coat. If drugs were only being prescribed to people who need them, would we really need so many hours of television sponsored every night by drug manufacturers urging you to ask your doctor about their drug? More often than not, I see drugs as a solution in search of a problem, and a product in search of a market. And the doctors are not independent, disinterested 3rd parties, but often have financial incentives to prescribe drugs (not just psychiatric ones).

    You admit yourself that psychiatry is a crude science. How many attempts does your doctor get at finding a good drug regimen for you? If you’ve ever dealt with an elderly parent on a lot of drugs for various health problems, it doesn’t take much homework to find where your doctor has prescribed something that should not have been prescribed due to interactions. Especially in a hospital environment where most of the drugs are administered by people with few credentials. What makes you think pshrinks or (or GPs playing that role) are any more on top of their game? Are they testing your brain chemistry directly, or are they just guessing the best they can based on what you tell them.

  13. Ian Welsh permalink*
    October 14, 2009

    SSRI’s are no more effective at handling depression than regular exercise or various forms of therapy for folks with mild and moderate depression, yet they are handed out like candy. I am indeed talking about physical addiction, and they are incredibly addictive physically. Yes, there’s also a psych component, which I can’t speak to, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was also significant.

    Withdrawal from SSRIs, for many people, is extraordinarily brutal and can even be deadly. They are very dangerous drugs, and their effect on brain biochemistry is like a sledgehammer. There are better alternatives than drugs for all except severe depression.

    Psychiatry is indeed a rough science, and the use of psychoactive drugs whose effects aren’t fully understood is dangerous.\

    Mandos: I’ve lived in and visited other parts of the country (most recently, Edmonton, and I’m often out on the West coast.) Americans are generally fatter than Canadians, though Canadians are getting fatter too.

    I think obesity as a general problem is mostly not an individual problem. How could it be, when it’s effecting so many people. When you live like the elites do (and my experience with DC elites is that they are also less overweight than the general public, so this isn’t just NY media elites) you simply have more time and money take care of yourself. The cheapest food per calorie is in the center isles of super markets, and when you’re working two jobs + have family responsibilities, exercise and cooking can become problematic.

    Nonetheless the heavy use of drugs (both legal and illegal, though legal drug use worries me more in some ways) plus the increase in weight in America is a bad thing, both for health reasons, and for political reasons.

  14. Ian Welsh permalink*
    October 14, 2009

    Lori,

    interesting data.

    The data I’ve seen shows that Americans keep getting heavier, year after year. I’m aware of the argument that obesity has been slimmed down – that it’s less than it used to be. But even under the new definition, the number of people who make it keeps going up. And the number of children who are overweight keeps going up as well.

    Perhaps there was a valley of thinness in the mid twentieth, or perhaps there is something else I’m missing.

  15. October 14, 2009

    well, gosh! thanks for the link, friend. heh, the comments here are prompting me to repost an old classic of mine, “America the Stoned.” in addition to being food junkies, no one screams louder than americans “i can’t live without my happy pills!” that’s on purpose too. interestingly, where our leaders and ruling class keep fit and eat well and right, they are just as inclined to abuse drugs as the Little People. don’t quite know what to make of that.

  16. Lex permalink
    October 14, 2009

    I have some experience from my youth with “street drugs” and i have some personal experience with SSRI’s as well. My psychiatrist looked at me like i was crazy when i told her that the break in period on Zoloft (when you actually register its effect) was surprisingly similar to the early stages of an LSD trip. So i went to the library. Both are active/effective in the same region on the same spots.

    Yeah, it’s much easier to cope with life on a quarter tab every day, but in all but a very few cases, SSRI’s treat the symptoms of an unfulfilling life. Serious, chemical depression runs so strong in my family that it’s not even funny…not a few family members are on SSRI’s. Yet i’ve found that addressing the underlying life causes is far more effective than the drugging. And a large percentage of people using SSRI’s are not so debilitated that they couldn’t function without them. SSRI’s are just easier than actually dealing with what’s inside our heads and making difficult decisions about how to live well.

    Medicinal dosages of marijuana would be just as effective for most Americans’ “depression” as SSRI’s. And when you see a psychiatrist about the SSRI’s they never talk about them as a way to cope with the worst of a depressive episode or as a tool to get back on your feet and make the necessary changes. It’s always looked at a long-term, if not life long situation. It’s a crock.

    ….Hey, i’m not fat! I’m just big boned, or maybe i have a thyroid condition, or a;djpo (00ps, sorry, my fingers slipped on the keyboard. Blame it on the Cheetos dust.)

  17. October 14, 2009

    I think obesity as a general problem is mostly not an individual problem. How could it be, when it’s effecting so many people. When you live like the elites do (and my experience with DC elites is that they are also less overweight than the general public, so this isn’t just NY media elites) you simply have more time and money take care of yourself. The cheapest food per calorie is in the center isles of super markets, and when you’re working two jobs + have family responsibilities, exercise and cooking can become problematic.

    You probably know that I have a lot of experience with perhaps a different segment of DC elites. They are generally fatter than NYC elites, with whom I have some experience, if you take out the military people. Neither of them actually has a lot of time, either. Both cities have a disproportionate population of models, advertisers, and people selected to appear in court and on TV.

    Of course I agree that fat and the forms of malnutrition that cause people who might not otherwise be fat to be fat is a social problem. I’m just not sure that it’s as large a social problem as you make it out to be once you take away all the confounding factors.
    It’s also heavily ethnic, with diets that may not have the same effect on white populations causing black and Hispanic populations to become fat.

    I’m certainly not convinced that being fat is causative of people letting themselves be abused by the elite, even collectively. At worst it’s an after-effect. I say this as someone who is often the biggest guy on the subway car wherever I am, but who thinks of himself as fairly political and has some amount of contact with the systems that govern us. Of course, it’s just as anecdotal as your perspective, but no one is very close to a satisfactory explanation of why some populations become fat and some do not. Which is the point.

  18. Lori permalink
    October 14, 2009

    Ian,

    The definition of obesity changed in 1998 and they fooled around with it quite a bit in the eighties as well. That plays a large role in the increase in the number of people who are overweight.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/guideposts/fitness/optimal.htm

  19. Linden permalink
    October 14, 2009

    The links between environment, genetics, and mental illness are not fully understood. What folks on this thread so dismissively refer to as the issues of an “unfulfilling life” can, in fact, cause depression. Not everyone who runs into life issues develops depression, but some people are predisposed toward it, and for them, this implication that it’s some sort of a personal failing on their part is Dark Ages talk.

    When treating depression, psychiatric drugs are supposed to stabilize the individual in the short-term. Talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy are supposed to treat the individual for the long-term, and help prevent relapses. Guess what insurance covers, and what it doesn’t cover?

  20. S Brennan permalink
    October 14, 2009

    Let’s see Americans work more hours per person. Talk about stress.

    “Australian, Canadian and Japanese worker worked about 100 hours, or 2.5 weeks less per year than the average American. Brazilians and British workers worked 250 hours, or more than five weeks less, while Germans worked roughly 500 hours, or 12.5 weeks less. The U.S. employee put in an average 1,804 hours of work in 2006, the report said. That compared with 1,564.4 for the French.”

    This increase in hours takes place during time when inflation adjusted household incomes in the lower 4 quintiles declined or remained the same. Talk about stress.

    People assume the suburban living is a choice…is it? In my area of the country, what 210, 000 purchased [an 800 ft^2 home] would cost 650,000 to be in an urban walkable setting. Yeah…I’d like that, but had I done so, I’d have already been living on the street because I couldn’t make payments.

    Average Americans spend a little under an hour a day commuting. Work location are picked by managers with cost and ease of Managers commutes being the criteria. Talk about stress.

    Americans are highly stressed at work with THE MAJORITY fearing job loss. Talk about stress

    Fewest vacation hours of ANY industrialized nation. Talk about stress.

    Do we get fat because of bad choices? Or are we powerless rats in a great social change brought on by a return to 19th century economics?

    The food fighters ignore the obvious, people make bad choices when they are given bad choices to make. The “blame the victim” crowd has is many adherents in left as the right elite.

  21. October 14, 2009

    People assume the suburban living is a choice…is it? In my area of the country, what 210, 000 purchased [an 800 ft^2 home] would cost 650,000 to be in an urban walkable setting. Yeah…I’d like that, but had I done so, I’d have already been living on the street because I couldn’t make payments.

    Precisely. I have some hope for the new development trends sprouted by New Urbanism.

  22. Mike Hunt permalink
    October 14, 2009

    Sorry but fat is a sign of success. You get fat because you don’t have to toil with little food. Once upon a time fat pale people without callouses were easily recognized as successful people. Tanned jean wearers were manual laborers.
    Bullshit about eating poor diet is just that bullshit. Don’t get me wrong one can eat healthier. But overall fat is a sign that your cultural survival strategy works and works well.
    In parting I’m always surprised no one ever notices the fat ugly Europeans in public. Really are they all limited to indy films? Or iis it more realistic to assume those who notice only the svelt ones, after the fact at that, are merely supporting their own theories. Theories that denigrate owns own culture.
    Culture is very different from nation.
    For once I would enjoy a Cultural Anthropologists view on the fat debate.

  23. Mike Hunt permalink
    October 14, 2009

    I should add this.
    http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/archives/slightly_chubby_people_live_longer/
    Slightly Chubby People Live Slightly Longer
    While studying the volunteers, scientists looked at the past physiques of the participants and how long they lived past the age of 40, and grouped them according to their body mass index (BMI), an indicator of how fat a person is.

    Men of regular weight (with a BMI of between 18.5 and 25) at age 40 lived for an average of 39.94 more years, while those who were overweight (BMI of between 25 and 30) at age 40 lived a further 41.64 years, the study found. Ladies of regular weight lived on average a further 47.97 years, compared with overweight women, who lived another 48.05 years. Obese men and women (BMI of 30 or more) lived a further 39.41 and 46.02 years, respectively. But thin men (BMI of less than 18.5) were on average expected to live 34.54 more years, and thin women another 41.79 years.

    http://www.medindia.net/news/view_news_main.asp?x=17676

    Fat People Cope Better With Heart Failure!
    Fat people are likely to cope better with heart failure, says a new study.

    Gregg Fonarow and colleagues at the University of California analysed the records of over 100,000 patients hospitalised because their heart condition was worsening, reported the online edition of New Scientist.

    They found that the fatter the person, the less likely they were to die during a weeklong hospital stay. The researchers reported their findings in the latest issue of the American Heart Journal.

    Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease but if your heart is already failing, being fat could save your life, the study said.

    This is because fat people have more metabolic reserves to draw on when the heart isn’t pumping blood fast enough to meet the body’s needs, the researchers said.

    There were also some interesting studies about how racist fashion. It seems that other, not white, cultures have very different ideas of what attractive is. Blakcks and Hispanics have much fuller body preferences.
    This is not reflected in the white elite fashion industry.
    But that never gets mentioned.

  24. S Brennan permalink
    October 14, 2009

    Stressing out can cause people to gain weight, according to a study appearing in the July 15 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.

    Women’s waistlines are affected by more types of stress, according to the study, “Psychosocial Stress and Change in Weight Among U.S. Adults.” In addition to weight gain associated with financial problems or a difficult job, women also added pounds when grappling with strained family relationships and feeling limited by life’s circumstances.

    For men, the numbers on the scale did not go up when facing difficult family relationships or feeling constrained by life circumstances. Among men, lack of decision authority at work and lack of skill discretion was associated with greater weight gain.

    http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/156788.php

  25. S Brennan permalink
    October 14, 2009

    When you’re under stress, you may find it harder to keep up healthy-eating habits…To combat weight problems during stress and reduce the risk of obesity, you need to get a handle on your stress. – Edward T. Creagan, M.D. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress/AN01128

  26. Lex permalink
    October 14, 2009

    It would be me who used the phrase “unfulfilled life”, perhaps i should have explained more clearly. I meant it in a psycho-philosophical-spiritual manner. It’s not about being unhappy, hell, life is suffering.

    We make choices about how we live. When those choices are contrary to our “nature” they can be positive choices in small ways and dangerous choices in deep ways. If we’re living contrary to ourselves, we’re bound to be depressed.

    I’ve been through all of this, multiple times. Therapy, SSRI’s, running like hell. I’ll always deal with the shadow of depression; life is suffering. I currently work “below” my intellectual ability, which means that i live below my maximum earning potential. But i have a job that keeps me sane: more exercise than the average fitness buff, the ability to see something tangible to completion, and massive amounts of fresh air. I don’t suggest that everyone needs what i need, and i know full well that figuring out what one needs is incredibly difficult. And doing what one needs may well require serious “sacrifice” in some way or another.

    We can’t expect to live lives we don’t fundamentally like and be happy. All the SSRI’s in the world won’t fix that. Treating a symptom has never cured a disease.

  27. S Brennan permalink
    October 14, 2009

    Let me repeat, “…people make bad choices when they are given bad choices to make. The “blame the victim” crowd has is many adherents in left as the right elite.”

  28. October 14, 2009

    “When treating depression, psychiatric drugs are supposed to stabilize the individual in the short-term. Talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy are supposed to treat the individual for the long-term, and help prevent relapses. Guess what insurance covers, and what it doesn’t cover?”

    Excellent point. A lot of people suffering from depression benefit greatly from CBT. I do still want to point out that not all depression is triggered by a life event, or at all treatable by therapy.

  29. October 15, 2009

    Beuatiful.

    Litmus test for Obama and his First Lady: as the resident fitness-nut-in-chief, it should be straightforward for him to further the cause of obesity reduction by passing a federal law that requires every restaurant and fast food seller to provide half portions for half price.

    b.

  30. October 15, 2009

    Typed to fast: to push for a law. No unitary executive….

  31. October 15, 2009

    After discovering last year that most of the people want to be fooled most of the time, I’ve pretty much given up on political commentary at MakeThemAccountable, and started a new community for people who want to stay healthy as we age. I address many of the issues you discuss here.
    http://www.manyyearsyoung.com/

    I’d comment on chicagodyke’s work, but I’m not allowed to comment at Corrente. I’m told my “taste level” doesn’t meet their standards.

    Carolyn Kay

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