Thursday, July 16, 2009

This Is Why We're Fat

One of the real pleasures of reading The New Yorker over the past two months has been a string of excellent articles written by Elizabeth Kolbert, including the story of James Hansen (abstract only, except for subscribers), a NASA scientist so concerned with climate change that he attends protests and rallies, and an appraisal of the fact that we're living through--and possibly causing--a mass extinction (also, abstract only, except for subscribers) the likes of which the Earth has not seen in the past 65 million years.

Her latest effort, "XXXL," is a focused review of seven books published in the past six years that all attempt to explain why humans, including but not limited to Americans, are gaining weight. You should read the article to learn what these books and Kolbert theorize, but here are some scary highlights:
  • American "[m]en are now on average seventeen pounds heavier that they were in the late seventies, and for women that figure is even higher: nineteen pounds."
  • "Today, soft drinks account for about seven per cent of all the calories ingested in the United States (!), making them 'the number one food consumed in the American diet.' If, instead of sweetened beverages, the average American drank water, [health economist Eric] Finkelstein calculates, he or she would weigh fifteen pounds less."
  • We eat just about whatever food is in front of us, without, it would seem, taking into account how hungry we are: "In another experiment, [director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, Brian] Wansink invited participants to cook dinner for themselves with ingredients that he provided. One group got big boxes of pasta and big boxes of sauces, a second smaller boxes and smaller bottles. The first group prepared twenty-three per cent more, and downed it all."
  • "According to the federally supported National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the bagels that Americans eat have in the past twenty years swelled from a hundred and forty to three hundred and fifty calories each. If, as Wansink argues, people are relying on external cues to determine their consumption, then the new, bigger bagel is sneaking in an additional two hundred and ten calories. For someone who is in the habit of eating a bagel a day, these extra calories translate into a weight gain of more than a pound a month."

[Update: Though Kolbert addresses a similar movement in her article, I found it interesting that The New York Times yesterday published a piece titled "Tossing Out the Diet and Embracing the Fat."]

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