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Sunday, January 19, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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An extra-large warning to a supersized nation

Special to The Seattle Times

"Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World"


by Greg Critser
Houghton Mifflin, $24

Consider yourself lucky that Greg Critser's new book "Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World" is being published after the holidays. I had to read it during the holidays, when everyone and their mother was offering me snickerdoodles and klejner and chocolate-chip cookies, and all I wanted was a bag of carrots and a good, long walk. And I'm not even overweight.

Critser has the zeal of the recently converted. A cry from a passing cyclist whom Critser almost decapitated with his car door — "Watch it, fatso!" — got him to lose 40 pounds, but it also made him realize that weight is a class issue — he had a good physician, easy access to a safe park, and home-cooked meals to help him along. It's also a relatively recent issue. Thirty years ago, about 25 percent of the U.S. population was overweight. Now 61 percent of us are overweight, and Critser sought to find out why.

Some of the answers are fairly obvious: processed foods (with those ubiquitous and harmful ingredients high fructose corn syrup and palm oil), and supersized portions. "A serving of McDonald's french fries had ballooned from 200 calories (1960) ... to the present 610 calories," Critser writes. "What was once a 590-calorie McDonald's meal was now ... 1,550 calories." And because more people work, we're eating fewer home-cooked meals and more of the processed and supersized stuff.

Critser finds culpability everywhere. Schools, faced with smaller budgets because of initiative-led tax cuts like California's Proposition 13 in 1979, slash physical-education programs and offer high-caloric franchise foods like Pizza Hut, Coke and Pepsi outside the lunchroom. The media play up conditions like anorexia and bulimia — which affect mostly upper-middle-class white girls, and, according to Critser, not many of them — and downplay obesity rates in the African-American and Latino communities for fear of charges of racism.

The medical community releases conflicting information on health and exercise, while our overall philosophy is one of accommodating fat rather than fighting it. We're bigger? Then let's make our cars bigger (SUVs). Let's make our pants bigger (relaxed fit and ultra-baggy jeans). Let's turn fat into "phat" and make it good.

The consequences of all this fat are real and debilitating: a sharp increase in Type 2 diabetes, orthopedic problems, respiratory diseases, and heart attacks. And, not coincidentally, an increase in health-insurance rates for everyone.

Critser, who writes regularly for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, and whose book began as a cover story for Harper's Magazine, is best when delving into the origins of, say, high fructose corn syrup, the Happy Meal, and the Presidential Physical Fitness Program.

But parts of "Fat Land" are uneven. Some of Critser's shots at baby boomers come out of nowhere; and even though most of the book is easy to read, you almost need a medical degree to get through the chapter "What the extra calories do to you."

I'm also disappointed that Critser didn't mention the fact that most European cities are designed for walking, while most American cities are designed for the automobile. A friend of mine, who recently returned to Spain after several years in the states, immediately lost 14 pounds, and credited the weight loss to diet (more fruits and vegetables, and olive oil as opposed to "those weird mixes Americans use"), and walking more. We make it difficult to walk in the states.

Still, "Fat Land" is one scary book, and a good companion piece to Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation." Consider it Critser's cry of "Watch it, fatso!" to our bloated nation.

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