Culture

Why we are fat

Culture | As with other legitimate desires, Americans have lost sight of the purpose behind the appetite for food

Issue: "Ten Commandments showdown," Aug. 30, 2003

America is facing a weighty problem. According to the American Obesity Association, 64.5 percent of Americans are overweight. Nearly half of these-30.5 percent-are so overweight as to be classified as obese. About one out of 20 Americans, 4.7 percent, is severely obese.

This is a huge increase from just a few years ago. In 1980, a mere 46 percent were overweight, with only 14.4 percent considered obese. That was thought at the time to be bad enough, but Americans have kept growing.

To state the obvious, weighing too much is not healthy, being a major factor in diabetes, heart problems, various cancers, and other physical woes.

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"Obesity," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, "is the fastest-growing disease in the country. Three hundred thousand Americans die each year of obesity and obesity-related illnesses. At a time when everyone is concerned about health-care costs, obesity costs $117 billion a year to treat."

Many-particularly lawyers looking for class-action suits-blame the fast-food industry, but this is grossly unfair. Admittedly, fast-food burgers and fries are mostly empty calories, but the disks of meat from a fast-food joint are as nothing compared to more up-scale establishments, where burgers are the size of a human head.

As the Journal of the American Medical Association has documented, restaurant portion sizes across the board have been growing. Back in the 1950s, when McDonald's got its start, the average soft drink contained just 7 ounces. Today, it contains 20 ounces. Fries used to sell in packets of a mere 2 ounces. Today, that has tripled. And while McDonald's customers now eat quarter-pounders, upscale restaurants commonly serve third-pounders, and, increasingly, half-pounders.

Muffins have ballooned. Meat takes up the whole plate, necessitating separate dishes for the cornucopia of side dishes. Remember when the whole family feasted-and feasted well-on one chicken? Today, order chicken at a restaurant and you will receive half of the bird just for yourself.

The decline of the family meal is indeed one of the culprits. According to a recent Gallup poll, three-quarters of Americans eat at a restaurant at least once a week. Half of the population eats out two or more times a week. And over a quarter eats out three or more times. According to another study, Americans eat nearly 30 percent of their meals away from home. As those restaurant portions become larger, so do Americans.

Proposed governmental solutions seem as futile as sticking it to the fast-food industry. Some policy makers are suggesting their favorite remedy: taxes, in this case, a tax on fatty foods. Never mind the evidence that fat is probably not so much to blame for weight gain as carbohydrates, since the body turns the carbs that we don't need for energy into fat. And this is what happens to most of the carbs we eat, given the biggest culprit of all, Americans' lack of physical activity.

Other proposals include public-service announcements (which did little to combat drugs) and subsidies for people who buy fruits and vegetables (as if you can't overdose on those too). Clearly, the government has no business putting its citizens on a diet. The government can't even put itself on a diet.

There is little biblical evidence to indicate that being fat is, in itself, a sin, though what happened to Eli may be an object lesson (1 Samuel 4:18). There are enough warnings, though, to those whose "god is their belly" (Philippians 3:19) that the early church ranked gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins. The moral problem is not so much girth but an unrestrained appetite.

Many compare America's weight problem to tobacco addiction, but this is misleading. No one has a natural inclination to suck on flaming leaves, while eating is necessary for survival. Our current eating disorders are best compared to what has happened with another powerful pleasure and necessary natural appetite, namely, sex.

Both eating and sex are pleasurable activities that have a God-ordained purpose. The appetite for sex is to lead to and be fulfilled in marriage and in the begetting of children. The appetite for food is to lead to survival.

But when the ends are ignored, the means go awry. Both sex and eating are reduced to the indulging of sensations, to the point that they become unnatural. What is designed for health becomes unhealthy. Sex outside marriage creates perversity. Eating apart from survival creates obesity.

Americans' problem is that they increasingly cannot deny themselves any pleasure, but must indulge every appetite-not just for sex and food but for money, status, possessions, and every other pleasurable sensation, licit or illicit. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul (1 Timothy 4:8), people should try to become physically fit, but it is even more important to be spiritually fit.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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