Fat Nation

Our obesity epidemic is an issue of public health, not personal virtue


| March/April 2002


To Debora Burgard’s eyes, it was a beautiful sight.

"I was teaching this dance class where all of the students were women who weighed at least 200 pounds," recalls Burgard, a California-based clinical psychologist and co-author of Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women (iUniverse.com, 2000). "Sometimes I’d just stop and marvel at what I was seeing: Here were these beautiful, fat women—not even interested in losing weight—but just being happy with the movement of their bodies and living their lives without shame or fear. To me, they were the epitome of health."

Not everyone would see it that way. In recent months, obesity has once again become the American cause celèbre, with the release of the surgeon general’s report on what’s been called an "epidemic" of weight gain in the United States. While it’s great that Burgard’s pupils are out shaking their thang, many health researchers argue that we need to do something about the causes of obesity in our society. Fat is now being labeled a serious—and costly—public health crisis linked to heart disease, diabetes, and other serious illnesses. The discussion has taken on the language of crisis.

"In 1991, when the epidemic was less intense, researchers from St. Luke’s/Roosevelt Hospital in New York estimated that obesity killed 325,000 Americans a year—eight times the number who die of AIDS, and more than the combined deaths from alcohol, drugs, firearms, and motor vehicles," write health scientists Tom Farley and Deborah Cohen in The Washington Monthly (Dec. 2001). "Soon—if it hasn’t happened already—obesity will become the number one killer in America. The cost of caring for those sickened with entirely preventable obesity-related illnesses tops $70 billion per year, about half of which is paid by government."

Dean Ornish, an alternative health authority and president and director of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California; adds "There is no question that being obese has serious health consequences. This is not a moral issue. This is a serious public health issue."

For many, the greatest cause for concern is the increasing number of overweight children. In the early 1990s the National Center for Health Statistics found that obesity in kids between 6 and 17 had doubled to 11 percent during the previous decade—and those numbers have surely risen in the past 10 years. A matching study of adults, quoted by Farley (a professor of public health at Tulane University) and Cohen (senior natural scientist at the RAND Corporation), "found that the proportion of obese adults increased by two-thirds in the 30 years from the early 1960s to the early 1990s. Telephone surveys by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have shown obesity rates skyrocketing another two-thirds since then."