The War on Fat

| October 18, 2002 Issue

A merica's weight consciousness probably began in the 1890s, "When the excesses of the Gilded Age spawned consumer guilt, causing conspicuous gluttony to go out of style," writes Elizabeth Wasserman in her short history of American obesity in the Atlantic Monthly. Yet by the mid-20th century, the rising popularity of fast food, cars, and the sedentary suburban lifestyle caused our nation's waistlines to grow faster than ever. The problem became so serious, in fact, that President John F. Kennedy formed the President's Council on Physical Fitness, which asked Americans to get in shape as part of their Cold War-era patriotic duty. However, one Atlantic reader disagreed with the logic that beating the Russians required strong and thin bodies - he argued that fatness was the key to any triumph over communism: "We shall match the Russians potato for potato, calorie for calorie--we shall fight in the all-night hamburger stands. We shall never surrender!"

During the 1990's America's cultural and economic influence, along with its eating habits, spread to the far corners of the earth, with sometimes disastrous results. An obesity epidemic known as "New World Syndrome" has swept through Micronesia and throughout the South Pacific, in towns that experienced a sudden shift from farming and fishing to more sedentary lifestyles and fast food diets. American obesity, as Wasserman writes, is "no longer merely a matter of vanity, of personal health or patriotism, today it is a burden on a global scale."
--Erica Sagrans
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