Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Fat Gap

HBO’s four-part obesity documentary Weight of the Nation started last night and continues tonight, and unlike some of the other four-part original movies seen on HBO, no one should expect a happy ending. From what I can gather from today’s chatter surround the documentary, its purpose is to paint the gloomiest possible picture of the obesity trend in the United States, employing a one-sided mountain of scientific evidence to show that the obesity problem will just get worse for the foreseeable future no matter what anyone does.

Perhaps I exaggerate. But the obesity trend is so large and so damaging that it is not so easy to find hope in the countertrend. Yet I can personally vouch for the existence of the fitness trend. I saw it firsthand two days ago as I ran the Delaware Marathon. Distance runners are not known for being overweight, yet it is still easy to see an improvement in the fitness of marathon participants year after year. And this trend is not the result of attrition. Individual runners are thinner, in many cases, than a few years ago, and the number of marathon participants increases year after year.

And there is more. The degree of participation is increasing, with more runners talking about running multiple marathons, sometimes on consecutive weekends. At the same time, there was less talk of injuries than ever, an unexpected trend in an event that is meant to be grueling.

Of course, it is not just the marathon runners. I know plenty of people who used to be overweight, but who turned the corner somehow and have been losing weight steadily for years. Sometimes the weight loss is just two or three percent per year, but after ten years of that and a 20 percent decline in body weight, you have to call it a long-term trend. Quite apart from the question of body fat, walking has become a trend in popular culture this spring, with people realizing that walking is easy to do, feels good, and costs nothing.

All in all, nearly a third of the country is losing weight or getting in better physical shape. But that trend is not so easy to spot when well over half the country is gaining weight.

The CDC made headlines last week by predicting that 42 percent of Americans could be obese by 2030. It is a gruesome picture to consider, but the prediction is not so audacious when you look at the current obesity rate. The numbers aren’t in yet for 2012 but the best guess is 35 percent. There aren’t that many percents between 35 and 42.

I know I was hoping the recession would give overweight people the combination of spare time and tight money that often leads to successful belt-tightening. That did indeed happen, but unfortunately, that trend didn’t reach much of the public.

Both the obesity trend and the fitness trend seem to have plenty of momentum. If both trends continue, though, a real split could form in the American population.

America could become a nation of the “fats” and “fat-nots,” with the moderately overweight people in between feeling like “Weird Al” Yankovic at the beginning of the “Fat” video when his obese friend waves a finger at him and demands, “The question is, are you fat, or what?”

If the country breaks down into two camps, one sized S-M-L and the other 3–6(XL), each with its own TV news programs and its own expectations of food, clothing, health, and accommodations, the political dynamic won’t be pretty. The “Fat Gap” could be just as big a deal in the politics of 2025 as the “Generation Gap” was in 1970.

The cultural issues debated across the Generation Gap do not seem so consequential now: hair length, plaid vs. tie-dye, white bread vs. whole wheat. The arguments lasted so long only because there was no common cultural reference point that could help form a consensus. In the same way, the Fat Gap could complicate discussions of food labeling, ergonomics, health policy, and other issues related to body fat. When one group’s “common sense” is another group’s “unfair burden,” it is always a difficult bridge to cross.