Gutless about Gut Issues

Mike Males, c Youth Today, September 2003

               Obesity has only recently been publicized as a major American public health crisis, and already authorities are pushing the usual politically-popular panaceas experience shows will do little about it.

               The crisis is real. Americans today are vastly fatter than Europeans, Japanese, and ourselves 30 years ago. The lies we tell ourselves are heftier still. For years, American baby boomers boasted about our healthy switch to salad, aerobics, and granola, away from booze, loungers, and Macsnacks.

               Then the Centers for Disease Control’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey scales exposed our monstrous phoniness: baby boomers led America’s fat explosion. Today, three-fifths of Americans ages 35-64 are overweight; four in 10 grossly so. Our megabellies now crash overloaded planes. Arenas widen seats to fit expanding whalebutts.

               Worse, we’re the lardass parents raising the butterball kids our health/educator/medical establishment decries. The Surgeon General’s obesity reports honestly admit that fat parents have fat kids, but in popular media and forums, authorities take the easy way out: blame the youngsters.

               The gutless wonder (among many) on fatness is the Hoover Institution’s widely published scholar, Mary Eberstadt, who brands adult obesity a “socially negligible” problem; chubby kids are the crisis. So much so, she advises, that working moms should quit their jobs, stay home, and slim down the kids.

               “Fat children tend to grow up into fat adults,” Eberstadt insists--a message other health authorities echo in their crusades to ban sodas and candy from schools (but not their own office junkfood bars). Adults, in short, are too weak to curb our gluttonies.

               The convenient notion that grownups can keep swilling beer and driving to the mailbox while forcing tofu diets and jogging regimens on kids not only disregards how kids learn healthy habits, it grossly misrepresents how America’s obesity epidemic ballooned.

               In fact, today’s middle-aged hippos can’t blame their rotundity on childhood fatness. Only 5 percent of baby-boom children and teens growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s were obese.

               Like so many middle-aged crises plaguing America today, our obesity is due entirely to grownup self-indulgence. While, in past generations, waistlines modestly broadened from teen years to middle age, boomer obesity exploded 600 PERCENT as we aged from 20 to 50.

               Now, obese parents are transmitting the disease to their kids. As baby boomers got fatter fast, our kids got fatter slowly. Child and teenage obesity rose moderately, from 6 percent in 1980 to 15 percent today.

               As usual, then, the facts are the reverse of what the experts tell us. The problem isn’t fat kids aging into fat adults, but fat adults raising fat kids in their image. Those long lines at the Krispy Kreme Drive-thru and Grease Gourmet Buffet are multigenerational. Younger kids eat and exercise, or fail to, like their parents.

               An honest, scientific health establishment would be raising alarms about burgeoning grownup chassis and casting children as victims of their parents’ feasting, sloth, and bad examples. They would be pointing to Nielsen surveys showing that while sedentary television viewing declined among children and teenagers in the last two decades, middle-aged TV addiction rose--a big reason we have so many fat, frightened, misinformed midlifers.

               But honest problem appraisal isn’t the way we do things in the U.S. Instead, our response to any social crisis is to find an unpopular scapegoat to blame. So, our health and prevention authorities are downplaying grownup obesity and focusing their alarms and crackdowns on children and teens. Which, like past crackdowns on youths, won’t work, because youth habits are founded in adult habits.

               Are today’s health and prevention policies meant to work? After all, major American interests profit handsomely from our excessive levels of drug abuse, alcoholism, health problems, and obesity--problems that remain endlessly exploitable precisely because our policies fail to mitigate them. It’s time for authorities to swear off their current high-popularity diet of saturated politics and switch to an energetic program of lean, mean truth-telling.


Mike Males, senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.