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Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World by Greg Critser


Rating: (Recommended)


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First Circle of Fat Hell

I admit to going our and buying a box of Krispy Kremes after reading Greg Crister’s new book, Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World. It was a patriotic move; I wanted to be sure I was a good American. Crister presents some fascinating case studies, and high points, including the legacy of Earl Butz. Remember him? Sure you do. Crister even refers to the racist joke that dragged Butz down. If we’re searching for who to blame for why we’re fat, read the book and blame Earl Butz. Most of Fat Land is full of tedious detail that few of us want or need to know. Crister’s a good writer, and in parts, like the following excerpt, he shines. This is from the end of Chapter 6, “What the Calories Do To You,” pp. 151-4:

Let us now spend an imaginary day with a typical American, circa 2050, when overweight and obesity are the norm, and when the social divisions are not between the slim and the fat but between the obese and the note so obese. Ion other words, a lot like today, only intensified by a factor of one hundred.

Our average guy arises late in the morning, later than he had planned. He has slept poorly. The night before, the CPAP (for continuously pressurized air pathway) machine that provides an extra forceful flow of air to aid with his sleep apnea had been louder than usual. Looking in the mirror, he takes in his visage:

Across the bridge of his nose and under his eyes rises a freshet of new acne, the nightly legacy of the sticky plastic face mask he must wear in order to remain hooked up to the CPAP machine. "Shit," he mutters.                                       

He takes a shower, shaves, dresses. He curses at his ever too small pants and shirt — hadn't he just purchased a larger size a few months ago? — and then turns to the mirror again. He examines the dark circles under his eyes and the Acanthosis nigricanss on his neck, then decides to cover up the latter with his wife’s face powder. From his desk he picks up his blood sugar meter and, in the first of a half-dozen tests he will administer throughout the day, pricks his finger, draws blood, and measures his glucose level. He then injects his thigh with the first of several doses of insulin. Running late, he decides that, despite the worsening pain in his arthritic knee, he will forgo his pain medication, and walks out to the kitchen.

He cannot have his favorite breakfast, pancakes, because his blood sugar will soar if he eats more than one. (And what is the use of that? he reasons.) He drinks a cup of black coffee, has some oatmeal with nonfat milk and artificial sweetener, kisses his wife, and leaves for work.

In traffic, his blood pressure soars. Did he take the medication for that today? He cannot remember. The cell phone beeps; it is his wife reminding him that he has to take his son Jonny to the endocrinologist today. Only nine, the boy is already forty pounds overweight, and just last week he had another fainting spell at recess. It may have been from hypoglycemia. Whatever the cause, the school nurse sent home an embarrassing ultimatum: Get Jonny checked or she would have to notify social services.

Finally our average guy arrives at work. The office is humming; business is good. But, again, the new sales charts underscore that, as a salesman, our man is not what he used to be. Getting in and out of the car to make sales calls, always arduous even when he was not obese, is now something to be avoided altogether. The two-hour drop in his afternoon energy level doesn't exactly help either. Nor does his aching knee. He checks his blood sugar and begins the afternoon round of phone calls. He is glad that he ordered the large-type phone pad, since his eyesight too is not what it once was.

At around four, a marked silence falls outside his office door. His officemates burst in with a birthday cake and a song. His assistant gets out a knife and begins serving slices of the cake with ice cream. She offers him a plate, and he demurs. She insists. He refuses again, but feels ashamed to reveal why he cannot eat such a sugary treat, and so eventually relents. An hour later he is flushed, sweaty, and dizzy. He vows never to do such a stupid thing again.

Outside, the cool air dries his sweat-beaded brow. He gets in his car and drives over to day care to pick up Jonny. When he gets there his son is crying. 'They. . . they used me as a dodgeball target again!" he explains. 'They . . . they call me earthquake boy because I'm so..." Jonny doesn't need to finish the sentence.

"Aren't there other. . . heavy kids in your class? What do they do when..."

His son cuts him off. "It's just that I'm the biggest" he blurts out.

It is a long, uncomfortable drive.

At the doctor's, the boy fares better than bethought he would. "I'm thinking that the fainting may be more from stress — from all the teasing and harassment — than from his blood sugar," the doctor says. "But you better get that hip checked out . . . When did he start walking like that?" He writes out a referral to a specialist in pediatric bone disease. "Just in case," he says, not very convincingly.

At home, waiting for dinner, he opens the mail. There is a notice from his HMO — again — telling him that his rates have gone up. Again. Also, the co-pay for medications has jumped; given the fact that he pays upward of $200 in co-payments a month already, it makes him worry: What would he do if he ever lost his job, or even if the company scaled back its health coverage? He shudders to recall a nightmare he had earlier in the week, one in which he was being told by his physician that "amputating today is not what it used to be — amputees can live full, long lives . . " He decides to pay more attention to the chronic numbness in his left foot.

Dinner, since it is diabetically correct, is not worth eating, but he does so anyway, if just to spend some time with his wife. She, too, has weight-related woes; though not yet a full-blown diabetic, she nonetheless feels the limitations of being obese. Her energy level is low. She seems to sweat endlessly. Her gynecologist has called her back for more x-rays and a discussion of whether she should have surgery to remove the large but (so far) benign ovarian cyst she has had for the past two years.

Later, while the family is watching TV, he sneaks into the kitchen and eats handful after handful of the cookies he stashed behind the coffee tin the evening before. The momentary pleasure is followed by a rush of guilt, then nausea, then clammy sweating. He relaxes for a while longer, resolves never to do that again, and decides to turn in early.

In bed, he sets the CPAP machine on low, puts in his earplugs so he doesn't have to listen to the thing chug and puff all night, and gets ready to put on the mask. Shit, he thinks. Perhaps if he swabs it with alcohol first he will not wake up with another crop of unsightly red zits.

They are, after all, more than a little embarrassing, particularly at age thirty-five.

Fat Land has received a lot of press coverage, and you may want to read at least parts of it to become conversant with the key issues.

Steve Hopkins, February 28, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the March 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Land.htm


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