August 3, 2012 8:38 pm

Slim chances for America’s obese

What is rarely acknowledged is the self-reinforcing link between this health problem and class
An illustration depicting obesity©Shonagh Rae
An illustration depicting obesity©Shonagh Rae

There are not many places on the planet where I feel slim, but Coney Island is one of them. A few weeks ago I visited that iconic New York spot. What struck me most forcefully was not just how clean the beach was – but that the crowds of sunbathers were strikingly fat.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not making this observation from any position of moral superiority. On the contrary, I have a tendency to be chubby myself, and spend a lot of time jogging to compensate for my sweet tooth. But precisely because of my own curves, it is rare for me to feel like one of the (relatively) thin people on the beach. And as I looked around at the other, more bulbous bodies on Coney Island, I was hit by a sense of irony – and contrast.

A few days before visiting the downmarket location of Coney Island, I took another trip to the beach – to the ultra-elite quarters of the Hamptons. And there, a mere 90 miles further east, I felt anything but svelte: around me were beach bodies that were almost entirely lean and well-honed. Coney Island and East Hampton might share the same waters, but there is a gulf in body shapes. This reflects an even bigger gap in these sunbathers’ relative bank accounts.

Welcome to a much bigger pattern that is increasingly haunting the US – but which politicians hate to discuss. In the past four years, under the Obama administration, there has been a welter of handwringing about the fact that the US has become noticeably more obese since the 1980s. Government data show, for example, that some 70 per cent of Americans are considered overweight – and 36 per cent of those are deemed obese. That is almost twice the proportion seen three decades ago, leaving America the world’s fattest industrialised nation.

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Gillian Tett

But while there has been debate aplenty about the national trend, what is rarely acknowledged – largely because it is politically incorrect – is the self-reinforcing link between obesity and class. Tracking this link is certainly not easy. Precisely because the topic is sensitive, it seems that there is surprisingly little data on how current income levels correlate with weight. However, anyone who spends time travelling across the US – on the beaches or anywhere else – can see the contrasts.

Just as aristocrats in medieval Europe used to be several inches taller than the peasants (due to a better diet), the modern elite of America can often be identified by being several inches slimmer than everyone else. And race differences add another twist. Obesity rates in places such as Mississippi or Alabama are much higher than around Boston. They are also much higher among African Americans and Hispanics than Caucasian whites. And research shows that women claiming food stamps over an extended period are 50 per cent more likely to be obese than the population at large.

The consequences of this are cruel. On a macro level, this obesity is adding to the nation’s ballooning healthcare costs, with the direct consequences estimated to be more than $90bn a year. On a micro level, the pattern both reflects and reinforces social polarisation. After all, one key for higher obesity rates in poor areas is that those communities have less access to expensive fresh food, exercise and other health aids. The problem is widespread among children, where the obesity rates have grown at a particularly sharp rate. Conversely, surveys suggest that individuals who are obese tend not just to suffer worse health, but have less-positive job prospects.

So is there any solution? Government officials have recently offered a blizzard of ideas. Michelle Obama, for example, is trying to get kids to take more exercise and improve school diets. New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is trying to ban super-size sugary drinks, while Thomas Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control wants children’s exposure to advertising slashed and taxes put on sugary drinks, along with subsidies for healthy food such as fruit and vegetables. Some far-right voices have even suggested that the obese should be shut out of publicly funded healthcare programmes, or offered reduced access.

Many of these ideas – with the notable exception of the last one – strike me as profoundly sensible; the problem has now become so pernicious, and so cruel in terms of its impact on the poor, that it is high time that junk food was treated like tobacco and subject to advertising controls and taxes. But don’t expect this to fly soon – and certainly not during an election year, when politicians are wary of offending the food lobbyists and trying to court voters in a country suspicious of government intervention.

The idea of a (thin and toned) elite lecturing the masses does not win votes. No surprise there, perhaps. But the sad fact is that unless America (and many other parts of the western world) start to have a more honest discussion about obesity there is little chance of the issue being resolved. That body gulf on those US beaches might yet get even worse.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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