Mullen: Fat Chance 

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Don’t think the irony won’t be lost on me here. You have just picked up City Weekly’s annual Dining Guide. It’s all about food. We even feature a hunky pastry chef on the cover, making it oh-so-tempting to jump right into that multi-tiered confection of fat, sugar and fluff.

Too bad. I still want to rail about fat—fat adults, fat kids and some of the forces in society bent on keeping them trapped inside their fat selves, even at the expense of drastically shortening their lives.

Because, while gaining enough weight to qualify as seriously fat has plenty to do with an individual’s personal choices, lack of self-discipline and failing to address messy emotional issues, there’s more at play here. If you take the word of Dr. David Satcher seriously, obesity has become a “pandemic”—which means people are getting fatter all over the world. People are sitting more at work and at leisure. Schools are havens for crappy nutrition. Too many urban neighborhoods lack decent grocery stores and safe places for recreation.

Satcher, U.S. surgeon general under President Bill Clinton and briefly for George W. Bush, was the featured speaker earlier this month at the Rocco C. Siciliano Forum at the University of Utah. Satcher now heads the National Center for Primary Care at the all-male, all-black Moorehouse College in Atlanta. His says his most pressing goal has always been “trying to eliminate disparities in public health.”

Satcher dashes around the world telling people that fat is killing them.

Typically, it isn’t our glands or our family history or any other convenient reason people give for that fat slopping over into the next airplane seat. We’re largely an undisciplined bunch, accustomed to cheap food, and lots of it. Why else would Taco Bell be using that ridiculous (and successful) ad campaign promoting a “fourth meal—the one between dinner and breakfast?”

Satcher never once used the “f” word in his PowerPoint demonstration. He’s distinguished and more diplomatic than, say, myself. He uses the word “obese” when noting that nearly two-thirds of adults in the United States are well beyond their healthy weight. From 1976 to 2000, the number of overweight Americans jumped from 47 percent of the population to 64 percent.

Things look worse for children, whose parents are primarily responsible for feeding them. In the past 20 years, Satcher says, the number of American kids ages six to 11 who are fat (again, but why not be clear?) has leapt from just under 5 percent to 20 percent. The overall health picture for fat folks in America is dismal. We’re all paying for it, in the form of higher insurance premiums for coronary and cancer care and skyrocketing rates of diabetes. In Mississippi, Florida and Alabama, more than 10 percent of the population is afflicted with diabetes, which is directly linked to being fat. In 13 states, diabetes now affects 8 percent to 10 percent of the population.

Ha. Numbers don’t faze people, right? Maybe one solution is to wake people up to fat as the public issue for the third millennium. Maybe it’s time to get draconian like we did with smoking over the last 30 years. Is it tough-love time? Do we find a way to deal with overeaters and exercise slackers the same way we did with smokers, who can no longer light up in restaurants and most bars? Smokers have to stand 25 feet from a building and look like soggy rats in a rainstorm. Perhaps it’s time restaurants servers start telling fat people who order the tiramisu, “Sorry, no. You’ve had enough.”

Some people are really trying to do something. Randall Mackey is a Salt Lake City lawyer who represents Salt Lake City and Park City on the Utah State School Board. He’s on a steady campaign to eliminate junk foods and sugary drinks in school vending machines.

“School districts all over the country are dealing with this issue, but Utah is really lagging behind,” Mackey says. The bottom line is that, like a fat man who can’t say no to a third helping, cash-strapped schools are hopelessly addicted to money that snack and soda machines provide.

“It’s become a tradeoff now,” Mackey says. “The health of our young people versus money.”

In a recent meeting to set policy for healthier snacks in schools, the majority of the board complained that “local control” is always better, and that individual districts should make their own nutrition rules. One of the new statewide dietary rules the board is considering would require vending machine snacks to contain no more than 35 percent of its calories from fat.

Mackey can’t believe it. More than one-third fat is some kind of victory?

“We’ve got to find another way to find money for our schools,” he says. “Our kids’ health is at stake, and not to address this as a serious health issue is really unconscionable.”

The state school board has set a target date of improving all vending machine offerings by July 1, 2008, Mackey says.

Meantime, we still tiptoe around this topic. During a Q&A session following Satcher’s lecture, a family practice physician asked how she can even hope to make a difference when parents refuse to acknowledge a problem.

“I struggle to find the right words so as not to offend some of these parents,” she said. “If I say, ‘Your child is a little chunky, or chubby,’ they take great offense.’”

Well, at least we’ve faced the fact that smoking kills. Where fat is concerned, we haven’t even come close to a long way, baby.


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