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TinotopiaLog → Too Many Fat Children ( 2 Jul 2003)
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Wednesday 02 July 2003

Too Many Fat Children

If we are to believe the hysterical rants coming from the Won’t-Somebody-Think-of-the-Children set, people under eighteen (or twenty-one) are fantastically impressionable. They’ll do anything they see anyone else do. Why, it’s hardly worth asking them if they’d jump off the Brooklyn Bridge if they saw someone else doing it: of course they would.

This is why it’s important to keep young people from ever being exposed to anything that has been judged deleterious to their well-being. In movies and on television, no one must ever smoke, drink, or use ‘drugs’, unless the character in question is a villain. And maybe not even then.

So it’s something of a mystery why children seem to be getting fatter on average, given that nearly everyone on TV and in movies is too thin. Almost all of the working actresses are bony, and, while you’ll occasionally see a fat man on the screen, he’s almost always either a villain or a clown. Despite this, American kids are getting fatter. As hard as this may be to believe, it must be something other than TV.

Or is it? While the mass media certainly sends the message that thin is the only way to be — not the only acceptable way to be, but rather the only way there is in the media universe — there’s a lot more of television now than there used to be, and a whole lot more aimed at kids.

When I was a child, there were a couple of hours of kids’ programming on TV a day, and much of this wasn’t what you could, even out of charity, call compelling. A Gilligan’s Island rerun. An episode of The Flintstones. Bozo. On Saturday mornings, there were a few hours of cartoons. Other than that, television was full of Archie Bunker and Walter Cronkite and Barnaby Jones. Most kids’ movies were the Disney-live-action-and-$1.98-budget kind like Escape to Witch Mountain. We remember those movies fondly today, but they were awful.

Today, though, there’s an awful lot of programming aimed at kids, much of it quite good. Video games have progressed beyond Pong, videotapes and DVDs are cheap and generally available. It’s quite possible now, in a way that it wasn’t in the 1970s, for a kid to sit on his ass all day and be amused.

At the same time that this was happening ‘parenting’ became a pursuit of its own, and the culture became absurdly protective of children. Cause and effect are hard to sort out here, but the end result is that kids now not only have the means to stay inside and stationary much more than they used to, but that they are encouraged to do so by over-protective parents.

When I was in elementary school, there were one or two kids who were ‘allergic’ to nearly everything, whose parents didn’t allow them to do anything, and who needed all kinds of ‘special’ help in doing all sorts of things. These kids weren’t retarded, or sick, or anything else. They were just mama’s boys (they were always boys) with doting parents who were determined to protect their sweet, sweet treasures from the world.

Today, the majority of kids are like this, and they’re getting fat from inactivity. What a surprise.

I have read nothing to the effect that anyone disagrees with this, but at the same time, nothing that indicates that any of the steps being proposed to change this situation have anything at all to do with a meaningful attempt to get kids off their asses. Instead, it’s all about food. Or ‘Big Food’, I should say, in the model of ‘Big Tobacco’. And, unfortunately, I don’t see that this is going to help, either.

For the past few years, it’s been obvious that the class-action-lawsuit industry was taking aim at the food industry, having already bled the asbestos and tobacco industries dry. And their efforts are already bearing fruit.

According to this morning’s Washington Post, Kraft foods has announced that they will reformulate their products to make them healthier. Kraft makes, among other things, Oreos.

(Kraft is, incidentally, part of the same conglomerate that also makes Marlboros. In the middle of the War on Tobacco, Phillip Morris bought Kraft and a number of other food companies in order to diversify away from dependence on a product that was under attack. Fat lot of good it did them, no pun intended.)

Kraft also makes Oscar Meyer products, Kool-Aid, Tombstone pizzas, Boca Burgers, Post cereals, Stove Top Stuffing, as well as, of course, all kinds of cheese. But it’s the Oreos that the stories seem to have focused on, and this is particularly interesting.

Kraft comes to make Oreos, the most popular cookie in the United States, as a result of having acquired Nabisco, which was once known as the National Biscuit Company. National Biscuit started cranking out Oreos in 1912, to compete with Sunshine’s Hydrox. Hydrox cookies are almost identical to Oreos, with two important differences: they’ve always been made with vegetable oil, and they are foul. Until the late 1990s, Oreos were made with lard, and were thus non-kosher, non-vegetarian, and non-cholesterol-free.

From the late 1980s to today, it’s generally been held that fat in general, and cholesterol-containing fats in particular, are bad for you. Lard and other animal fats in most foods have been replaced, in the name of health, with hydrogenated vegetable oils. The oils are hydrogenated — that is, hydrogen is added — in order to make them solid. Soybean oil is liquid at room temperature, and would result in a mess if you tried to make an Oreo with it. Hydrogenated soybean oil, though, is basically Crisco, and the goo in Oreos is made of hydrogenated soybean oil and sugar.

Hydrogenated fats — trans fats — are, it is now thought, bad for you. Worse for you than lard, certainly. This page about trans fats at the Harvard School of Public Health has a skull and crossbones at the top of it.

And the ‘sugar’ in Oreos isn’t actually sugar, either. Like nearly all other industrial users of sweeteners in the United States, Nabisco has switched to high-fructose corn syrup. Corn syrup is much cheaper than sugar in this country, thanks to distortion of the sugar market by the government.

Hydrogenated oils and high-fructose corn syrup are in nearly everything you eat in the United States, unless you cook all your food yourself. And both trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup seem to contribute to diabetes and obesity — more so than do sugar and lard.

The American diet in 1920 was not all that different from the American diet in 1820, or 1720, or 1620. The average person probably ate better in 1920, to be sure, but what people ate hadn’t changed all that much, and middle-class people in any of those years ate very much the same things. A 2003 Thanksgiving Dinner would probably not strike someone from 1703 as particularly strange, except for the cylindrical cranberry sauce. But most of what we eat the rest of the year would. A lot of this change has come very recently, as has our fat-people problem.

Here’s the CDC’s ‘fat map’ of the United States in 1985:


Whether you believe that the CDC’s measure of what’s ‘obese’ makes sense or not doesn’t matter in this case; this map represents the percentage of the population of each state that has a ‘body mass index’ of 30 or more. (If you’re 5 feet 4 inches tall and you weigh 175 pounds, you have a BMI of 30; put bluntly, someone with a BMI of 30 is fat by almost any definition.)

In the 1985 map, 10% of people in light-blue states had a BMI of 30 or more; dark-blue states had 10%-14% fat people. No data were available for white states.

Here’s the map for 2001:


In 1985, only eight states reported that more than 10% of their population had a BMI of 30 or greater, and no state reported more than 14%. In 2001, only one state fell into the 10%-14% range, and 27 states — the red ones — reported that 20%-24% of their people were fat (and, in one state, Mississippi, over 25% percent of the population had a BMI of 30 or greater).

Some of this apparent growth in girth is undoubtedly due to greater attention being paid to the problem. Fatties who weren’t noticed and reported in 1985 are now being counted. But it’s clear that people in this country are, indeed, getting fatter on average.

This despite all the fat-free, ‘healthy’ food you find everywhere. This despite the government’s food pyramid. This despite the fact that it’s almost impossible to buy full-fat yogurt in the supermarket any more. This despite that even things like cookies have been reformulated to be ‘healthier’.

All of which makes me fear that these new attempts to make food ‘healthier’ will once again make things worse. I’d be delighted if the healthier-food bandwagon this time strips away most of the wisdom of the 1980s and 1990s and returns food that tastes like something, but somehow I doubt that’s what’s going to happen. My guess is that the plan is the usual one — More Of The Same. Since reducing the fat in everything for the last twenty years has resulted in a nation of fatter people than before, the answer can’t be to go back to the old foods — no, we’ll need even less fat than we have now. Whenever a policy doesn’t work or outright backfires, it’s obviously because you haven’t gone far enough!

The Tino prescription for reducing obesity is a simple one: people should live in places that allow them to walk places as part of their daily routine, rather than as nothing more than exercise; and people should start eating more like their grandparents ate. That’s all. It’s time we started examining what change resulted in the so-called obesity epidemic. As Oreos have been around for almost 100 years now, and as the obesity rates have risen sharply only in the last fifteen years, somehow I don’t think they can be the cause.

Posted by tino at 19:22 2.07.03
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I’ve been doing some of my own research regarding the changes in American diet. The USDA’s easiest numbers to use come from their Dietary Survey. If one examines the difference between what kids 6-11 ate in 1998 (yes, that’s the most up-to-date number) and in 1978, there’s a very big difference.

Kids in that age group averaged 1878 calories in 1978 and 1938 in 1998. This is a very small change; it’s only about a 3% increase. The difference is the composition of their diet. The fat nannies have been strident, and their message has sunk in. Kids now eat 13% fewer calories from fat, 8% fewer from protein and 21% more in carbohydrates. Could it be that the fat nannies are wrong? Gasp! You mean fat doesn’t make your kid fat?

The really sad part is that they will not back down. They can’t afford to now — they’d look like fools. Therefore, instead of solving the problem, we will indeed get more of the same.


Posted by: Nicole at July 2, 2003 10:21 PM

You might be interested in an Irish take on childhood obesity here

[userid: mefi@bosconet.org pw: mefi]

Posted by: Paul Johnson at July 4, 2003 12:19 PM

The Irish Independent requires registration; spam@tinotopia.com/tino works.

You would have to run a marathon to burn off the calories from just one large fast food meal, and Irish children are getting fatter due to a combination of poorer diet, less exercise and more TV, a clinical nutritionist from Crumlin Hospital, Maeve O’Sullivan, said.

How “more TV” and “less exercise” are different problems is beyond me. People like to demonize TV, which I think might get in the way here.

Posted by: Tino at July 4, 2003 02:43 PM

my question is did national biscuit company buyout ward & mackey biscuit company and when. i have stock certificates from ward & mackey biscuit company from 1918 and want to know if there worth anything. please respond to this. thank you darrell

Posted by: darrell at August 11, 2003 08:59 AM