Fat Chance

We are, supposedly, in the midst of an obesity epidemic. But as theories of what is causing it multiply and contradict each other, we should remember that each age, culture, and tradition defines what is an unacceptable – unhealthy, ugly, or corrupt – body weight.

ATLANTA – We are, supposedly, in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Everyone is getting fatter. Children are fatter than their parents. Epidemics caused by fat are now manifest: Type 2 diabetes, increased rates of heart and cardiovascular disease, and notably more cancers, such as breast cancer. This “globesity” epidemic is seen in poor countries as well as in wealthy ones.

But are people really so unhealthily fat? Certainly there are morbidly obese people, whose weight puts their lives at risk. Consider the British jailer Daniel Lambert (1770-1809), who stood 5’1” (155 centimeters) tall and weighed 739 lbs (335 kilos), yet neither drank nor ate “more than one dish at a meal.” At his death, Lambert was remembered as a man of great “temperance.” In other words, he was deemed to be healthy and happy.

The problem today seems to be that we have demonized “fat,” even among people who are labeled “overweight” rather that “obese.” Indeed, we have lowered the boundary for “overweight” to include people considered “normal” a generation ago. And we have deemed fat the major public health risk in our world and fat people the cause of a range of social problems, from placing stress on health-care systems to posing a risk to their own families.

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