Fat and Foreign Policy

Posted January 5, 2004

Categories: Articles, Food

Americans are fat. Visitors to the United States are often astonished by the serving sizes at restaurants and the waist sizes of clothing in department stores. One-third of the U.S. population is obese, two-thirds are overweight, and the Journal of International Obesity warns of an ?epidemic.?SPAN style=”mso-spacerun: yes “>


This isn?t just a problem for the United States, where obesity gobbles up an estimated $117 billion in annual health care costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. America?s fat problem is a global issue.


First of all, the United States is exporting fat. The American diet of fast food, sugary cereals and soft drinks, and processed foods has been invading other countries more rapidly and meeting with a great deal less resistance than the U.S. military. In East Asia, where obesity has rarely been a problem outside the world of sumo wrestling, the impact of the American diet has been profound. A 2002 government survey revealed that the rate of obesity among Japanese men has increased by 40 percent in the last two decades. China?s one-child policy and rising consumption of fat and sugar has created tubby ?little emperors.?SPAN style=”mso-spacerun: yes “> And in Korea, where hours clocked in front of the computer compounds the problem, young people are starting to resemble their American counterparts.


Traditional diets in the Asia-Pacific region generally rely on fresh ingredients such as fruit, vegetables, and seafood, along with low consumption of sugar and fat. Researchers at the University of Hawaii performed an interesting experiment a few years ago. They put twenty obese Hawaiians on a three-week pre-?Western contact?diet of taro, fruit, fish, and seaweed, all cooked in traditional ways. Although participants could eat as much as they wanted, they dropped on average 17 pounds and significantly improved their blood pressure and cholesterol counts.


Koreans are generally on the other end of the obesity spectrum. According to an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the traditional Korean diet, which is low in fat and high in vegetables, is responsible for an obesity level of ?approximately half of what would be expected for a country at its level of development.?SPAN style=”mso-spacerun: yes “> South Korean government efforts to support local agriculture and media campaigns to promote the consumption of traditional cooking have helped to counteract the effects of American-style fast food.


U.S. food corporations are working hard to undermine these traditional diets through advertising, product tie-ins in Hollywood movies, and the helping hand of the U.S. government. Agricultural subsidies keep the price of U.S. commodities low, which translates into super-cheap corn syrup and vegetable oils. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to help sell U.S. products in foreign markets. The Foreign Market Development Program boosts basic commodities such as grains, meat, and fruit. The Market Access Program reimburses food corporations for their efforts in selling hamburgers, fruit juice, and other prepared foods.


The U.S. food industry has gone global with its lobbying efforts. In 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report urging a modest reduction of sugar consumption to 12 teaspoons a day (Americans typically eat about 20 teaspoons). The U.S. sugar industry, which supplies the most money to political campaigns of any agricultural lobby, was furious. It pressured the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration to reject the report. The sugar industry even called for a reduction of its own ?a retaliatory reduction of U.S. contributions to the WHO.


Finally, American consumption patterns reflect the disproportionate amount of global resources that the United States absorbs. For the United States, the world is a very cheap, all-you-can-eat buffet. At five percent of the global population, Americans consume nearly one-quarter of the world?s resources. It would be a surprise, frankly, if Americans weren?t overweight.


It?s not just Americans, though. The global division between rich and poor countries has widened in the last decade. In 2000, the number of overweight finally equaled that of the undernourished at 1.1 billion each. Obesity has become a problem in virtually every developed country. Fast food restaurants and food corporations are always seeking to expand global operations as widely as they have expanded individual waistlines.


The diet industry insists that obesity is a personal issue that can be solved by individual decisions. We can solve the fat problem, in other words, by eating less and eating wiser. But obesity is a much bigger issue than personal choice, for there is much money to be made from fat. The food industry has successfully fattened up the United States. It won?t stop until everyone looks and eats like Americans.

Munhwa Ilbo, May 25, 2004

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