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VINE VOICEon March 14, 2003
Back in the 1970s and before, about 25% of the American population was overweight. But in the late 80s, the rate of overweight spiked upwards, and is now around 60 percent. Also, the rate of obesity in children has doubled in 30 years, with about 25% of Americans under age 19 overweight or obese. Why? What has happened between the 1970s and today to cause this dangerous and dramatic increase in overweight and obesity? Journalist Greg Critser does a thorough job of answering this question in just 176 pages (the appendix begins on page 177). In addition, he presents the above statistics and more, discusses the hazards of obesity, the politics behind overly lax weight and exercise recommendations to the American public, and discusses why the low income people are more obese as a group than high income people.
There�s the obvious answer as to why Americans have a huge weight problem: We eat more and exercise less. But Critser digs much deeper than this. Why do we eat more? For one thing, fast food restaurant meals and movies theater snacks are supersized. And Critser quotes research studies that people tend to clean their plates, regardless of how big the plate is. So why are meals supersized? Critser describes the history of supersizing, (the brainchild of David Wallerstein of the McDonald�s corporation), with the skill of a master story teller. Each of Critser�s discussion topics, such as childhood obesity and lack of exercise, is treated with considerable depth. Critser ends on a positive note, presenting some solutions that have worked on a small scale in areas of California, and are worth trying in other parts of the U.S.
As someone who has taught nutrition and weight management to college students, I was impressed with the thorough job Critser did of researching and explaining these issues. He summarizes studies in the peer-reviewed weight loss literature, quotes from the popular media, interviews some of the top weight loss researchers in the U.S. and others who shed light on the obesity problem such as California school officials. Far removed from the dry prose of the scientific literature, Critser presents his material in an entertaining and occasionally sardonic style.
My problems with �Fatland� are minor: My biggest problem is there are no footnotes in the body of the book, making it difficult to cross reference the studies presented in the 37-pages notes section at the end. Also, the organization of the book can be a bit awkward: each chapter begins with an anecdote, some longwinded, and it can take several pages to ease the anecdote into the chapter topic so that the reader knows why the anecdote is presented in the first place. Also the chapter �What the Extra Calories Do to You�, would make logical sense for chapter 1, but instead is chapter 6 of 7 chapters.
Overall, this is an excellent, well-researched, and entertaining read. I highly recommend �Fatland� for anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of why America�s overweight and obesity problem has spiraled out of control.
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HALL OF FAMEon April 18, 2003
Here Greg Critser lays out the appalling and well-known statistics on obesity in America. In recent years the numbers of overweight people have ballooned alarmingly, along with all of the associated health problems. These horrific increases are not natural and also cannot be explained easily. Critser, formerly overweight himself, makes many keen observations in this book about the several different causes of the American fat epidemic. There are economic causes, such as the increased use of cheaper but more fattening artificial sweeteners in food manufacturing, or the relentless push of the fast food and snack industries to increase market share. Cultural influences include the current politically correct acceptance of the overweight (actually a mortal fear of hurting someone's feelings), the popularity of baggy fashions, and even the media fascination with J. Lo's.... There are even some religious influences - see the title of this review. Critser's greatest achievement here is his bold stance on the class issues behind the obesity epidemic. Poor people (of any race) are far more prone to being overweight, as healthy foods and exercise programs are too expensive, and many poor people can't even get simple exercise outdoors due to fears of crime. The politically correct aversion to discussing class issues in any way breeds a real sense of denial about these problems. Critser studies all these troublesome trends in very enjoyable and often brutally honest ways, holding no punches as he describes the dire consequences for American society. Beware that some of Critser's scientific coverage gets bogged down in statistical overload, while popular culture is his obvious weak point - like his disastrous take on hip-hop fashions in Chapter 3. But Critser definitely points out the issues that America should stop ignoring, and has some very good potential solutions to the epidemic. Critser also succeeded in encouraging me to stop lying around reading this book and to go out and exercise. Good thing this book is short and to the point.
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Critser is no victim-based advocate calling for lawsuits against fast-food corporations in this incisive, analytical manifesto, which successfully penetrates the underlying causes of America's obesity epidemic. He explains that the obesity rate, which was always stable at around 25%, shot up to 60-65% in the 1980s and he provides a coherent narrative, packed with well-documented statistics, to show the major forces of that obesity spike. He shows that Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture for Nixon, was a key player in making the environment conducive to our being fat. In the 1970's, under Butz's charge, farmers grew more corn to make a cheaper form of sugar, High Frutose Corn Syrup, which metabolizes in far more dangerous ways than regular sucrose. Secondly, he made a deal with Malaysia, allowing them to export palm oil, also called "hog's lard," to America. Palm oil turns out to be a form of trans fat which, with a shelf life of infinity, clogs our arteries. The other enviromental condition that led us down a path of obesity was the Super-Size-Me Philosophy spawned in the fast-food industry. Shrewd business men who wanted greater profits preyed on our psychology and created a new way to make us fat:

1. Disguise our piggishness by making huge bags of fries rather than shaming us into buying two bags.
2. Combine low-profit (hamburgers) with high-profit (soda and fries) foods to create a "value meal."
3. Emphasize price and value over taste and presentation, which they found to their giddiness, made us eat MORE.
4. Banish the shame of gluttony. Create a culture where it's cool to overeat in the same way that it's cool to drive a big SUV and be a huge, conspicuous consumer.

What makes Critser's analysis so refreshing is that even though he points at the environmental hurdles we must face if want to be fit and trim, he always encourages us to educate ourselves and to take responsibility for what we put into our mouths. Reading his book is the first step in that education.
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VINE VOICEon October 27, 2005
'Fat Land' by Greg Critser is a heavily researched analysis of why Americans are and how they became they fattest people on the planet. It's a unbiased look at how said people got to where they are today, what conditions are in place to produce such an obese nation, and what we can do to try and overcome the biggest health problem this country has ever seen.

The thing that struck me the most about 'Fat Land' is how extensive and relatively NEW this epidemic is in this country. I knew before reading this book that there were a lot of fat people in the United States but I wouldn't have guessed that the #s were as high as they are.

In the year 1970 and beforehand the levels of obesity were nowhere near what they are today, so why has the problem spread like a foul disease (of course that's exactly what obesity is, a disease)??

Fast Food and cheaper, more accessible fast food.

Back 35 years ago the fast food landscape just wasn't what it is today. One was not able to insert the key into the ignition of their car and within 5 minutes they would be bombarded by signs of McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Kentucky Friend Chicken. Back 35 years ago there were probably only a select few brands of sodas available and they were relatively much more expensive back then. Even with Coke and Pepsi as the primary choices, if you turned the label you would still find 'Sugar' as its key ingredient, but you wouldn't see High Fructose Corn Syrup as the main producer of this sugar, and due to this use of the unprocessed sugar that we have today, your pop wouldn't taste nearly as sweet as the Frankensugar sodas that make up entire aisles in supermarkets today.

After reading 'Fat Land' it became easy to understand that obesity more than anything else is an issue of class. Bombarded by cheap food at cheap prices, the poor use their limited funds to buy the only thing they can really afford, and they pay the price. Without having the financial means to buy better quality sources of energy, the lower class open their wallets and use that buying power to the limit. Super size me??? Of course I'll super size, for 30 cents more I get more fries and more soda and that can only equate to more pleasure!!

Right??

Wrong.

Dead wrong.

The obesity epidemic in this country gets worse every passing year, and as more fast food options become available with even shorter commutes, the problem isn't going to get better any time soon. With the class gap widening with each passing year this only exemplifies the problem at hand. The poor get even poorer and they have to expend even less effort to get the fast food that gives them the little enjoyment in their lives. It's a truly vicious cycle that needs to stop as soon as possible. Not only is it costing thousands of lives every year, it's costing every person that has health insurance thousands of dollars more taking care of all these fat people.

Only through education and personal willpower/restraint can the obesity problem in the United States be controlled. It's a long, hard journey that features regular citizens against the mega corporations that have a tighter control of this land with every passing day. If we don't do something fast we're all in big trouble.

And I mean BIG.

***** HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
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on March 9, 2003
In Fat Land, Greg Critser has written an important essay concerning the origins and effects of the looming obesity-driven health crisis facing the United States. This book is especially important in a country that can't seem to get its health care costs in line. Critser starts with the advent of cheap sweetner [high fructose corn syrup] and fat [palm oil], takes us through the development of supersized fast food and fast food in the public schools, and then moves on to what America's increased girth is doing to our health, with special focus on the youth of America. Critser never denies a genetic component in individual differences in weight, nor does he make light of the need for people to feel good about themselves, but he stresses that ultimately an obese person is not as healthy as a person with a normal body weight. Critser offers no panecea for weight loss, but sounds the now common [and accurate] refrain that a balanced diet that is lower in Calories accompanied by an increase in exercise is the only sure way to a healthy body weight. Critser is a tad strident at times, but given the urgency of the problem, I can forgive that in this highly readable [but scary] book. I wouldn't want the potential reader to base any decision on a small piece of anecdotal evidence, but I can attest to much of what Critser writes about. When I started teaching 18 years ago, I was only slightly heavier than what the charts say my normal weight should be, but I had already spent a decade since my teens fighting my weight and bad eating habits [which were not my Mom's fault - Mama tried!]. Last July, I was 150 pounds overweight, had high blood pressure [already medicated to normalcy], had high cholesterol [also medicated to normalcy], and my doctor was telling me that I was showing signs of impaired glucose tolerance. I faced my potential early demise [the morbid in morbidly obese] with great seriousness, went to the diabetic nutrition classes [I'm pre-diabetic, but my doctor doesn't want to wait until damage has been done], and I've lost 65 pounds. My diet is much healthier and I walk every day. It's hard, but the alternatives [are bad]! Some of my 9th graders are facing the obesity-related health problems that I didn't have to deal with until age 43! If you care about the health of your loved ones and the health of all Americans, I highly recommend that you read this book.
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on November 9, 2003
FATLAND is one of the most fascinating books I have read in a long time. I give Critser big-time credit for a massive amount of research behind his book, plus having the courage to put forth some provocative (and perhaps unpalatable) arguments.
Critser looks at the American obesity epidemic from a sociological and political point of view. Make no mistake: this is not your typical diet book! While Critser does consider diet and exercise, he also looks at larger scale socio-political issues and how they affect individual diet and exercise. Probably the most important larger scale issue he examines is the trend towards less per capita funding for public education and how that (a) has resulted in a decrease in physical education plus (b) has opened the door for fast food companies to make marketing deals with school districts.
By now, most of us have heard the statistics on the growing rates of overweightness and obesity in this country; but what is not generally reported in the media is that this trend is much stronger in lower socioeconomic groups. Unlike other reviewers, I do not agree Critser means to suggest that the association of obesity with poverty implies a conspiracy. I think he does mean to give a wake up call to affluent Americans who can more easily buy their way into good health care and good health clubs.
To be sure, Critser does no more than to suggest relationships or associations among phenomena. As copiously researched as this book is, I do not see the book as intending to prove cause-and-effect. I do not fault Critser for this; his book is a provocative starting point in the debate.
I find myself shocked by some of the negative reviews of the book here. Perhaps some readers were expecting a more individual-focused, less sociological look at diet and exercise. Perhaps some readers were put off by the implicit call to social or political activism. I can only respond that I found the book remarkably informative and thought-provoking. Although I recommend this book to everyone, in particular I suggest that parents read this book because of the amount of information about children's health and diet.
A final note: This book is not at all redundant with "Fast Food Nation"! Yes, there is some overlap as regards food composition and marketing into schools. FATLAND differs in its primary focus on health and epidemiology. Both books are very worthy reads.
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on January 22, 2003
When I first picked up the book, I had no idea what to expect. I was doing research for a film and stumbled upon it by heppen chance in the library. I had already read "Fast Food Nation" and was intrigued by what the title already suggested. What I found inside was an ivaluable research tool. It's a great book! The stories that it details: from the birth of Jumbo Sizes in movie theaters to fast food companies upping the ante on your plate, are really fantastic. It does a nice job of making the facts, people and places accessible without seeming "Holier than Thou." (And one should never take any book as the "end all be all" solution to uncovering problems - especially one as large as the current obesity epidemic.) I recommend "Fat Land" whole-heartedly to anyone who wants to expand their views when it comes to the way live, eat and think as Americans - something many of us need to do. Greg Critser has hit a home run with this one ... AND he can run around the bases without fainting or wheezing!
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on March 25, 2003
Fat Land is engaging, entertaining, and informative. Greg Critser's documentation of the political and economic factors contributing to eating problems in America is both remarkable and frightening. An example of one of hundreds of startling facts detailed in the book: "A serving of McDonald's french fries had ballooned from 200 calories (1960) to 320 calories (late 1970's) to 450 calories (mid-1990's) to 540 calories (late 1990's) to the present 610 calories." YIKES!
While his overview of cultural, economic and political factors sheds important light on the problem, I would argue that this book does not live up to it's sub-title: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World. As a psychotherapist working with binge-eating disorder and compulsive overeating, I contend that many eating problems have other factors at their root. The issues he addresses certainly contribute to creating an environment in which unmet needs of all types (emotional, intellectual, creative, spiritual, pleasure etc.)can cheaply and quickly be met by palm oil and fructose laden foods and drinks. Yet unmet needs of the heart, mind, and spirit, also play a part in "How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World."
I look forward to seeing what Greg Critser might be writing in five or ten years on the subject. Perhaps he will address these other factors with the same insight and clarity he has brought to the cultural issues through Fatland.
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"Fat Land" is a fascinating and quick read, very much in the same spirit as "Fast Food Nation." Instead of exposing one particular industry, like "Fast", this book seeks to answer why the U.S. has had such a rapid increase in obesity and weight-related health problems in the last 30 years. The author reveals a lot of primary causes, from thoughtless profiteers in the food industry to the denial of the populace, who have heard what they wanted to hear, and ignored their rapidly expanding waist bands.
Just a few of the culprits: (1)an increase in the use of high fructose corn syrup, a cheap sweetener which helped profits but increased caloric intake; (2)the super sizing phenomenon in fast food and convenience food; (3) an overly sedentary culture (4) misinformation in the diet industry, which sold a lot of gimmick diet books and products (5)the media telling people what they wanted to hear, including that moderate exercise was as good as vigorous exercise and (6) corporations buying their way into poorly funded schools, serving teenagers a staple of junk food.
Crister deals with each of these points in depth, but also gets into various sociological factors that play a part in obesity, including poorly funded schools, indigent cultures, and ignorant doctors (many of whom are never educated about nutrition and aren't giving sound or realistic advice about weight loss.)
Although the book is thorough on the topics it covers, Critser ignores some of the more conventional theories. He doesn't touch nearly enough on genetic factors, which do play a role in weight gain, and seems to be giving a free pass to those who eat badly but don't show it. There are many with high metabolisms who are eating just as badly as the obese, and they too will have some of the health problems (like cancer and heart disease) that the book talks about.
Some of the book is painful to read, because the cold facts about obesity-related illness and early death are grim realities. They are essential to know, though, and this book spells it out in a well written, compelling way. The book is well researched and balanced, and one of the better books I've read on the topic of nutrition.
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on February 5, 2003
If you want something to talk about, read this book! My colleague and I were on a business trip and I had taken two books to read: Fat Land and a novel I was finishing up. Since she had forgotten her book, I gave her Fat Land to read with a caution: "DON'T TELL ME A THING ABOUT IT BECAUSE I WANT TO READ IT MYSELF." Poor thing... now I know how she felt. While I was reading it, I had to share every moist detail about fat and food AS I read.
The book is an anthropological-sociological-governmental look at the American diet. It is scientifically sound and remarkably informative. When I was finished, I decided that I would go through our pantry and discard anything made with High Fructose Corn Syrup or an unidentified oil. This book will open your eyes and hopefully keep your tummy flat.
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