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It’s one of the great American paradoxes. The more we snatch up diet books, ab busters and fen-phen, the fatter we get. Approximately one-third of adult Americans are overweight. Fatness — more politely known as obesity — results in hundreds of thousands of deaths each year from heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer.
Last year, a spate of "fat acceptance" books made us feel a little better about our pear-shaped physiques. All of a sudden, anti-diet authors fed us the tasty news: You can be fit and fat.
Enter Michael Fumento. A medical journalist and self-proclaimed "debunker of faux fears" (his first book was The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS), Fumento is on a crusade. In his new book, Fat of the Land: The Obesity Epidemic and How Overweight Americans Can Help Themselves (Viking), he tells overweight Americans — "fat blobs on legs" — to get off their butts and stop using biology as an excuse for their corpulent shapes. Fumento himself has battled the bulge. Though he doesn’t reveal his weight, he admits he tried dozens of diet books; but only when he began research for his book did he lose the 25 pounds that had saddled him for years.
Salon recently talked to Fumento by phone from his Washington, D.C., office about Cheetos, genes and the myth of "fat acceptance."
Q. Why is it that the more we obsess about diets and perfect bodies, the more we put on weight?
A. It is quite bizarre, isn’t it? First of all, in American culture, obsession is practically the norm. Here we are buying all these billions of diet books and yet getting fatter by the year. The fat acceptance people say there is already a $30 billion diet industry and it doesn’t work. But that’s because most of it is quackery, with books that tell you things like "eat more, weigh less." The big one right now is Barry Sears’ The Zone which is just high fat, high protein, low carbos. It’s absolute nonsense. Most of that $30 billion is not only going down the drain, it is actually hurting.
Q. How so?
A. Because what happens is this. You buy Susan Powter’s Stop the Insanity. But it doesn’t work. You buy The Zone. It doesn’t work. You buy Dr. Atkins’ book. It doesn’t work, so you buy another book that doesn’t work. You have now bought 15 books. Then along comes somebody from NAAFA (The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) and they say, guess what? Diets don’t work! It is impossible to lose weight! And you believe it because you have tried the 15 top-selling books.
Q. But isn’t there some truth in that? Won’t fatness, like death and taxes, always be with us?
A. I’m not sure that we can eliminate obesity. Can we drop it by half? Yes, possibly. Can we at least stop it from increasing? I should like to think so. Yet in the last year, four books have come out that I know of, saying it’s OK to be fat!
Q. You have a take-no-prisoners approach toward the overweight.
A. I want every single American out there who is obese to know exactly what they are doing to their bodies.
Q. But what if someone is active, healthy, happy and large?
A. This happy stuff — I’m really skeptical about it. A few years ago I read an interview with Paul Simon which really hit me. He said, "Any short man who tells you that it doesn’t bother him to be short is lying to you." Those who say, "I’m fat and happy," I don’t believe it. I cite a study in my book where researchers talked to former obese people. They say stuff like, "I would rather go blind than be fat" and "I’d rather have both my legs cut off than be fat." People don’t want to be fat.
Q. You disagree with the fat acceptance books that say it’s possible to be fit and fat?
"Feed me, then take me for an extra-long walk. You’ll lose weight instead of losing a chunk of your leg."
A. What do they mean when they say they fat and fit? To the medical establishment being fit means their cholesterol level is good, their triglyceride level is good, their blood pressure is not high and that they have a normal EKG. But there are all sorts of things going on inside that body that cannot be measured through any test that is yet available. For example, a study just came out that showed that women who are 44 pounds overweight have twice the risk of getting breast cancer. There is not a blood test that can look at a fat or thin person and say that something that you are doing to your body right now is going to give you breast cancer in 15 years. So they don’t know that they are fit. They can say that they feel fit, they go on nice, long walks every day and they don’t have high cholesterol. But the facts show that being obese is doing all sorts of nasty things to their body.
Q. You write that "obese people are made, not hatched." Haven’t medical researchers found there is an obesity gene and many people are born with the physical makeup of their parents?
A. The latest obesity gene study I have seen looked at black women, compared to white women. We know that black women in the United States on the whole are much fatter. Now, it was a tiny study — I think there were only 10 black women in the whole thing. In the study they found that the 10 black women did in fact burn 94 fewer calories a day than white women. So the people say, "Ah, there is your obesity." Here is what nobody bothers to tell you: That white control group, the ones who are burning 94 more calories per day than the black women, were overall, and for their height, fatter than the black women.
So what does this tell you? It says that while this 94 calories extra burn might be a little bit of a bonus, or the 94 calories might be a little bit of a drawback, it is not destiny. It is not eye color, it is not height, it is not hair color. It is a slight, very slight predisposition. It is the equivalent of three-quarters of a can of non-diet soda. It is a few minutes on a treadmill. It is walking the dog a couple of extra blocks. That’s all it is.
Q. You cite examples of how Americans are actually becoming more tolerant of the obese and less tolerant of the thin. Yet it seems there is intense disdain towards the obese — and certainly more job discrimination.
A. Fat people are to some extent discriminated against. But I could say that every time I don’t get a job, it’s because I am 5-6. Because it is genetically ingrained into us to favor attractive looking people. All other things being equal, the attractive applicant, male or female, will tend to get the job over the less attractive person. You have problems even now with the laws protecting black people, and women and stuff. If we set up laws protecting people from "lookism," that is going to be an absolute nightmare.
Q. A few months ago, a 680-pound Richmond, Calif., teenager died due to complications from obesity. She was found lying in her own excrement and surrounded by pizza boxes. Her mother is being charged with neglect. What sort of responsibility do parents have to their obese kids?
A. It’s interesting the way the fat acceptance people reacted to this case. One of them said, "It’s not a crime to have a fat child." In my mind it is a crime. Parents have different ways of influencing their kids. Kids live basically in a dictatorship while they are in their parents’ home. When a kid is really, grossly fat, that is the parent’s fault.
Q. But a lot of overweight people blame their parents for their weight problems. They say, "My mother or my father controlled what I ate to the point where every time I was let out of their grasp, I would go and eat all the junk food I could, because I knew it wasn’t allowed in the house." Don’t you think strong-arm tactics can backfire?
A. Yeah, they can. What I tell people in the book is when they get a craving they should go out and satisfy it right away. If you feel like getting a piece of cheesecake, go get it, get a small piece, eat a few bites, perhaps. Parents need to be the same way with their kids. If the kid really has a craving, take them out for ice cream, let them have a little bag of Cheetos. Just not the 16-ounce bag.
Q. Let’s talk about that little bag of Cheetos. You talk a lot about portion size and how we grossly underestimate what we eat, because we are so accustomed to large portions. So that little bag of Cheetos isn’t going to satisfy most people.
A. It’s a matter of adapting to it. The two best bites of anything — be it Cheetos or chocolate or cheesecake — are the first bite and the last bite. The Europeans realize that much more than we do. They are much more sensual about their food; where we like it in quantity, they like it in quality. Europeans come here and are aghast at how big our food is. People need to be convinced that the small bag of Cheetos can, once you get used to it, end up providing as much pleasure, if not more so, than the large bag of Cheetos. It is a matter of paying attention to each and every Cheeto.
Q. That sounds almost New Agey.
A. Look, we have a lot of trouble in this country with a notion called moderation. Nobody wants to say, look, here is an Oreo cookie. This Oreo cookie has lots of fat, lots of calories, so I better only eat one and enjoy every bite. No. Or they buy a packet of Snackwells, "fat-free" cookies and eat all 12. Since these Snackwells may each contain two-thirds the calories of one Oreo, they end up with a lot more calories, and end up fatter than ever.
Q. How do you explain the flip side to our nation’s obesity epidemic — the high incidence of anorexia and bulimia?
A. I don’t buy the anorexia thing. Anorexia is not the result of somebody going overboard dieting. It is a psychological problem with deep roots. To anyone who accuses me of encouraging anorexia by saying you need to be thinner, I would say that by telling someone their hands are filthy and they ought to wash is encouraging obsessive-compulsive disorder. I am not telling people to lose weight until you die as a skeleton.
Q. The new diet drugs, fen-phen and Redux, were all the rage, until it was found that they could cause lethal heart and lung abnormalities in some users. Do you advocate their use?
A. I talk about them in the book. As far as Redux goes, I simply panned it. There is no evidence that it is any better than anything else is. As far as fen-phen goes, it clearly works, there is no doubt about that. I did not have access to the latest studies at that time. Some of these are hyped anyway — these case studies are usually pretty worthless because they have no control. They are looking at hearts which already should be damaged because they are fat people’s hearts and they are saying, "Oh this person has a damaged heart and they use fen-phen." But the question is, did the damage come from the drug use? That said, with all the stuff coming out on fen-phen, I’m more skeptical about it than ever. I am not a doctor, but I would only recommend it for people who are so extremely fat that it outweighs any risk from the fen-phen.
Q. So, to sum up what you’re saying: Eat less, move more and don’t believe everything you read.
A. I am telling people that there is no magic, no miracles. You see these books, the 14-day diet book, the four-day miracle diet book, lose 30 pounds in 30 days. Once you have disabused yourself of the idea that there is magic — that you can take weight that you have put on over a period of 20 years and lose it in 20 days — once you have cut away the nonsense, all that is left is common sense and sensibility. Slightly reduce your calories each day and lose the weight that you gained over 20 years, but give yourself a couple of months to lose it. Don’t join a gym and work yourself like a dog only to quit the gym two weeks later. Join the gym and if an hour on an exercise bicycle bores you to tears, which it does me, do half an hour. Walk the dog a little farther. These are simple suggestions. But they are not simplistic, and unfortunately they are overridden by the massive amount of nonsense out there.