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Fat? Blame it on the economy

Last updated on: December 31, 2007 16:59 IST

An inevitable consequence of  advanced and rich economies is a fatter population, says a health economist and co-author of a new book, 'The Fattening America'.

Though obesity has established itself in western industrial societies, the author Eric Finkelstein gives example of India and China where, he says, waistlines are growing rapidly along with their economies.

"Combine that with cheap, prevalent food, and the result is bound to be weight gain. We're seeing this now all over the world," he emphasizes in an interview with Newsweek.

But he disagrees from economist perspective that people are making worse choices. "We're fatter, but that does not mean we are worse off. We could do without the low-cost food or new technology, but most Americans would prefer not to. The reason is costs of being thin, in terms of what they would have to forgo, have just gotten so high that people are saying 'I'd rather be fat' than make the increasingly difficult sacrifices necessary to be thin.

He argues Americans spend more time on their "butts" at computer, in front of television screen, in the car – than their parents and grandparents did and spend much less time in the kitchen making healthful meals or outdoors burning calories. And everywhere, they are tempted by growing array of cheap, high calorie, fat and sugar-laden treats.

The result: two-thirds of American adults are qualified as overweight or obese. But choices that Americans make are deliberate and with knowledge that overweight puts them at risk, he said.

The research suggests even with this knowledge, many people will still choose to be overweight. "We found that overweight individuals are aware that their excess weight makes them more likely to get diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. They also predicted a life expectancy (for themselves) that was several years shorter than the predictions for the normal weight group.

"It appears that they know obesity is putting their health at risk, but they also know how hard it is to eat less and engage in regular exercise," he adds.

There is a huge demand for low-cost, convenient, tasty foods, for labour saving devices that make people more productive at work and at home, and for sedentary leisure time activities, Finkelstein says.

"And suppliers are responding. The net result is that we're eating more calorie-dense food and we have lots of cool sedentary leisure time technologies, the Internet, DVDs, videogames, the list goes on that basically crowd out physical activity," he says.

Referring to the analysis that today's obese population has better cholesterol and blood pressure values than normal weight people 30 years ago, he says, the reason is because they have statins, blood pressure medication and other drugs that treat obesity-related diseases.

So rational overweight people might think that "maybe I'll live a little bit shorter and I'll have to take some dugs but I can eat whatever I want and I don't have to spend my time eating healthy foods and exercising,' Finkelstein states.

Replying to a question, he says, he has a fairly well-paying job, but it keeps him at the computer for about 50 hours a week. "The choice for me to quit my job and get one that's more active would mean a huge drop in pay. It's not worth it to me. Many people are in that situation."

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