The Fat of the Land, by Michael Fumento

The Fat of the Land

Michael Fumento has an admirable willingness to write books that go against popular wisdom and political correctness. (Unfortunately, though, he seems to have an aversion to using his impressive critical thinking skills against right wing and corporate targets.) In this book, he takes on diet hucksters, fat activists, and overweight Americans themselves.

Fumento has clearly done his homework. Unlike the overwhelming majority of high-selling diet books, The Fat of the Land is heavily footnoted and based solidly on a great number of published research findings in medical and scientific journals. I find him to be a credible author and I find his medical claims to be plausible.

In spite of its heavy reliance on scholarly research, the book is written in a very readable, non-technical style. Fumento includes a lot of anecdotal autobiographical material about his own—ultimately successful—struggles to lose weight. He makes frequent use of humor along the way. (Actually, I thought his quips missed more often than not, but I appreciate the effort.)

Fumento arrives at the common sense conclusion that losing weight requires developing the self-discipline to consume fewer calories and/or to be more physically active and thus use more calories. (This is oversimplifying his findings slightly, since he does, for instance, claim that some weight-loss drugs appear to have some limited effectiveness.) The countless fad diets and such that seem to fly in the face of this and seem to have found some way around the need to eat less and exercise more fall into one of two categories: Either a) they just plain don’t work, or b) insofar as they work at all, it is precisely because in some indirect way they do indeed result in the person consuming significantly fewer calories.

One thing Fumento discovered in his research which came as a mild surprise to me is that it is a myth that differences in metabolism have a significant impact on weight. The anecdotal evidence I had observed had led me to agree with the popular notion that many people (you and I, for instance) unfairly gain weight without being gluttons, while other lucky bastards can eat whatever they want without gaining an ounce. According to Fumento, though, such differences in metabolism tend to be quite minimal and have little impact on weight.

No, with very rare exceptions, you are fat if and only if you eat like a pig and get little or no exercise. You avoid being fat if and only if you consume fewer calories and get a significant amount of exercise.

In general, Fumento’s medical conclusions—and his lambasting of the people who get filthy rich exploiting those who are ignorant of same—is convincing and valuable. On the other hand, he is, in my opinion, on shakier ground with some of his ethical, social, and political claims.

In Fumento’s opinion, a depressingly high percentage of Americans are living lifestyles that are horribly unhealthy in terms both of decreasing their life span and diminishing their quality of life. Furthermore, “fat activists” and other such misguided folks are making this problem worse. Instead of working to change the self-destructive habits of fat people, they are treating them as a victimized minority in need of boosted self-esteem that will enable them to accept and like their obese selves the way they are, and of protection against discrimination at the hands of those who are less politically enlightened. But, according to Fumento, to favor the healthy-looking person over the fat person when choosing a spouse, sex partner, even employee in some cases, is not unjust discrimination, but is an entirely natural and mostly beneficial social practice.

In short, in Fumento’s view, we do fat people no favor by telling them “There’s nothing wrong with being fat, and even if there is, it’s not your fault.” Actually, there are many things wrong with being fat, and yes, as a matter of fact, it is your fault.

I find his views to be interesting, thought-provoking, of at least some merit, and worth airing, and I enjoy his frankness, but I can’t go all the way with him here. Fat people (women even more than men) in our society are routinely insulted, gawked at, ostracized, and treated in ways ranging from mildly rude to outright cruel. Their dating market value, career market value, etc., all else being equal, tend to be low. And it seems pretty clear to me that the discriminatory way they are treated is not—neither in intent nor in results—“for their own good.”

Whether it is somehow more “natural” to discriminate against women who aren’t built like Ally McBeal than it was in ancient China to discriminate against women who hadn’t had their feet bound is both doubtful and irrelevant. Not everything that is natural in that sense is worth affirming.

In the end, we all have to make choices as to what risks to take, what benefits to forego, what costs to absorb. As a rule of thumb, the fatter you are, the more you are making lifestyle choices that are unhealthy. But you are also presumably doing things you enjoy (e.g., eating foods you like) and avoiding things you don’t enjoy (e.g., working out). On the one hand, you can relax on the sofa with another banana split and accept the various risks that that entails to your health and longevity. On the other hand, you can deny yourself the pleasures of the banana split and force yourself to go for a jog instead. Both choices have costs and both choices have benefits, and it’s up to you to decide which you prefer on balance. I believe in helping people to make more informed, autonomous choices (and The Fat of the Land is quite valuable in that regard), but I’m wary of using social pressure and punishment to shame people into making the “right” choices, as typically that turns out to be an excuse to hate and to hurt.

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