Science & Technology

Editor's Note: Battle of the Bulge


For more than a decade, I weighed about 35 pounds more than I wanted to. During the last year or so, through a combination of diet, exercise, and calorie-burning irritability due to diet and exercise, I've taken the 35 pounds off. Yet with a "body mass index" (BMI) of 25, I'm still a borderline tub of lard, at least according to government-sanctioned definitions.

Your BMI is calculated by dividing your weight in kilograms by the square of your height in meters; a BMI of 25 or more means you're overweight, and one of 30 or more means you're obese. (Sorry to be the one to tell you.) Back in the old days-before the late, controversial low-carb guru Dr. Atkins sparked what appears to be a permanent Diet Revolution-nobody talked about BMI, and I half suspect it's a Trojan horse to finally sneak the metric system into Fortress America.

According to government BMI stats, two-thirds of adult Americans are overweight. Indeed, a whopping 20 percent of us are obese. But here's the real question: Should my weight-or yours-be a public policy issue?

In our cover story, Senior Editor Jacob Sullum (who also has a BMI of 25, by the way) reports from the front lines of "The War on Fat," the latest attempt to save us from our own worst impulses (page 20). What he finds is appalling. That's not because of too many stretch marks or too many Twinkies. It's because of folks like Kelly Brownell, the Yale psychology professor best known for advocating taxes for fattening foods; the dietary puritans at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who rail against McDonald's as if it were the Church of England; and John Banzhaf, the camera-hogging trial lawyer who brags about helping to launch "successful fat lawsuits."

Forget the traditional tonics of diet and exercise that worked for me. Or minimizing the public funding of health care that makes your lunch everybody else's business. Such characters are working to fight the fat through legislation, regulation, censorship, taxes, and litigation.

Like the ongoing wars against tobacco and illegal drugs, writes Sullum, the escalating war on fat is driven by "a collectivist philosophy that says the government has a duty to protect 'public health' by discouraging behavior that might lead to disease or injury. It also reflects an anti-capitalist perspective that views people as helpless automatons manipulated [by] big corporations…The anti-fat crusaders want to manipulate us too, but for our own good."

So we won the Cold War only to declare war on cold cuts. Today's fat warriors believe, with New York University's Marion Nestle, that "diet is a political issue." If so, asks Sullum, what isn't? "The same logic suggests the government should take an interest in how much sleep you get, what kind of sex you have, and whether you floss regularly." That's an unappetizing thought, but it's the sort of thing that may soon be forced down our throats.