Girth, God, and Country

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Nativists who fret that today's immigrants aren't assimilating can pull up to the buffet table, loosen their belts, and relax. The Washington Times reports that

…obesity is relatively rare in the foreign-born until they have lived in the United States—the land of drive-throughs, remote controls and double cheeseburgers—for more than 10 years.

Only 8 percent of immigrants who had lived in the United States for less than a year were obese, but that jumped to 19 percent among those who had been here for at least 15 years. That compared with 22 percent of U.S.-born residents surveyed.

The story is based on a study published in JAMA today. One of its authors concludes that chubby immigrants are just living the American Dream, with sugar on top:

"Part of the American dream and sort of life of leisure is that you also have some of the negative effects, and obesity is one of the major side effects of the success of technology and just having a life of leisure," said co-author Dr. Christina Wee of Harvard Medical School. "It's a double-edged sword."

Whole thing here. Last summer, Jacob Sullum asked whether the size of your butt is the government's business (even the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). And I suggested that the spirit of America resides almost exclusively in distended waistbands of every pair of stretch-fabric jeans from sea to shining sea.

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  1. It looks like the food police are at it again. They talk about immigrants being “fatter”, but no one is talking about health. Are these people significantly less healthy being in a country with plentiful and clean food?

    This collective guilt over prosperity is really fucking irritating.

  2. This popped up on whiny-ass NPR this morning. The best part was when they were talking about some nonprofit that gives nutritional counseling exclusively to immigants (yes, immigants. Even when it was the bears, I knew it was the immigants). Anyway, the NPR narrator said something to the effect of, “the counselors hope to educate immigrants on how to eat right and not contribute to the obesity epidemic“.

    Basically, they come from a land of less, so they’re skinny. No shit. Then they spend time in the land of more, and they fatten up. It is surely better than starving in Nairobi, I’d venture. As Mr. Nice Guy hinted at, the liberal establishment, in cooperation with various chicken-little “journalists” and “experts”, have created a culture where we are all to feel guilty for prospering. Presumably, the twits who lament over our many fast/cheap/yummy food options would rather us be starving?

    This is the land of the FREE. This culture does not make one fat; the aggregate lifestyle choices do. Nobody is forcing you to eat doritos and pizza hut, but yet, somehow, this is an “epidemic”?

    I pass McDonalds, Wendy’s, and Burger King every day on my way into work. But since this is the land of the free, I have a choice, and I choose to not eat there. I choose to sling dumbbells and olympic plates around 5 times a week, I choose to eat a carefully tailored bodybuilding diet. And my choices result in what I want: a nice physique and healthy system. But this lamentation over those who choose differently is patently absurd…and if I have to hear about this supposed obesity “epidemic” one more time, I’m gonna scream…especially since it’s been widely reported that the “400,000 obsity-related deaths/year” figure was grossly exaggerated.

  3. Yeah, what Even said.

    There might be a reason for the figure of speech “fat and happy”. Do they correlate the happiness of fat immigrants here vs. starving people in their native lands?

  4. EVAN, not Even. Sorry.

    Must…drink…more…coffee.

  5. Can obesity be the last refuge of individual choice? It is only over the last century that food went from scarcity to abundance for most humans. From millions of years of evolution we are programmed to find and eat food. But its only in recent history that we don’t have to find food, its everywhere. Instincts haven’t caught up with this change in environment.

    We have a lot of instincts that the state has already forced us to override: self-defense, fight rather than flight, dragging a mate back to a cave by her hair; could this be one more instinct we will have to supress for the “greater good?”

  6. I once saw a documentary–it may have been “The Commanding Heights”–in which someone asked an Asian man who intended to emigrate why he chose America as his destination. He replied that he wanted to live in a country where the poor people are fat.

    The fattest I ever was was the year I started making some real money–a starving student no more! The novelty of being able to buy all the food I wanted didn’t wear off for a long time. I’d still rather run 5-miles four times a week than eat less food.

    The last time I looked, we were producing food in this country at a lower cost per calorie than any other nation in the world; that must come as a shock to people who are accustomed to spending a larger portion of their income on food.

  7. Seeing as how many of our immigrants come from countries with AIDS epidemics, Malaria epidemics and Cholera epidemics, I think our “obesity epidemic” would be a selling point. I’m sure East Africa would be downright giddy to have an obesity epidemic.

  8. I wonder if this discussion is going to get beyond the earth-shattering observation that obesity is preferable to starvation.

  9. Y’know, nothing I read in Nick’s or Evan’s citations made me feel the least bit guilty, and I don’t know that any of it was supposed to. Calling obesity an “epidemic” is foolish, but overreacting to that foolishness is just as silly. Relax y’all, if a nonprofit wants to use privately raised funds (assuming that’s the case) to help immigrants adjust to their new lives, where’s the harm in that? Just because immigrants are better off fat than starving doesn’t mean a little friendly advice on the consequences of overindulging in the their new found freedom can’t make things even better, and it doesn’t mean anyone is (necessarily) trying to make anyone feel guilty. Evan, with all due respect, you should learn to save your wanting to scream for real problems.

  10. Then why don’t you start us off, joe? Where would you like to see the discussion lead?

    I agree with Evan 100%. I let myself go for years, and it wasn’t just bad eating habits (never was a junk-food junkie, for instance). Now, I’ve changed my habits around quite a bit, and have also incorporated weight lifting into my weekly rountine at least a few days per, and I’ve lost weight and toned up nicely over the last few months. People already have made these realisations, and more and more will continue to do so. As usual, the problem will eventually work itself out, as most do.

    Of course, lefty folks may claim that it’s really just a public info campaign, but if people were really only trying to educate others on the dangers of fatty foods, overeating, and not exercising, I could live with that. However, that is not what is happening…companies are being threatened with lawsuits and the government is weighing in on the issue as a “public health problem”, and you know that’s bad.

  11. Well fyodor, since there are two posts today, criticizing a private group for being concerned about obesity, and a private property owner for deciding what food will be served on their property, it appears that the Reason staff have fallen into the “they’re for it, I’m aginn it” trap again.

    It’s no longer enough to say this is a private matter. People making the wrong choice, thinking the wrong thing, about American eating habits need a little public criticism.

  12. Lowdog, how about, are there factors in American culture that encourage unhealthy nutritional and exercise habits? People’s behavior can be influenced by factors less subtle than a gun to the head; are there influences that make it harder to keep healthy?

    Ducking the issue by pointing out that people can choose to buck the system is a dodge. People can choose not to learn English, too, but let’s face it, the way our society functions makes it very difficult to do so.

    I don’t buy Ken’s assertion that the only difference is the price of food. Food prices are cheaper in North Carolina and Florida than in Massachusetts, yet we have a lower obesity rate. Hawaii, which has high food prices for obvious reasons, also has a high obesity rate. So I suspect something else is going on.

  13. And they said assimilation isn’t possible!

  14. Would the WASP Bachelor care to comment?

  15. joe

    you should see my post on the cleveland clinic to know that it’s anything but private…

    Furthermore, reason’s editors have said in the past that they don’t just support private property rights, they’d also like to see people expound the spirit of freedom, something that you wouldn’t understand.

  16. Sure there are plenty of factors in any culture that might lead to lower life expectancy.

    In America, one is the high availability and cheapness of high calorie foods like McD’s and things like beer. (I’ll even throw in the “evil” influence of all the advertisments.)

    In Ethiopia, it’s AIDS, female circumcision, etc.

    I know which things, when given a choice, most folks would go for.

    Is that ducking the issue?

  17. Apparently, “expounding the spirt of freedom” means offering these choices, and not those choices.

    Replacing a McDonald’s with a Tofu Hut takes away one set of choices, while providing another. Why, on why, must you insist that private groups offer the set of choices YOU’D prefer?

  18. Wow, the presence of greasy food isn’t as bad as female circumcision. Now we’re getting somewhere.

  19. Ok joe, for every bad influence here in the states that “makes” us fat, we probably have another to help us stay healthy. Sure, we have tonnes of fast food restaurants and whatnot, but we also have lots of fitness centres, both public and private.

    I just don’t see what problem you have with people taking responsibility for their own actions in regard to food and exercise.

  20. Maybe immigrants wouldn’t be so eager to consume deep-fried potatoes if we didn’t call them “freedom fries.”

    Finally, something that we can all agree is the fault of the Republicans! ;->

    On the bright side, the heavier they are the harder it will be for them to mount an effective Reconquista of the southwest.

  21. “I just don’t see what problem you have with people taking responsibility for their own actions in regard to food and exercise.”

    No problem at all. But we both know that circumstances can make choices easier or more difficult. Exercise, for example. Certainly, people can choose to cram in a workout at lunch or before dinner. But this imposes a cost in time and effort. Compare this to someone whose normal daily routine involves walking a few blocks to and from work, and maybe running a couple errands on foot two or three times a week. The second person can get a degree of activity just by going through his normal routine, without paying a cost in time and effort.

    Now, someone living in a single family house out in the burbs with nothing but single family housese within a three mile walk could choose to walk seven miles to and from work, but he probably won’t. Someone who lives in a differen sort of place finds this choice much easier – in fact, he might not pay any cost at all, as walking could be just as easy and efficient as driving.

    When there’s a system of incentives that makes one choice more attractive than another (outside of the direct effects of the choice itself, eg more or less physical activity), tht’s an issue in and of itself, distinct from the availability of choices. Do you really think Massachusetts has a lower obesity rate than Arkansas solely because we, in the aggregate, make better choices?

  22. The next time I see an overweight immigrant I’ll be thinking: Way to go! There’s someone doing his best to assimilate and join the great melting pot.

  23. I wonder if nativists are skinnier than the rest of the population from worrying about assimilation.
    Isn’t Patrick Buchanan a little on the pudgy side? Is he the exception?

  24. Ah-ha, now I see your angle. You’re trying to keep your job and create more for folks like you. I can live with that. And if you, as you say in the higher spread, want to spend your time and effort to convince people that central planning to maximise the number of people walking is a good idea, more power to you.

    But it could be that people in Mass have a lower obesity rate than Ark because ya’ll make better choices. I’d have to look at levels of education and such. Maybe you’re more wealthy in Mass which means more health food stores and gyms, in general.

    Once again, it there are a lot of factors, both positive and negative. That doesn’t mean that the responsibility shouldn’t be left in the hands of individuals…

  25. I wonder what the average Massachusetts obesity rate would be like if you removed from the statistics the pedestrian-friendly city of Boston. I used to teach in the Massachusetts ‘burbs, and saw plenty of super-sized people there.

  26. “You’re trying to keep your job and create more for folks like you.”

    Er, no, but that seems to be a comforting thought for you, so in the spirit of the season, I’ll give you a big “atta boy.”

    “And if you, as you say in the higher spread, want to spend your time and effort to convince people that central planning to maximise the number of people walking is a good idea, more power to you.”

    Actually, they have to pass laws and hire enforcers to keep people from building these types of neighborhoods.

    So basically, you’ve got nothing to say about whether there are factors that incentivize certain choices more than others. If two choices can both be said to exist, that’s as far as the conversation about them can develop. Got it.

    It’s becoming increasingly obvious how poorly libertarians are able to discuss factors outside of their preferred set of topics.

  27. Jennifer, cities often have a higher % of old people, who tend to be heavier, than suburbs. They also have a higher % of poor people, who also tend to be heavier. There are also racial and ethnic differences, which may or may not result entirely from income and type of neighborhood variations.

    It would be tough to do a controlled study, but I have seen studies showing that people in walkable areas get more physical activity. I don’t think it’s too much of a jump to say that more physical activity = better physical condition.

  28. Not a comforting thought, just makin’ a funny.

    I’m sure that there are lots of people more informed than myself on the subject, and I never claimed differently. I just enjoy the discussion. You are right, there are “factors that incentivize certain choices more than others.” And the discussion hasn’t ended there, I see it’s still going.

    I wonder how much climate factors in, as well. Like how does my state of AZ rank? Cuz we’ve got hard-core urban sprawl here in Phoenix, so not much incentive to walk…in fact it’s nearly impossible.

    Now see, there’s even more to discuss. 🙂

  29. What to make of the map on this page: http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/obesity/trend/maps/

    Now I understand that using BMI as a indicator of obesity is a little suspect to me, as it considers me obese, and I don’t think there’s anyone that would claim that. I’m actually in pretty damn good shape, although I still allow that I could improve.

    But according to the map linked to, it does look as though climate might have a factor (although it appears joe was wrong about Hawaii, they’re in the same percentile as Mass). Also, some of the states that have lower percentage of obese folks would be ones that you can imagine people being outdoors alot, either for recreation (like Colorado?) or work (ranching in Montana, anyone?). Others, like Alaska, are high, even though plenty of outdoor activity goes on there. Maybe the native population has a factor there? I know they have a high obesity rate here in AZ.

    Anyway, more things to think about, I suppose.

  30. So basically, you’ve got nothing to say about whether there are factors that incentivize certain choices more than others.

    It’s stating the obvious, but those factors will only create incentives for certain choices for the people whose preferences align with those factors. For people whose preferences are in opposition to those factors, they will actually be disincentives. This, of course, works in both directions, and I suspect that in the end, it’s largely a wash.

  31. “I don’t buy Ken’s assertion that the only difference is the price of food. Food prices are cheaper in North Carolina and Florida than in Massachusetts, yet we have a lower obesity rate. Hawaii, which has high food prices for obvious reasons, also has a high obesity rate. So I suspect something else is going on.”

    I was talking about immigrants joe, not people moving from Massachusetts to Florida.

    Anyway, the point was that as a percentage of the average person’s income, a strikingly smaller amount of the average American’s income goes to food than is the case for other people most anywhere else in the world. We produce food the way the Chinese produce, well, just about anything and the Japanese produce cars. That’s why the Europeans get so excited about GM food, we’re kicking their farmer’s asses and we have been for decades.

    The price of rice, last I saw, was some ten times higher per unit in Japan, Indonesia, Korea, etc. than it is here in America. This is true in most every category of food from pork bellies to wheat. Immigrants can consume much more food with much less effort when they come here. I would think that’s a big factor.

  32. If immigrants increased their consumption of calories by the amount they tend to increase their incomes by coming to the US, they’d explode.

    The fact that 12 percent of Kenyans are obese suggests that it isn’t income that’s keeping the average immigrant svelte before they reach the US, but social factors.

  33. Ah, lay off Josephus. He just wants you to know that …

    Cars are bad because if we all walked we’d be thinner. And the roads mess up the designs and the density and some other planning stuff.

    Poor people would be thinner if the evil corporations were stopped from selling bad stuff and government told them what to eat and they listened.

    If we all were thinner we could have a better socialized medicine system cause the fatsos are costing so much, what with their disease and all.

    And Josephus, lay off the Libertarians. They just want to bitch about some silly, nanny-state hand wringing and think about why it might be that our fat are the fattest. (I think it’s great that America has both the richest and the fattest poor people in the world.)

    Let the fat be fat and the thin be thin and those who wish to change sides, change sides.

  34. Observations:

    1) Who cares if immigrants get fat, in Somalia they don’t care if you are overweight.

    2) The metrics that the government uses to determine who is overwieght are all screwed up. Check out http://www.consumerfreedom.org for more information. Bodyfat% is what needs to be looked at not weight or body mass index. For example a 74 inch tall man could weigh 200lbs w/10% bodyfat or 35% bodyfat. One of them is probably unhealthy but both are considered overweight…

  35. “For people whose preferences are in opposition to those factors, they will actually be disincentives.”

    Not so sure about that, Phil. Take my example: in Neighborhood A, it’s easier to walk to the store than drive. In neighborhood B, it’s easier to drive. By your logic, someone who doesn’t like to walk woud be MORE likely to drive in Neighborhood A than in Neighborhood B.

  36. Fabius, cars and neither good nor bad. It is their use that makes them so.

    – Josephus Aquinas

  37. To merge a few threads, perhaps while we’re “transforming” the Middle East, we could design Iraqi cities in a manner that encourages obesity. The result would be heavy, slow-moving insurgents who would be easy to take down.

    Just a thought.

  38. Thoreau,

    I like the way you think. Any interest in a direct appointment as an armor officer?

    Dragoon!

  39. Bigger insurgents mean bigger, easier to hit targets.

  40. “So basically, you’ve got nothing to say about whether there are factors that incentivize certain choices more than others.”

    joe,

    If you don’t exercise and eat right you will get fat, have health problems and die young. How is that for an incentive?

    There has been nutritional education in schools for at least the past 40 years. Well meaning people like yourself remind us on a daily basis through the media that we are a bunch of lazy fat asses. If anyone hasn’t gotten the message by now they are un-reachable.

    Yes environment and circumstance can make it easier to make bad choices, but they are still choices. Which by definition means that there are alternatives. If you choose to ignore them it’s your business.

    Libertarians may be quick to dismiss external factors, but you seem quick to dismiss personal responsibility.

  41. I’m thinking the threat of health problems and/or dying young are no good as negative incentives. It’s because we know about half of these problems are caused by heredity, so the thinking is, “What the hell?”

    Perhaps joe could get a law passed banning all spectator sports?
    Making physical activity fun is what we need to be seeking here.

  42. Libertarians may be quick to dismiss external factors, but you seem quick to dismiss personal responsibility.

    Matt J wins the prize for most succinct description of what’s wrong with today’s threads on obesity.

    Well done!

  43. I’m no whiz kid when it comes to statistics–

    But wouldn’t people who have been in this country 15 years be older, on average, than those who’ve been here less than a year? Did the study control for age?

  44. Wait a minute. I read Atlas Shrugged. All the libertarians were tall, handsome and thin, while all the statists were short, fat and bald.

    So why are the statists targeting the fat?

  45. Is not, thoreau! 😉

  46. Joe, when I asked if the presence of a pedestrian city like Boston might explain whyMassachusetts obesity rates were lower than those of Arkansas, you posted the following, at 12:38:

    Jennifer, cities often have a higher % of old people, who tend to be heavier, than suburbs. They also have a higher % of poor people, who also tend to be heavier. There are also racial and ethnic differences, which may or may not result entirely from income and type of neighborhood variations.

    It would be tough to do a controlled study, but I have seen studies showing that people in walkable areas get more physical activity. I don’t think it’s too much of a jump to say that more physical activity = better physical condition.
    **************

    So your first paragraph seems to imply that Bostonians should be fatter than average because so many of them are poor and old, while your second paragraph implies that Bostonians should be skinnier than average because Boston is possible to navigate by walking.

    Does Boston or does Boston not lower the statistical rate of obese people in Massachusetts? Out by Springfield and its suburbs I’ve seen plenty of people fat enough to vindicate Arkansas in your example; Massachusetts in general may be skinnier than Arkansas, but Western Massachusetts sure as hell isn’t.

  47. Not so sure about that, Phil.

    Sure you are. None of the things that you commonly describe as subsidizing and incentivizing suburban sprawl have caused you to move to the ‘burbs, have they? For you, they’re disincentives, because they don’t align with your preferences.

    Take my example: in Neighborhood A, it’s easier to walk to the store than drive. In neighborhood B, it’s easier to drive. By your logic, someone who doesn’t like to walk woud be MORE likely to drive in Neighborhood A than in Neighborhood B.

    And in my experience, they do exactly that. I like to think I’m not crazy, and I take it as given that people avoid doing things they don’t like and try to do things they do like, even if the former is, on the surface, “easier.”

  48. Phil, I think you missed the point; they wouldn’t be MORE likely to drive in the neighborhood where driving is less convenient. They may be just as likely to drive, but not more.

    “None of the things that you commonly describe as subsidizing and incentivizing suburban sprawl have caused you to move to the ‘burbs, have they?” Incentives aren’t requirements. It is possible for people to buck trends. But that doesn’t mean the trends don’t exist.

    Jennifer,

    On the third hand, I’d say that Boston brings down Massachusetts’ obesity rates by virtue of all the college students there, who are significantly less likely to be obese than the general population, due to age and income levels. This would be true of all the other colleges in the state.

    If you take exactly controlled populations and drop one in a suburban environment and one in a walkable city, after 5 years, you’d find higher obesity rates in the burbs. But that’s not what actually happens – there are serious demographic differences between older cities and sprawl areas, making a cross-section comparison difficult.

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