I came across an article in the latest issue of Esquire, titled 'Is Jamie Oliver the Biggest Loser of All?' In it, the author lays out his case for how the celebrity Brit chef gets it all wrong when it comes to his campaign to eradicate obesity in the US by promoting healthy eating. Obesity, of course, is the condition of being--according to my dictionary--"grossly fat." That's worse than being overweight, and it's the sort of thing that spurs cruel jokes. Which we here at Top Gear are guilty of (although at least we make fun of our obese selves).
According to The Journal of the American Medical Association, being obese is clinically defined as having a body mass index of 30 or higher, which is basically a weight-to-height ratio. Of course, the ideal scenario is to have more height and less weight, not the other way around. It's like the power-to-weight ratio of cars: The more horsepower and the less curb weight, the better. And as with heavy cars, obese individuals tend to be slow, inefficient and prone to malfunction.
Now, we know obesity is a huge problem in America. We associate fat, juicy burgers with the Yanks, and it's no surprise that the biggest burger chain in the world is American (McDonald's, obviously). According to the US National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), "more than one-third of US adults were obese in 2006." Specifically, the numbers were 33.3 percent for men and 35.3 percent for women. This supposedly inspired Oliver to use his TV show in the US, Food Revolution, to get the government to take a proactive stance on proper nutrition. And this is where he is mistaken, says the Esquire writer.
"His (Oliver's) crusade to improve school lunches in Britain was a triumph; it changed how an entire generation of schoolchildren eats lunch," the magazine article says. "He understood the roots of the bad food they were eating--cheap, lazy, shortsighted government administrations mired in bad practices. He's trying to transfer that approach to the United States, but anyone who has lived in America knows that the government is not the cause of American fat. Americans are. The obesity problem is social--historical, even--not political."
Interesting, but here's the telling part. The author goes on to blame America's insatiable appetite on the country's history of industrialization, which includes the mass manufacture of our beloved automobile.
"The industrial explosion of the mid-to-late 19th century that swelled the population of the country demanded huge amounts of food, and the Greatest Generation didn't create the most powerful country in the history of the world while on a diet," the writer points out. "Food was their fuel, and if they worked hard and brought home lots of bacon, why not eat it? That's where we ran into trouble. Our eating habits were formed during times of immensely productive manual labor. If you're working 12-hour shifts at the car plant, you can eat whatever you want."
In other words, Esquire thinks Americans became voracious eaters because there was a time in their history when they had to really sweat it out to earn a living (and presumably because there was a time in the automobile's history when assembling a single car took several days). Consider, for instance, that Ford made less than 2,000 units in 1903. A mere 20 years later, in 1923, Ford was already producing 1.8 million units. That's just one car company we're talking about here. You can imagine the amount of food needed to fuel the men putting together these cars. Food became not just a necessity but also a reward. Eating became a national pastime. Fancy diners sprouted everywhere. Burger joints became popular. Indeed, the first McDonald's restaurant appeared in 1940, when the average fuel consumption of an American car was 733 gallons per year, according to Bryant University's community website.
But the automotive landscape eventually evolved. The American market was penetrated by Japanese makes, particularly after the global oil crisis of the early '70s. Also, car companies began putting up manufacturing facilities outside of the US, where labor was much cheaper. And even at US assembly plants, the work force steadily became a healthy mix of races. Economic prosperity spoiled many Americans, who quickly took off their utilitarian overalls in exchange for the coat-and-tie ensemble required by white-collar jobs.
The problem is that while Americans shunned hard labor, they carried on their love affair with food, says the Esquire author. NCHS seems to support this, as it reports that "in the United States, obesity prevalence doubled among adults between 1980 and 2004."
Aside from car manufacture requiring prodigious levels of appetite, I would like to offer another argument for how the automobile ultimately contributed to obesity in America. You see, car usage enables one to get around faster and more conveniently. But it also curbs physical activity. Where Americans used to walk to a destination, they now simply sit behind the steering wheel. I just came from the US and I saw people taking cars to travel a few blocks. It's safe to say the average American family won't be able to imagine life without motorized mobility.
That's a fairly simple equation then: Office work plus enormous food intake minus physical workout equals obesity. I feel very American now.