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The Poor Body

Take a look at photos of your average poor American from the 1930s and now. What’s different?

The size of people. Throughout time, obesity has not been the problem it is today. And no clearer example of that can be seen than when looking at what it has historically meant to be poor. Until the advent of corn syrup and fast food and vending machines, being poor and being too skinny were synonymous. No longer.

For the first time in human history, poor people are fat. No Rubenesque beauties grace the cover of Vogue. Our supermodels and actresses are startlingly thin (The stunning Marilyn Monroe would be “full figured” by today’s standards). Thin is in. Gym memberships, chic yoga mats with designer totes, personal trainers, and expensive gourmet diets rich in brie and red wine are all glossy symbols of prestige and wealth. A voluptuous wife is no longer a status symbol for a well-to-do man; indeed, extra heft immediately implies poverty and lower class standing. Thin is rich. (It’s almost humorous, except the health implications quickly dampen that comedic irony.)

Thin is generally healthier than obese, but not necessarily. A person who is “skinny fat [1]” – looking slender but suffering internally from inflammation, heart disease, or too much body fat – is worse off than a person who follows a healthy diet [2] and gets regular exercise but happens to naturally be built a bit thicker. Still, authorities are concerned about the burgeoning rates of obese poor Americans. There are a few theories, some politically incorrect and some rather distasteful, in my opinion (guess which):

– The poor people are stupid argument: poor people are busy working or doing poor people things and don’t have access to the internet, health care, or other means of education regarding health and nutrition.

– The poor people are being kept in their place by The Man argument: junk food companies and lobbyists and the government are happy to fatten those poor people up to keep them in their place. Addicted, unhealthy, overweight people are easier to control.

– The poor people are fat because it takes lots of empty calories to get adequate nutrients argument. By far the most reasonable, in my opinion. Poor neighborhoods are notorious for being replete with junk food convenience stores and fast food joints instead of grocery stores selling fresh produce [3] or farmer’s markets proffering affordable fresh fare. Hunger is complicated, as this article [4] discusses. It’s a fascinating survey, so please be sure to read it. In short, it’s not just about getting enough calories to feel “full”. It’s also about getting enough nutrients. A jumbo candy bar with a huge soda and a bag of chips may be “filling”, but you’ll need to eat ramen noodles or a burger afterwards to get a decent amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Cheap food is what poor people can afford, but unfortunately it takes a lot more cheap food to meet minimum bodily requirements. Of course, one can eat cheaply and healthily – for example, fresh veggies and beans are quite inexpensive – which brings us back to the distasteful Poor People Are Ignorant argument.

Why are the poor so fat? And what is the solution?

Further Reading:

88 Deadly Fast Foods [5]

Fried Oreos, anyone? [6]

How did Americans not come up with this first? [7]

The New Face of Poverty is Fat [4]

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