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Why America’s Fat and How to Fix It

America is the fattest industrialized country on earth and obesity is our “single greatest health threat,” says Baruch College Professor Jonathan Engel in his new book Fat Nation. Engel sifts through decades of research to explain the obesity epidemic and offers evidence-based advice on keeping pounds off.

Historically, he says, food scarcity and daily physical activities — hunting, farming, factory work, housework — kept us from “indulging our natural urge to eat more and move less.”

But today we live in an “obesogenic environment.” Processed and fast food is cheap, ubiquitous and “unnaturally palatable”: sweet, salty, without bones or skin, cooked to mush. Then there are the long hours at work, time-pressed families, and more people living alone, all of which have destroyed rituals of cooking and sharing sit-down meals where food was savored instead of mindlessly gulped.

“We eat too much, all the time, every day,” Engel writes. “We snack too much on meals that are too large, made of up of ingredients that are calorie dense, at speeds far too rapid to allow a normal satiation response.” We don’t burn those calories, either, thanks to car culture, desk jobs, elevators, and labor-saving gadgets.

Obesity also correlates with poverty. “Overeating, like smoking and higher education, has become a powerful class marker,” Engel writes. 

It has genetic components, too. People who are overfed the same amount of calories gain different amounts of weight. Our bodies “have a preferred weight,” Engel says. If we eat fewer calories, metabolism may slow and appetite may increase in order to “defend” that weight.

The solution to all this, according to Engel: “Eat smaller portions, eat less frequently, and eat foods that are less fatty, sugary, starchy, and salty.” And seek out food that leads to “satiation.” A meal of “fibrous plants, whole grains, and a small amount of protein and fat” is slowly digested and leaves you feeling full. Potato chips, on the other hand — well, nobody can eat just one.

Your cellphone’s step-counter can help too. Walking “is the single best source of exercise,” according to Engel, and “the most likely path to weight control in our obesogenic world.”

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Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

Fat Nation: A History of Obesity in America
Rowman & Littlefield, 2019

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Jonathan Engel (Professor, Healthcare Policy) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools

Baruch College