Obama's New Surgeon General: 'Fat with Hunger'?

David Paulin
President Obama's pick of Alabama physician Regina Benjamin as surgeon general -- a woman whose ample figure has raised eyebrows -- comes amid news reports that obesity among black Americans is at an all time high -- and is far more problematic than in other ethnic and racial groups.

How times change. In the early 1960s, socialist author Michael Harrington discussed obesity among poor Americans in his seminal book on poverty, "The Other America." Harrington, though no dietitian, explained away an odd contradiction unique to America: Why were so many poor folks fat - not skinny? It was, he wrote, because they were "fat with hunger, for that is what fat cheap foods do."

Harrington's book came on the eve of President Johnson's ill-fated "War on Poverty." Some observers credit Harrington's book with having been a "driving force" behind the epic program's initiatives that changed American's culture and helped expand its deficit -- Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, expanded Social Security benefits.
 
Today, interestingly, hardly any credible discussion of obesity does what Harrington did - positing a singular link between obesity and claim that millions of Americans are "fat with hunger" because they're able to afford only "cheap foods." Indeed, recent reports about America's obesity epidemic -- which is hitting blacks and Hispanics the hardest -- focused attention mostly on behavior and culture.

As a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported:

Here are the hard numbers: Blacks have a 51 percent greater prevalence of obesity than whites, and Hispanics have 21 percent greater obesity prevalence than whites, according to researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 
Obesity rates also vary geographically. Among blacks and whites, the highest rates of obesity are in the South and Midwest.

Among Hispanics, obesity rates were highest in the South, Midwest and West, according to the July 17 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a CDC publication.
 
"There are at least three reasons for these findings," said study author Dr. Liping Pan, a CDC epidemiologist. "The first is individual behavior." For example, blacks and Hispanics are less likely to engage in physical activity compared with whites, she said.
 
There are also differences in attitudes and cultural norms, Pan said. "For example, black and Hispanic women are more accepting of their own body size than white women," she said. "They are happy with their weight and less likely to try to lose weight."
 
The third factor is the limited access to healthy affordable food and safe places to engage in physical activity....

Presumably, neither Regina Benjamin nor many other members of the comfortable black middle-class suffer from the third (and least common) cause for the obesity epidemic: "limited access to healthy affordable food and safe places to engage in physical activity."

Perhaps it's time for Harrington's publishers to issue an updated edition of "The Other America."
President Obama's pick of Alabama physician Regina Benjamin as surgeon general -- a woman whose ample figure has raised eyebrows -- comes amid news reports that obesity among black Americans is at an all time high -- and is far more problematic than in other ethnic and racial groups.

How times change. In the early 1960s, socialist author Michael Harrington discussed obesity among poor Americans in his seminal book on poverty, "The Other America." Harrington, though no dietitian, explained away an odd contradiction unique to America: Why were so many poor folks fat - not skinny? It was, he wrote, because they were "fat with hunger, for that is what fat cheap foods do."

Harrington's book came on the eve of President Johnson's ill-fated "War on Poverty." Some observers credit Harrington's book with having been a "driving force" behind the epic program's initiatives that changed American's culture and helped expand its deficit -- Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, expanded Social Security benefits.
 
Today, interestingly, hardly any credible discussion of obesity does what Harrington did - positing a singular link between obesity and claim that millions of Americans are "fat with hunger" because they're able to afford only "cheap foods." Indeed, recent reports about America's obesity epidemic -- which is hitting blacks and Hispanics the hardest -- focused attention mostly on behavior and culture.

As a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported:

Here are the hard numbers: Blacks have a 51 percent greater prevalence of obesity than whites, and Hispanics have 21 percent greater obesity prevalence than whites, according to researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 
Obesity rates also vary geographically. Among blacks and whites, the highest rates of obesity are in the South and Midwest.

Among Hispanics, obesity rates were highest in the South, Midwest and West, according to the July 17 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a CDC publication.
 
"There are at least three reasons for these findings," said study author Dr. Liping Pan, a CDC epidemiologist. "The first is individual behavior." For example, blacks and Hispanics are less likely to engage in physical activity compared with whites, she said.
 
There are also differences in attitudes and cultural norms, Pan said. "For example, black and Hispanic women are more accepting of their own body size than white women," she said. "They are happy with their weight and less likely to try to lose weight."
 
The third factor is the limited access to healthy affordable food and safe places to engage in physical activity....

Presumably, neither Regina Benjamin nor many other members of the comfortable black middle-class suffer from the third (and least common) cause for the obesity epidemic: "limited access to healthy affordable food and safe places to engage in physical activity."

Perhaps it's time for Harrington's publishers to issue an updated edition of "The Other America."