Saturday, January 5, 2008

Finkelstein & Zuckerman's "The Fattening of America"

Eric Finkelstein, a renowned health economist who has spent much of his career studying the economics of obesity, and Laurie Zuckerman are the authors of The Fattening of America: How The Economy Makes Us Fat, If It Matters, and What To Do About It.

They applied the "Page 99 Test" to their new book and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Fattening of America is a great example of the obesity conundrum. On page 99 we discuss how obesity may be hurting our military readiness. While we might think that boot camp and rigorous physical training would make being overweight in the military nearly impossible, members of the armed forces have been gaining weight just like the rest of us. As a point of reference, today’s soldiers are, on average, 37 pounds heavier than those in the Civil War. More than 54 percent of military personnel are now overweight. In fact, over the past few years, thousands of servicemen and -women have been discharged due to their excess weight (3,000 servicemen and -women in 2003 alone).

And because the military recruits from the general population, the fact that Americans are getting heavier makes it more difficult (and more expensive) to meet recruiting targets. For men and women of prime recruiting age, 2 out of 10 men, and 4 of 10 women weigh too much to be eligible to enlist.

So the evidence suggests that obesity is weakening our armed forces. But how much of a problem is it, really? We revisit this issue on page 110. We argue that although it is true that the military is having a tough time recruiting, the cause likely has far less to do with obesity than it does with the fact that those entering the military today have a far greater likelihood of serving in combat, and perhaps dying, in an increasingly unpopular war.

And what about the extra pounds that our military personnel are carrying around? How does that impact the troops’ performance? Well, in actuality, the increasing weight among active-duty members may be no more of a problem than it is in the private sector. As with private-sector jobs, many military specialties have been mechanized to the point where carrying a few extra pounds may not decrease job performance. (Note that while military personnel are increasingly more likely to be overweight, very few fall into the obese category.) Clearly, there are some roles that require individuals to be in elite fighting shape, but there is no evidence that these individuals are the ones who are overweight.

How about those 3,000 servicemen and women that were discharged due to their weight? In reality, this figure represents only one fifth of 1 percent of the total armed forces population. Moreover, given the pressures imposed on today’s military, it is certainly possible that some of these individuals fattened up as a way to get out.

As this example points out, nothing is obvious when it comes to obesity. The Fattening of America provides a unique perspective on the causes and consequences of the obesity epidemic, and provides a roadmap for evaluating obesity interventions, including whether or not they are likely to be effective.
Learn more about The Fattening of America at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue