Greg Critser knows America has a weight problem – and not just a freshman fifteen/holiday bulge dilemma. In his new book “Fat Land,” Critser investigates what he sees as a Jacuzzi chock-full of peanut oil fiasco, the health of our nation.

“Fat Land” does not argue that Americans eat too much fat, as the title might suggest, but shows how and why the combination of eating too many Value Meals and watching four hours of television every day has made us the second fattest people in the world (after South Sea Islanders).

Critser examines obesity and the quest to fight it from several angles. He considers getting healthy “a rite in itself, replete with its own social institutions (health clubs), tonics (Meridia), taboos (Krispy Kreme), and aspiration totems (Levi’s 501 regular cuts).”

“Fat Land” not only looks at the problem of obesity in America, it suggests many solutions – some more controversial than others. Of course, most of these solutions require money, which usually requires higher taxes, which usually means people are not interested. Critser suggests training school cafeteria staffs to make fruits and vegetables more appealing to kids, creating after-school “health clubs” which would run similar to latchkey programs, and expanding Americorps (a program that sends college graduates to teach in inner-city schools for two years) to target physical education and physical activity training. He also mentions (but does not advocate) some of the more “radical” solutions to obesity, like the “fat tax,” a proposal calling for small taxes on unhealthy foods.

The health of the American people is a complex scientific and political issue which Critser, interestingly, chose to navigate through in story format. His chapters (“Who Let The Calories In,” “Who Got The Calories Into Our Bellies”) are each miniature timelines that work their way into the bigger timeline of the book as a whole. The story-like format makes reading the book easy, but at the expense of simplifying some of the issues at hand. The first chapter, “Where The Calories Came From,” answers the question by telling the story of the development of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in Japan in 1971. Perhaps Critser wanted to start his book with a quick and specific example of how Americans became so fat, but doing so made HFCS a shorthand scapegoat for all high-calorie foods.

“Fat Land”‘s inner-jacket claims “No one else writing on obesity in America takes as hard a line.” If Critser is so hard-lined, why doesn’t he go ahead and say what we are waiting to hear him say, that obesity is public enemy number one? Maybe because Critser does not feel this way; probably because he would lose the majority of his audience, who see obesity as a big problem in a world full of bigger ones. “Fat Land” is not a wake up call; it is a push in the right direction, which is why reading it is a pleasure and not a guilt-trip or chore.

Rating: 3 1/2 stars.

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