Thursday, November 26, 2009

Mapping the American waistline

You might have missed it a week or so ago, probably busy with the mental checklist of what to buy for today’s Thanksgiving dinner. The Huffington Post featured it recently: a world map with the continents misshapen and swollen in an array of colors, a map that tells a story of the modern world without a word.


The United Nations World Food Programme compiled and produced the map, a graphic illustration of per-capita calorie consumption on a nation-by-nation basis. For some reason, the so-called fat map (created in 2006) wasn’t released, apparently — before earlier this month, anyway.

Dovetailing with the United Nations food summit in Rome on Nov. 16, Princess Haya Bint al Hussein, UN Messenger of Peace and a former Goodwill Ambassador for the World Food Program, wrote a passionate piece in HuffPost on hunger, food losses and overconsumption — an essay illustrated with the fat map.

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Even accounting for the fact that the map is at least three years old, its mute conclusion is inescapable: there’s an imbalance in the world’s caloric consumption, one that’s especially concerning because in this country, there’s both a surplus of food (the United States is one of the more swollen continents on the fat map) and a consumption of the wrong food.


With our tendency to overeat in America, often with fast food; an aversion to physical exercise; a culture that celebrates size and excess; and demanding work schedules that help make nutrition a catch-as-catch-can affair, there’s a kind of malnourishment amid plenty, a full-bellied starvation.

“American society has become 'obesogenic,' characterized by environments that promote increased food intake, nonhealthful foods, and physical inactivity,” the federal Centers for Disease Control says at its Web site.

The CDC recently released a map with its own revelations, one that shows the prevalence of obesity on a county-by-county basis, mostly on an apparently relentless march through the southern states.

The princess, writing about the United States, observes:
”We pay dearly for this overconsumption. Recent calculations set obesity-related health spending just in the United States at $150-$200 billion -- more than all foreign aid worldwide. The cost of extra medical care for the obese runs as high as $1400 per person annually.

“Food losses are another reflection of our embrace of excess. Each year … U.S. households lose or discard 14 percent of their food.”

The World Food Programme has done us a brittle sort of favor by showing us, cartographically, what we’ve already known, and what those of us in the United States will celebrate today: we remain the masters of conspicuous consumption. To recognize that, the only maps we really need are the ones we know intimately, the cartography of those personal equators we call our waistlines.

Image credits: Fat map: World Food Programme via The Huffington Post. Obesity map: Centers for Disease Control. Thanksgiving dinner: Alcinoe (public domain, via Wikipedia)

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