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WASHINGTON DAYS: Bigger is better in the land where fat is a felonious issue

Spare a thought for Arthur Younkin, jailed this month for being too fat. Mr Younkin, a convicted cheque-forger, had been ordered by a court in Wichita, Kansas, to pay $11,000 (nearly pounds 7,000) in restitution, but said his 36-stone weight made it impossible for him to find a job and earn the money. Fine, said the judge, Mr Younkin could go on probation - on condition he lost weight.

Alas, he was sighted once too often around town indulging in doughnuts, pizza and french fries. He was weighed in the scales of justice and found wanting. Instead of slimming down, he had added 20lb. The law would have no mercy, and this time Mr Younkin was given Kansas' maximum term for violating a probation agreement, three months in jail.

His lawyers are appealing, on the grounds that weight and diet are personal matters which are not for a court to decide, and that therefore Mr Younkin's spell behind bars is "cruel and unusual punishment" in breach of the eighth amendment of the Constitution. More to the point, though, if obesity were a prison offence, America's overcrowded jails would long since have come apart at the seams.

For once the evidence of my own eyes and government statistics agree. Americans are getting fatter and fatter.A third of adults are overweight, and according to a new federal survey, 11 per cent of all children are too - more than double the proportion 25 years ago. Taking their cue from their parents, children too exercise less, spend more time in front of the TV or computers and eat too much. And who is to blame them? The hardest thing to find in this country is a modest snack.

Take the American "sandwich", not to be confused with the dainty European concoction of the same name. A sandwich here is a monument to America's love for bigness - so thick you cannot get your month around it without sending part of the contents into your lap. Beg the man behind the deli bar to go easy on the filling and he looks at you as if you were some wimpish idiot. But sandwiches have nothing on the fast food industry, which spends $36bn (pounds 22.8bn) a year on advertising ever vaster servings to an ever more corpulent population.

An item in the Washington Post last week provided some astonishing facts. Remember the curvy old bottle of Coca-Cola? It contained six and a half fluid ounces. The latest monstrosity from the 7-11 grocery chain is the Double Gulp, offering nearly 10 times as much, 64 ounces of coke, equivalent to 800 calories. The diameter of regular pizzas creeps steadily higher, now at around 12 inches. But nothing quite matches the 3lb porterhouse steaks offered by Morton's Steakhouse of Chicago. The Morton's in Washington claims to sell five to 10 a night, and everything gets eaten.

The reason for the onward march of excess is said to be the concept of "value". But instead of offering more for the same price, why not the same for less?

And the problem reaches the summit of the state. True, George Bush famously loathed broccoli, but even so was as thin as a rake. Not so the 42nd President. "We do fibres and stuff," Hillary Clinton once said in reply to a question about the family eating habits, and for formal entertaining she has replaced high calorie classical French with trendy Californian. But husband Bill, as he is the first to admit, seldom fails to warm to a pile of junk food.

So what happened to the get fit and slim craze? It was always strictly a middle- and upper-class phenomenon. Once upon a time when only the wealthy could afford a full plate, being fat meant being rich. The poor as a rule were thin. In today's US, it is the other way round. And even the stigma of obesity is fading. One poll has found that only 36 per cent of people feel that fat is unattractive. A decade ago, the figure was 55 per cent.

None of which answers Mr Younkin's problem: how to earn the money to pay off his debt. Apparently a New Jersey freak show offered him a job - but on condition he gained 200lb and signed a five-year contract. Even Mr Younkin's weakness for doughnuts didn't stretch to that.