November 09, 2003

The Fat of the Land

DEAN AND ROSEMARY ESMAY have posted some great essays (here and here), respectively on the issues of dieting and obesity. They have written some really thought-provoking stuff on those issues, and how we as a society deal with them. In fact, this issue hits so close to home for us here at The Rant that we are going to refer to ourself in the singular for this entry, from this point forward.

SOCIETY HAS NOT DONE AND DOES NOT DO a good job of dealing with obesity. This is for a variety of reasons. First, we have an unhealthy and materialist view of the ideal human form. Second, we then apply this miscast view to everyone within society, whether or not it ought to be applied towards individuals. Third, we are rather beastly to those who fall short of the ideal which we have set. There are certainly personal factors as well, but I shall deal with those in a bit. Let's look first at the issue of form -- or rather, let's have C.S. Lewis look at it:

"The age of jazz has succeeded the the age of the waltz, and we now teach men to like women whose bodies are scarcely distinguishable from those of boys. Since this is a kind of beauty even more transitory than most, we thus aggravate the female's chronic horror of growing old (with many excellent results) and render her less willing and less able to bear children. And that is not all.

We have engineered a great increase in the license which society allows to the representation of the apparent nude (not the real nude) in art, and its exhibition on the stage or the bathing beach. It is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and smore lender and more boyish than nature allows a full-grown woman to be. Yet at the same time, the modern world is taught to believe that it is being "frank" and "healthy" and getting back to nature. As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist -- making the role of the eye in sexuality more and more important, and at the same time making the demands more and more impossible. What follows you can easily forecast!"

-- The Screwtape Letters (Letter XX)

Now, Dr Lewis wrote the above bit of diabolical advice -- for that is exactly and literally what it was supposed to be -- back during the Second World War. Since then, of course, things have gotten much worse. Advances in medical technology have made plastic surgery possible, letting millions of people get around the course which nature set out for them. Advances in printing and photography have made it easy to airbrush away any flaws which could otherwise blemish a magazine's cover model. And even though such things are regularly pointed out when one of those models suffers a rare attack of guilt, the society-at-large pays no mind to their impassionated arguments: that even they don't look like their image on the cover of such-and-such a rag. And, therefore, Screwtape's dark prediction has come about with a force that not even he might have imagined.

This unachievable ideal, of course, bears down on everyone within society, whether we want to admit it or not. This is inherently unreasonable, of course; most of us cannot spend four hours a day at the gym, or subsist solely on wheat germ and mashed yeast. Furthermore, all of us are just not going to be really thin, no matter what we do. Yet the farther one is away from the ideal, the more grief one gets from others -- and the more grief they give themselves.

Mrs Esmay wrote about this, and better than I could: but it is true that we don't look at a really heavy person and say to ourselves that it might be due to factors beyond their control. I think this is because most folks don't have weight trouble -- or if they do, they don't see it any differently than how they see their own situation, for right or for wrong. Namely, that they could fix their own personal weight issues if they'd eat less and exercise more.

Now you should know that I am six-foot-four inches tall and about 235 pounds. I'm guessing that about 25 of these 35 extra pounds exist in my paunch, and this bothers me.

That said, it doesn't bother me much. Being me, and hence secure in the knowledge that I rule, I know that my wit, charm, intelligence and quiet confidence (arrogance?) will count for far more than some fitness buff's muscularity any day of the week. But still, once in a while I will look in the mirror, and I wonder why the hell I've let myself go. I think I could fix the problem if I went to the gym, and ate a lot better, and did some weight training, but life tends to get in the way of all these things. Especially in my line of work, which often requires long and irregular hours on the job. (I have, to my credit, started taking a multivitamin each day).

Still, it's not something I fret about or even think about all that much. And it just really bothers me that people are so cruel to others because of weight issues, and it really saddens me when people -- men as well as women -- beat themselves up because of it. It's a wrong formula all around. In the former case, it says something about people who are mean about that type of stuff -- it speaks to their insecurities and their fears and just the state of their soul. In the latter case, I just want in my heart for folks to see just how wonderful and beautiful they are -- that they too rule -- and focus on all the good stuff they've got going for them. Let's face it, as Andy Tobias might have put it were he not writing about finance: there are lots of overly thin people out there, but there aren't that many who can quote the classics or fix cars or make a decent tomato sauce. And while the body image will fade with time, those other things will never go out of style.

One other point: do people really find that overly thin look all that sexy? Maybe it's just me, but Gad! I just find the whole heroin-chic thing a bit disturbing.

Finally -- Dean makes some very interesting points about diet and exercise, and how those affect the seriously or morbidly obese. We ought to remind ourselves that for people with severe weight trouble, there may be some serious issues behind it that have nothing to do with how much they eat.

I have absolutely no evidence to back up what I'm going to say here -- this is just my own thinking -- but I have to think that there's something about our diet that has caused us to collectively get heavier. I don't mean in terms of how many calories we take in, but rather of what those calories consist.

I know that the food I eat is pretty carbohydrate-intensive, even though I have to avoid overdoing carbohydrates because of some medical conditions I have. Sometimes you just can't avoid the things.

I also wonder if all the refined sugar put into our food has something to do with it too. In ancient and medieval times, sugar was a rarity -- honey was about all they regularly had to sweeten things, and even that was often tough to get. Now it seems difficult to avoid the stuff.

Consider: this evening I had a healthy high-protein meal. I had two links of very lean chicken sausage (I know a fellow here in town who makes a point of cutting out all the gristle and much of the fat) and some spinach. Also I had a roll, which I only felt quasi-guilty about because it was very good and it was fresh baked, not some packaged crap. For dessert I had a cup of yogurt, which I had thought would be a healthy alternative to ice cream or chocolate. Oh, how wrong I was.

After I ate my six-ounce yogurt cup (see! I'm being good, really!) I looked at the nutritional label and about choked. Twenty-eight grams of refined sugar this stuff had in it! Second ingredient: sugar; fourth ingredient: high fructose corn syrup! It's as if I had a Snickers bar after that healthy meal. No wonder I'm in such a bad way! Even worse, I bought a bunch of these yogurt cups because they were on sale, which means I'll feel guilty about throwing them out. Dammit.

Yet looking at my own adult life, I have to think that eating all this refined sugar and all these carbohydrates -- which one of my relatives, who is as thin as a European and in far better health than I, refers to as "crap" -- has really done a number on my own personal health. And it's funny how people in other parts of the world -- like, say, Europe -- don't have the same issues with obesity that we do here in America. Who knows? Maybe there is something to it all.

So this week -- and in the coming weeks -- I am going to force myself to eat like a European. Or at least I am going to try. Wish me luck.

(The title to this entry is the same as that of Michael Fumento's book on the subject. One cannot copyright titles, of course, but I thought I should give credit where credit is due).

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at November 9, 2003 12:32 AM | TrackBack

I've been following the continuing-story over at Dean's World, and also find it very interesting.

Ben - I know that when I cut out carbohydrates - when I basically stopped eating bread as though it were a snack - weight started coming off. And not only that, but - it changed how I felt. It was like: I suddenly could feel my own metabolism working.

And also: drinking more water than I thought would even be possible has made a huge difference. And all the Europeans I know drink copious amounts of water.

Best of luck - let us know how it all goes for you this week! :)

Posted by: red at November 9, 2003 05:52 PM

I personally have switched to the lowfat fruit yogurts made with aspartame. They taste very good to me, and still provide the same health benefits and flavor.

Good you thought to look at the labels. Feel guilty only about holding on to such high carb items, knowing they wreak havoc on your body!

Love you! CJ

Posted by: cousin jannie at November 10, 2003 05:14 PM

My Yoplait custard-style yogurt (various flavors) has the same content.

But I'm just lucky I guess. I don't much worry about what I eat. My whole family is rather fit, and with my lifestyle (shooting baskets, lifting light weights every day, riding my bicycle 5 to 10 miles a day because it's my only transportation, plus the fact that I can't really afford restaurant food or even grocery store snacks), I figure I'm doing fine.

I've written before about what weight and what I call "adult sag": (CTRL-F for "sag") for one example.

Posted by: Kevin White at November 10, 2003 07:46 PM

Much of Europe is developing the same weight problems we are. We're just ahead of the curve.

I think you're on to part of the story when it comes to all the refined carbohydrates. I don't think it's the full story for everyone, but I'm positive it's a big part of the story for many people.

Posted by: Dean Esmay at November 12, 2003 04:53 AM

Europeans do NOT drink a lot more water than Americans. I say this with 2 years observation (living in Germany, France, Spain, and the Netherlands) under my belt. Trying to get tap water instead of pricey bottled water is an exercise in futility in many countries (with the notable exception of France).

The real reason Europeans are (sort-of) less fat than Americans is that they walk a lot more for transport, have fewer elevators and escalators, and here in Holland, they bike a lot. In Germany and other countries, a biking holiday across France is actually much sought after.

The amount of sugar consumed in the form of chocolate on this continent is unbelievable.

Posted by: jot at November 12, 2003 01:18 PM