The Skinny on Being Fat

9 02 2008

By Jill Ettinger

One of the most startling realizations in John Robbins’ book, The Food Revolution, is that there are equal amounts of people in the world dying of starvation as there are from obesity. Though the two conditions might seem as far apart from one another as any two human ailments can be, they are in fact two sides of one coin: malnutrition.

Eating is an indelible human necessity. While we have evolved tremendously, adapting to new environments as the world and time changes, our need for regular intake of sustenance has not altered. Our relationship to it however, has.

In 1908, the British Pensions Act was passed (the Social Security act passed by Roosevelt here in 1935), creating what we now know as the standard retirement age of 65 – a time for rocking chairs, grandchildren perched on knees and looking back on what must have seemed like a long life. But at the turn of the century, the average life expectancy was only 50. Diseases we now treat effortlessly were often catastrophic. (Medical breakthroughs like the discovery of penicillin happened in 1928.) Back-breaking labor was more commonplace, so people worked hard and lived fast. Overall health of the American family was impressive, though. People were far more active a hundred years ago; the concept of “empty calories” was inconceivable. Those were the days when children walked uphill five miles in the snow without any shoes to and from school. You get the picture.

Time changed things and our relationship with food began to be modified accordingly, but it still resembled ancient ways more than our present condition. Choices weren’t available, like mocha frappucino soy lattes; there was just coffee or tea. Fried eggs or boiled – either was fine as long as they nourished a person. Most people weren’t too skinny or too fat, and those that were, well, most likely suffered some disorder that caused this imbalance.

Fast forward to now and it’s a much different world. For one, life expectancy is soaring. Despite our decreasing quality of food, we have an abundance of drugs to keep us going. Scientists have learned that the human body has the potential to live well over a hundred years. Sixty-five might soon be the year people get a college degree rather than retire. Boomer experts like Ken Dychtwald predict an incredibly impressive world of possibility for the aging. Even as we stand in the face of the climate crisis with its potentially catastrophic complexion for New Earth, humans still have an inherent physical opportunity to enjoy long, enriched lives.

But we’re not.

What was referred to as “adult onset” diabetes is now more commonly known as “Type II” because it is affecting our children at epidemic rates. Many point the finger at culprits like high fructose corn syrup, which entered the US food chain in mass quantities in the 1980s – the same time obesity rates began to climb. There’s also the abundance of trans fats (which are now being eliminated by many manufacturers and banned in progressive cities), processed flours and dairy, hormone-altered animal products, which in turn affect human hormones and metabolic function. Food, our necessary source for vitality, strength, acuity and overall survival has increased in variety but decreased in value. This divergence has built empires with egregious marketing budgets, creating the sanguine spokesperson – a picture of health that espouses the benefits of eating things that common sense would tell us have anything but positive long-term effects.

As the persuasive powers of advertising have inclined America to live this unsustainable lifestyle, people elsewhere around the world have little to no food. Everyone has seen the tragic photos of starving children – distended bellies barely supported by legs that bare no muscle, just skin and bone. It’s a horror, to say the least. While people starve to death in one corner of the world, Americans eat voraciously and are never quite full or healthy. The glutton dies from “diseases of affluence,” as Dr. T Colin Campbell calls them in his seminal book, The China Study. Afflictions like heart disease, stroke and diabetes are all rooted in eating too much while nourishing too little.

It’s a compulsion to be nourished that creates hunger and sharpens our senses in order to satisfy it. Whether we’ve supplied our body with enough vitamin, mineral, protein, fat, carbohydrate or fiber is another story. In most cases, we have not. So that means the body keeps eating, searching for nourishment in the Wonder Bread and Big Macs. But all it finds is empty calories that feed on the body like a parasite. Obesity is not a disease of gluttony, but one of starvation and ignorance.

Pandemic levels of obesity have hit America hard all over, but particularly in the south, in states like Texas, Alabama and Mississippi. Marketing agencies for the food giants that cause these diseases also promote diet products that are supposed to reverse them. Though pounds may miraculously melt away, the caloric restriction is not combating the real problem of malnutrition. Eventually the cycle repeats.

It’s appalling to see this news that Mississippi is considering legislation that would enlist restaurants to monitor patrons weight and yes, turn away customers considered to be “gluttons.” That would be like telling a starving woman in Cambodia she is anorexic. Shouldn’t legislation be passed that empowers the people with healthy choices? When will Sizzler be considered as dangerous as a loaded gun?

[As soon as I finished writing this, my brother randomly sent me the above video. Couldn’t ask for a better example.]

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