The Thinker

Obesity: A Modern American Value

Obesity is becoming as American as apple pie. This should not surprise us. Have you looked at how many calories are consumed in a slice of apple pie? To use one of the more egregious but ready examples: McDonald’s Baked Apple Pie has 250 calories, including 34 grams of carbohydrates, and 11 grams of fat. And remember, the apple pie is dessert. It comes after the meal. The Big Mac has 560 calories and 30 grams of fat. Their large French fries: 520 calories and 25 grams of fat. That medium chocolate shake: 580 calories and 14 grams of fat. So there you have it: a typical fast food lunch at our most patronized fast food restaurant has 1910 calories and 80 grams of fat. If you are a woman who is 5’5″ tall, weighs 130 pounds, is 25 years old and who exercises lightly you have just consumed all but 13 of the calories you need for the day. If you are a guy, same age, six feet tall, 175 pounds you can consume 703 more calories later in the day and not gain weight. And let’s not even get into the percent of calories from fat.

To help us out the USDA has come out with a revised pyramid that is supposed to guide the average American on their dietary choices. New for 2005 is the notion that you should incorporate exercise into your daily life. In fact the new improved pyramid calls for at least thirty minutes a day of moderate or vigorous physical activity. So, if you follow their guidelines will this keep you from getting fat? Not necessarily. Buried in the fine print is this interesting statement:

About 60 minutes a day of moderate physical activity may be needed to prevent weight gain. For those who have lost weight, at least 60 to 90 minutes a day may be needed to maintain the weight loss. At the same time, calorie needs should not be exceeded. Children and teenagers should be physically active for at least 60 minutes every day, or most days.

What wonderful advice. But difficult to follow. Because the reality is that our society conspires to keep us physically inactive and obese. To me it’s a wonder we are not all Fat Alberts. Reading between the lines in this culture unless you have developed and sustained habits by eating healthy and exercising all your life, you are basically screwed. You are going to be overweight. If you succeed in taking off the pounds from your sedentary lifestyle you will still have to exercise moderately for 60-90 minutes a day to keep it off. Forever.

It’s certainly not impossible to get this amount of exercise a day, but it is impractical for most of us. It’s kind of like saying that you could spend 60-90 minutes a day fishing. Consider the typical dual income parents with two children. They are likely up before dawn getting the children ready and out the door. Then they are off in their car to work to spend another exciting day sitting at a desk, vigorously challenging their keyboard with aggressive calorie intensive finger strokes while cursing energetically at their monitors. Most likely they don’t have a health club at work so they can’t go for a mid afternoon jog. And even if they had the time, which they don’t, they have to rush home to pick up the kids before the day care center closes. Once home they then have to make a family dinner, help the children with their homework and take care of the numerous other odd chores that consume their day.

So working parent, what’s it going to be? Your family or your health? Choose one of the two because unless you can survive on a few hours sleep or have an iron will you must choose. Naturally we choose family values. And so we gain weight. And if we’re lucky we steal a couple hours on the odd day off or on the weekend for some exercise. This is family values in action in modern America. Survival of the fittest means you must survive by being unfit.

Of course we want to eat right but since we’re not exercising and our life often feels scripted we find it easier to succumb to temptation. We need something positive to happen during our days. Food is cheap, readily available and extremely convenient. We’re running late and the Wendy’s is right on the corner. So just this once (although it is the third time this week) we’ll do the drive through for dinner. A couple days a week some well meaning but evil employee will bring donuts into the office. We can’t resist. All that fat and sugar sure tastes good and it is more interesting than our boring, sedentary work. Email is easier to read with the taste of sugar in our mouths.

Why are we gaining weight? It’s because unless we are childless, work outdoors, or have a beneficent employer who doesn’t mind two hour lunches so we can get to the health club it is virtually impossible for the average willed human being to consistently make the time to get the exercise needed.

I look at my own habits and realize I still don’t get enough exercise. I bike to and from work, about three miles each way, when weather permits. I frequently climb four flights of stairs to my office in the morning. But this is only forty minutes of vigorous exercise a day. It’s not enough. I need more. I should be doing this and another half hour or so working out on the elliptical machine when I get home from work. And I should be doing vigorous exercise on the weekends too. When time and weather permit I take off on long bike rides or long walks but time doesn’t often permit. To truly get the exercise I need I should give up one of my other activities, like adjunct teaching or blogging.

If we want Americans to be fit and healthy we need is a culture that supports these choices. Instead we have just the opposite. We have employers who want us to work lots of unpaid overtime because it’s good for their bottom line. We have families that require two incomes in order to maintain the standard of living we knew growing up. We have advertising everywhere and much of it encourages us to eat exactly what we don’t need. And if the advertising were not enough it’s virtually impossible to travel down any major thoroughfare without encountering multiple fast food restaurants on both sides of the block. We can’t get affordable housing near our jobs so we end up letting our cars push us where we need to go. As compensation for the 90-minute hellish commute we sip our Caramel Chocolate Frappuccino Blended Crème coffee from the Starbucks drive through on our way to work (460 calories, 60 grams of fat).

Because only supermen have the willpower to consistently endure the new recommended USDA lifestyle we get fat. The rest of us are just human. But we feel the guilt anyway. The guilt makes us feel bad. Since we’re already doomed, why not eat something else? There seems nothing else to do but surrender to the reality and stifle our anxieties with inactivity and more food. With our bellies full of the Papa John’s pizza that we picked up because we had to work late again, all the energy we can muster in the evening is to sink into the La-Z-Boy and tune out our feelings of shame. Let’s watch Survivor and see who will get thrown off the island today.

 

One Response to “Obesity: A Modern American Value”

  1. 7:17 am on February 8 2006, littlem said:

    I’m also assuming you’re going to be subpoenaed by the major food companies and Fortune 500s any day for daring to propose something that would cut into their quarterly profits per share.

    Ev-psych “personal responsibility” rants aside, thank G*d SOMEONE gets it.

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