Our stressed out nation

The Thinker by Rodin

Didn’t you suspect this all along?

Scientists reported yesterday that they have uncovered a biological switch by which stress can promote obesity, a discovery that could help explain the world’s growing weight problem and lead to new ways to melt flab and manipulate fat for cosmetic purposes.

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Moreover, the stressed-out junk-food eaters put on the worst kind of fat — deposited around the abdomen and laced with hormones and other chemical signals that promote illness. After three months, the animals became obese and developed the constellation of health problems that obese humans often get — high blood pressure, early diabetes, high cholesterol — an increasingly common condition known as metabolic syndrome.

I find a direct correlation between my weight and the amount of stress in my life. I bet the same is true with you. So the conclusion in this article was no surprise. When you are under stress, your body is in an abnormal state. Yet for many of us Americans, modern life is little but stress. Our employment often feels tenuous. Our marriages feel rocky. Our kids are difficult to manage. We work two or three jobs to pay the bills.

Therefore, we look for balms to relieve our stress. These are typically smoking, drinking, drugs and food. Of the four of these, the one that society frowns on the least is food. Unlike drugs, cigarettes and booze, food is both extremely convenient and inexpensive. You will not be carded for being underage and buying a box of Ding Dongs. Solutions to our stresses often involve more stress. If our marriage is under stress, to solve it we either have to endure months of painful and expensive marital therapy with high likelihood of failure or go through the trauma of divorce. If our children are grossly misbehaving, timeouts and a spanking are unlikely to solve the problem. Instead, they likely need to talk to social workers and psychiatrists. Often they will end up on antidepressants. Since their behavior affects Mom and Dad, they often end up on antidepressants too. However, since most stress is situational, treating stress by pill is no cure. At best, it offers only modest and temporary relief.

For many of us the best and cheapest therapy is a pet. Like Prozac, even the most devoted dog can only do so much. Therefore, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to buy that box of Krispy Kremes. A sugar high is easy to achieve and it feels so satisfying. Except of course, it is as successful at solving our stress as a bottle of booze. At best, it helps the stressful feelings recede for a few hours.

Maybe it is coincidence but as I travel America, I feel like I can accurately measure the stress level of a community by the average girth of its citizenry. Throughout much of the South and Midwest, Americans are noticeably more obese than elsewhere. Perhaps poverty in the South contributes toward its problem. Its culture probably contributes as well, which seems to emphasize a diet rich in empty carbohydrates. The filmmaker Michael Moore is quite obese and was raised in Flint, Michigan. Since my wife is also from Flint and we have relatives in the state, we visit Flint periodically. I note no lack of an obesity crisis in Northern Virginia where I live. Even so, when I go to Flint I feel appalled. With the auto industry in permanent decline, the city slipping more and more into stagnation with the passage of each year, it seems Flint’s biggest surplus is in obese people. The residents of Flint seem to have an unhealthy attraction to greasy spoons and donut shops.

As I noted in 2005, there are no lack of greasy spoons and donut shops in Canada either. You can hardly drive a mile without passing a Tim Horton’s donut shop, for which residents of Ontario seem to have an almost unnatural affection. (There is sound reason for their affection; we dined there twice.) I have seen Tim Hortons crowded even during off hours. Yet, at least around the Toronto area, I saw markedly fewer obese people than just a hundred miles away in Buffalo.

Last summer when we visited Paris I was struck by the absence of obese and overweight people. In America the typical person is more likely to be overweight than not. In Paris, you have to look for them. My belief is that because the French in general live less stress-filled lives than Americans do, they have less need to use food to cope with stress. With their nationalized health care system, they never have to worry about whether they can afford to see a doctor. Their law requires a minimum of five weeks of vacation per year. Their national holidays are also more plentiful than ours are. Downtime and safety from many of life’s worst shocks are built into their culture. As a result, the French seem to have institutionalized a form of living that minimizes stress. So, like the mice who were not subjected to stress in the study, I am not surprised that the French look so good. (As I noted then, I think this is partly because Parisians get more exercise than we do. They burn off plenty of calories just walking to and from mass transit. They are less likely to commute by car than we are.)

Our American values emphasize self-reliance. It is practically a religion. We see living by our wits as a competitive advantage. While it may have its benefits, I think it is clear that this form of living also has a dark side. We can see it manifested in our exploding girths. Just the comfort of knowing that we have universal health insurance may do more to combat our obesity crisis than a stack of surgeon general reports.

While I think self-reliance is a terrific virtue, I also note that Europeans with their nationalized health care systems and more socialized governments live longer and have less stress-filled lives than Americans have. You have to look hard for a Western European country with life expectancy rates comparable to the United States (Denmark and Portugal). In France, you are likely to live two years longer than in the United States, despite the fact that most of the French smoke. In Germany, one year longer. In Spain, two years longer. In Switzerland, two and a half years longer. In Canada, with its socialized medicine and rampant numbers of frequently patronized Tim Horton’s donut shops, Canadians live nearly two years and a half years longer than we do.

The common denominator in these countries is that they have institutionalized methods that reduce unnecessary stress on its population. Living by your wits, which is what humans did for most of their existence, reduces lifespan.

For a country that claims to value life, perhaps we can demonstrate it by inculcating a culture that supports it. Perhaps it is time to change our values.

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