HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

The Fat Age

What a tough column to pen so soon after the season of pumpkin pie, followed by Yule logs, followed by auld lang syne grog, before the Valentine chocolates! Then again, every season abounds with food. Even the Samaritans handing out dinners at soup kitchens recognize that diners may be malnourished, but are rarely unnourished.

Let’s call this the “fat age”, to distinguish it from the “jazz age,” which also portended disaster. We per capita consume a lot of calories, more than we used to; our clothing manufacturers have upped their sizes, so as not to embarrass us; our cars are growing huger. My goodness: we have a President who gulps down cheeseburgers, who scorns the exercise regimens that physicians recommend. In his mind, our President is not only a genius, but fit. Gone from the White House garden: the vegetable patch. Gone from the school lunch program, the limp requirements to up the nutritional content of the meals. On the cutting board: the “nanny state” requirements to label calorie contents. Soon the word “fat” may be taboo, replaced by a euphemistic “corpulent.”

Befitting our president, the “fat age” complements the “anti-intellectual age,” where many of us discount all those dreary facts. Climate change? Even while some of us shiver, and others cope with mega- floods, still others discount science. So too with the tax cut: forget the economists, those Cassandras who scream disaster, who point to flow charts. Who trusts them? The imbroglios of war, from Asia to the Middle East to Latin America, need not concern us: we are big, literally as well as figuratively. The poor among us should wait for our geniuses to wreak their magic. To much of the world, we Americans must seem simple-minded.

But back to fat. “Obesity cancers” have entered the lexicon.. Researchers have long pointed to obesity as a “risk factor” for a host of maladies; but the term “obesity cancer” hones in on the link. Briefly, some people will contract some cancers (breast post menopause, colon, kidney, pancreas, esophagus, endometrium) – not primarily because of their genes or their fates – but because they are fat. Obviously we can point to thin patients with these diseases, but we can point to fat ones as well. For the latter, the suggestion is strong: if they had slimmed down, they would have avoided that thrust from the Grim Reaper.

Losing weight is hard (as is chemotherapy). The lures of surgery and diet pills mark our zeal for an easy out. But the out is not easy. Even the patients who cheer surgically-spurred losses often report later weight gains.

A scion of Jared Diamond, who reported the fall of distant civilizations, might one day trace our demise to our weight. (Our military rejects more than 20% of recruits because they weigh too much.)

What to do?

The first step is attitude, not just towards our weight but toward our world. Gluttony is not a virtue. Nor is sheer excess – whether of food or wealth or braggadocio. We should relabel them as sins.

We might at the same time recognize that the “anti-intellectual” bias of ridiculing ideas that clash with our comfortable sense of the world is killing us. Climate change, tax cuts without spending cuts, war-mongering – all have consequences. As does fat.

Happily, or sadly, depending on vantage, there is a solution: wake up to consequences; and act.

Stop eating so many nutritionally-empty calories. Start moving, vigorously. Don’t laughingly accept obesity as simply a sign of the good times, and the good food. The image of an overweight police officer eating a doughnut is not accurate, nor is it funny. Whether or not our president has a high IQ, he has a high weight. He is not a role model. (Nor is his profane disparaging of the physical status of others, including foreign leaders – but that is not this column.)

Eat more fruits and vegetables, fewer processed foods. Insist on labels for processed foods that spell out the ingredients. Read those labels. Recognize that the companies hyping caloric goodies are watching their bottom lines spike as your weight spikes. Lengthen the school days to bring back gym classes. Institute after-school sports for all children. (Those sports are the norm in suburban schools.) Admittedly, some people are genetically at risk for obesity; but healthy diets will help them.

Some experts link over-eating to despair (the same despair that drives people to drugs.) For the bulk of the country that is not prospering in this newly-great America, the times can be depressing. As an antidote, get political. Campaign for causes and people you respect. Vote. Don’t nibble.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 15, 2018

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