The Obese America Annual Meeting

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

But elsewhere in this big
country, people are big, too. However, this is in the width department more
conspicuously and dramatically than in the length. Take a walk through, say,
O’Hare airport in Chicago during shorts-and-t-shirt-season, and it is difficult
to avoid the impression that you have landed there during the Obese America
Annual Meeting and Bottomless Buffet. Or walk down Thames St. in Newport, RI,
and watch tourist adolescents the size of spin dryers ambling along in their
Nike stretch clothing, double-scoop ice cream cones in hand, their earnest indolence
a testimony to their mastery of remote controls and the avoidance of all physical
movement more demanding than opening five ketchup plastics for their Super-Deal
orders of french fries. Recent autopsies of U.S. youngsters accidentally killed
revealed arteries already clogged to an extent that would generate justified
alarm among middle-aged patients already in treatment for atherosclerosis.

There is what is by now
a well-known national epidemic of obesity, especially and alarmingly among young
people. The Gross National Grossness increases steadily. This seems pathological,
and it is. Generous overweightedness clearly affects the ability to move about
and to exercise and it appears to cause feelings of depression and a host of
concrete medical glitches from high blood pressure to diabetes to pains in the
lower back. If we are to judge only from the success of diet books, it also
stimulates an endless quest for less-of-me. And a glance at a year’s run
of any of the magazines directed to women (and increasingly to men) will reveal
that each month presents the latest and best diet that will decisively turn
things around–by eating only mangoes or no pumpkin seeds or only green
vegetables steamed in imported Macedonian water. But very evidently they don’t
work, because the very next month, look, there’s another sure-fire diet.

Meanwhile it appears Americans
drink more soda pop than water, which is more or less incomprehensible, except
for the number of well-positioned cold boxes selling the sugared and caffeinated
liquid everywhere you look. Especially in schools and universities, which now
commonly engage in the vicious business of selling the exclusive rights to individual
manufacturers to fatten their students with sugar water. For example, I work
in an institution where there is a legal embargo against any soft drink not
made by Coca-Cola.

Yet the matter is more complicated
still. First of all, overweightness is frequently treated as a sign of slovenly
weakness of character, and people who suffer from their size also must endure
the slings and arrows of self-righteous folk who assume only willpower and exercise
affect size. Of course these are important, perhaps the most important, general
factors. But there are genetic differences between people that lead to metabolic
differences, and hence different rates of turning food into fat on one hand
or action on the other. People taking a variety of necessary drugs or being
subjected to a host of regimes of treatment may also gain weight, almost as
if the body is sufficiently perturbed at being treated unexpectedly and so gathers
up some spare resources, body fat, in case things turn even worse.

And weight by itself, though
obviously significant, may be less important than where it is deposited on the
body. For example, a study of 31,702 women in the Iowa Women’s Health Study
indicates that the best mortality predictor of cardiovascular disease and cancer
for example is not weight itself but the ratio of the waist measurement to the
hip. Egg-shaped women are at risk, just as it has been suspected for a long
time that big-bellied men are too.

If fat is associated with
dying, it is also associated with the beginning of sexual maturity. It was discovered
long ago by Rose Frisch of the Harvard School of Public Health that body weight
was the trigger for female sexual coming of age–of menarche, or first menstruation.
Once a certain threshold of body weight to skeletal size is reached, the body
appears to somehow sense that the female is now able to sustain a pregnancy
and so sexual cycling begins. Many very skinny women do not cycle or do so irregularly–the
body appears to rebel against the possibility of assuming another burden, of
pregnancy and breast-feeding, in addition to whatever it is that is making the
woman highly thin. Dancers and athletes, for example, are regularly irregular.

One of the noisy arguments
from the family values people is that youngsters should abstain from sexual
activity, ideally until marriage–sometime around 26 years of age on average.
Good luck. The matter is made far more complicated because obese girls are more
likely than others to reach premature puberty. A recent International Conference
on Dietetics was told that many of the features associated with the onset of
puberty were shown by weighty girls as young as eight years of age. While they
were as social and emotional beings extremely immature, their bodies–because
of weight–were now able to function as if they were grown women. And of
course, if they were seeing sexual maturity when they looked at themselves in
the mirror, others would notice it too, with whatever consequences we may imagine
for precocious and turbulent sexual encounters.

Meanwhile, back in Ally
McBeal territory, teenage girls who diet too violently become deficient in iron,
which has an evident effect on their intellectual competence. Of 164 girls studied
in London between ages 11 to 18, fully one-quarter of them showed iron levels
classified as anemia by the criteria of the World Health Organization. Evidently
most at risk were those on vegetarian diets who failed to replace necessary
iron delivered by meat. Since humans evolved as carnivores, or more accurately
omnivores who will eat anything–see the beginning of this column–this
is wholly understandable. When they were provided adequate iron, their intellectual
performance improved.

The message is clear that
any extreme or relatively bizarre or unduly plentiful or too limited diet is
likely to raise problems for a species accustomed to living as hunters and gatherers
and designed to do well on a varied diet and a fair amount of physical activity.
The best diet is of straightforward information.