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Today I was listening to a radio talk show. The topic of the discussion was “Who do you blame for childhood obesity?” Listeners were calling in with all sorts of culprits: canned soda, lack of exercise, processed foods, the decline of home cooking, fast food restaurants, school lunches, and the most vituperated offender of all: the parents. Interestingly, nobody mentioned genetics.
We all know people who diet and exercise yet nevertheless struggle with their weight throughout their lives. Everybody also knows at least one person who eats with impunity or doesn’t exercise and still manages to maintain a normal weight. Let’s extend that observation to the world at large, specifically to what is known as the “French paradox.” The French, (and other European nations as well), consume notable amounts of fat, (not to mention alcohol and tobacco), and yet display significantly lower rates of obesity and heart disease than Americans. Conversely, America has been in the throes of a fanatical health craze of unprecedented magnitude for decades, and still obesity rates have remain unchanged, or possibly worsened.
I’m sure there are portly individuals whose girth is due to gluttony and/or idleness but I don’t think this explains the truly obese. The brunt of causality resides in those microscopic strands of deoxyribonucleic acid, a.k.a., DNA. There is clear evidence of the paramount role of genetics in obesity: (www.newsweek.com/2009/09/09/the-real-cause-of-obesity.html).
The question that follows of course is what is obese? Depends on who you ask. One traditional definition is being more than 20% over your ideal weight after taking into account age, sex, height and build. The National Institutes of Health defines obese as a body mass index, (BMI), of 30 or higher, (thirty pounds overweight or more). Whatever definition you employ, my contention is that biology is more involved than diet with the unequivocally obese as opposed to the “could stand to lose a few pounds” folks.
What kind of visceral reaction did you have just now when I proclaimed that obesity is largely due to genetics? Did you scoff? You’re not alone. Many people recoil at the notion that biology plays a pivotal role in body weight. Why? You’re not going to like this answer either but it’s because humans need to blame. If one’s weight is due to metabolic factors then fingers cannot be pointed. Soda cannot be maligned. Schools cannot be held accountable. And most of all, parents cannot be imputed. We WANT it to be someone’s fault. We NEED it to be someone’s fault.
Humans are not exactly the most empathic creatures. When someone doesn’t measure up to our standards we often react with condemnation. This is exemplified by the “blaming the victim” mentality. This is particularly true when anger is generated. No other emotion creates such an impetus to crucify someone or something as anger. Free-floating, undirected anger is extremely uncomfortable. It literally feels better to have someone to blame; to have a target. It allows the emotion to be discharged. Have you ever been in an irascible mood and almost wanted someone to say or do something wrong just so you can jump all over them?
There’s a very famous episode from the Seinfeld series entitled “The Rye.” George and his lunatic parents are having dinner at the home of his fiance’s parents. George’s father brings a loaf of marble rye bread for the meal. The hosts innocently forget about the bread and leave it in the kitchen during dinner. Afterward on the ride home, George’s father is livid at the oversight and believes the other couple purposely insulted him. George endeavors to explain that maybe they just simply forgot but his father will have none of it. He repeatedly yells that their actions were deliberate. In his mind they have to be. How else to justify the overwhelming anger? And how to direct it?
Let’s return to the radio talk show that introduced this article. Think about the title of the discussion: “Who do you blame for childhood obesity?” The very words beg the question that we need to blame someone for it. Why? Why do we have to blame? Why couldn’t the host merely ask what the causes of obesity are? Or how do we address the obesity epidemic in America? I have even better questions. Why do we ostracize obese individuals? Why do we ridicule them? Why do we need to make them, or their parents, feel guilty about it?
There’s something about overweight people that offends or repulses non-overweight people. I don’t know what it is in the human psyche but there’s something about obesity that engenders hostility. We make women feel disparaged for not being thin. There are innumerable “fat” jokes. There have even been cases of discrimination against obese people. And the most disgraceful shame of all, are the countless school children who have been mercilessly tormented by their peers because of their weight. Many overweight people suffer from poor self-esteem. Not because of their weight, but because of society’s reaction to them. And don’t even try to argue that it’s concern for their health. If contempt is how you express your concern, then as the saying goes, you have a funny way of showing it.
I think the preponderance of the vitriol toward obesity is inherent to the human psyche and sadly irremediable. But some of it is not. Now it’s my turn to blame. I think part of the anti-fat mentality is a product of good ole American food neurosis and flagrant ignorance about nutrition, food and science.
Our country is fat-phobic because of its psychotic obsession with health. Here I mean the fat in food and not in our bodies. However, our derangement with nutritional “fat” has spilled over onto bodily fat. Numerous foods are demonized, usually for irrational or at least partly irrational reasons. Sugar for example was long ago branded as one of the bad guys. Part of that inpugnment includes an exaggeration of its caloric dangers to the point that many directly blame sugar for obesity. Most people don’t know that sugar has the same amount of calories-per-gram as protein and less than half the calories-per-gram of fat. Doesn’t matter. Ignorance and witch hunts have put sugar square in the crosshairs. I get a particular kick out of the concrete individuals who think sugar causes diabetes but that’s another story.
One day I was having lunch with a friend who was irked about her neighbors who allow their children to drink soda. Actually she was quite flabbergasted. She specifically ranted about the calories in soda and obesity. Yet she ordered her toddler a big glass of chocolate milk. Little does she know that eight ounces of chocolate milk has over 200 calories but eight ounces of soda has only 100. And they both contain sugar. Granted, the milk has more vitamins and minerals but her focus was not on the nutrients but the calories, and the “evils” of sugar.
It doesn’t matter where calories come from. Body weight is about the total number of calories consumed vs. the number expended. If you are burning more calories than you are consuming there is no displacement of unneeded energy into fat. Conversely, if you are taking in excess calories, no matter what the source, the body will convert them into fat. Sugar, in and of itself, cannot make you any fatter than red meat or broccoli. Now in all fairness, you can pack a lot more calories into an ice cream cone than you can into a pound of green beans. But the issue still boils down to mathematics, not a specific substance. Not to mention all the countless other factors, (many biological), that affect our body weight.
In fact, the whole issue of body weight, nutrition, exercise, and all the science involved is quite daunting. I certainly don’t profess to know it all. Body weight involves a host of variables, their interaction, and some very complicated science. When an issue is very complex, there’s a tendency for people to oversimplify it. Learning about and comprehending all the intricacies is too overwhelming. Mentally, it’s far easier to reduce the issue to a few simplistic, knee-jerk, “common sense” explanations. Pooh-pooh all the egghead science. Mary is lazy and that’s why she’s a fat pig. It’s interesting how mental laziness begets a conception that overweight people are physically lazy.
Moreover, the resistance to genetic explanations for obesity and the willingness to blame things like sugar or fat, allows for yet another ugly human dynamic to emerge: the need to control. Sodas have been banned from city vending machines in San Francisco. New York has proposed a tax on sugary beverages. Countless schools across the nation have removed many “unhealthy” foods from their lunch menu. Trans fats are outlawed in certain jurisdictions. I’ve written on this issue many times and will not belabor it here. The bottom line is nobody has the right to dictate to anyone else what they should eat. What supreme arrogance that people think they have the right to foist their beliefs on others.
Lastly, there’s one more tidbit from the dark side of human nature. Blame implies penalization for wrongdoing. There have been proposals that obese individuals should pay more for their health insurance. Obviously it would be more difficult to mete out such a punishment if they are victims of biology. Society wouldn’t even think of suggesting such an action with cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, or sickle cell anemia. Those poor souls are pitied. But the obese are scorned. Thus, the causes of obesity are perceived in a manner to justify the bias and contemptuousness.
If only people could adopt a diet of erudition and sensitivity, and refrain from judging. Or maybe even ask themselves why they’re so prone to hold overweight individuals in such a negative light. But I guess that’s a fat chance.
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