Cause if my eyes don’t deceive me
There’s something going wrong around here
-Joe Jackson 1978
I was perusing a newspaper recently and noticed this blaring headline: AMERICA’S GROWING OBESITY PROBLEM (growing being the operative word). At first I was incredulous (not that I would ever question the veracity of a newspaper headline), what with the grocery stores being full of and Americans consuming multitudinous quantities of fat-free ice cream, low-fat milk, sugar-free candy and diet sodas; not to mention the personal trainers, fat burning diets and exercise gyms seemingly on every street corner. We eat turkey burgers, tofu, flax-seed (yuch!), wheat germ, and soy nuts for crying out loud! How can we have an issue with obesity when we are consumed (oops!) with every form of health remedy (cleansing teas??), tests for any and all diseases, and healthy lifestyles that include starving oneself near to death? On top of that, another article on the opposite page blared: ONE IN FIVE CHILDREN GOES HUNGRY (a paradox to be sure, but for now I will focus on one topic at a time).
I was ruminating on this, but came to the conclusion that I did not have “lyin’ eyes” (thank you Don Henley and Glenn Frey) and that what I saw in the malls, airports and department stores was indeed a fat America. From hog jowls, turkey necks, armpit flab, and double chins, to Buddha bellies (some men stubbornly point out that they still wear the same waist size jeans that they did twenty years ago, but fail to notice that their belt buckle no longer faces forward; unable to see that it now faces down to the earth below their feet), love handles and Bertha butts; America is just a tad bit rotund, if I may be so kind. The reason is up for debate and much hand wringing, but I have a few theories to add to the discussion.
We live in the richest country in the world and throw away more food than most countries consume. We have the ability to buy every food known to man; flown and shipped in from all points on the globe and stocked in one hundred thousand square foot grocery stores; two to a block. Television commercials and billboards present food in the most desirous displays, looking far more delicious than the actual product (I can barely drive by a Culver’s with its huge, luscious photos [probably airbrushed like the swimsuit models in Sports Illustrated only tempting a different lust] of my favorite turtle sundae; hot fudge, caramel, pecans, custard…), seducing us to eat, eat, eat, at every turn. We eat not because we are hungry, but because it’s time and because we can.
Restaurant owners, in order to increase revenue, learned long ago that it was advantageous to increase portion size in all of their offerings while proportionately raising the price (going from one pound of spaghetti per plate to two pounds presents a minimal cost increase, but allows the price for the consumer to double). Whereas the “doggie bag” used to be reserved for the family pet, it now serves as a leftover dinner for four. Who can eat a thirty-two ounce steak anyway? Never mind. Super size me? Why not?
Speaking of restaurants, have you seen the salad bars today? I hate to throw water on the party, but there’s more on that bar than salad. I’ve seen baked potatoes, chicken wings, desserts, sliced ham, cheese spread, bacon, eggs; and the toppers, fruits and nuts galore, are so numerous it almost requires another bar to house them. I overheard a conversation between two, shall we say husky, individuals recently that I will call Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Dee, sitting across the table and staring intently at the menu in front of her says to Dum, “I don’t see anything on this menu that appeals to me. Why don’t we try the salad bar? That’s healthy isn’t it?” Dum replies, “Oh yes, the salad bar has such a wide variety and it will help with our diets. We wouldn’t want to overindulge now would we?” (I said under my breath, “I couldn’t agree with you more”). At this point they couldn’t hear me as they waddled, er, walked over to the salad bar).
The two Tweedles eventually returned to their table a while later and I could hardly believe what I saw. They were each holding two plates piled high; both appearing to be in a competition to see who could heap on the most food without spilling any on the ground. The first plate, what one might call the “salad” plate, included a full head of lettuce, covered with approximately four ladles full of Thousand Island dressing (with a little bleu cheese sprinkled in). Underneath the thick layer of dressing were a variety of vegetables, cheeses, croutons, eggs, mushrooms, chicken wings, and other unidentifiable food items (I didn’t see the logic of filling the plate so full, since it was an “all you can eat” affair). Dee lost the contest, as a few vegetables fell off of her plate and onto the floor as she walked back to her table. In both of their other hands was the dessert plate; replete with pies, pastries, ice cream (candies and nut toppings adding to the boring vanilla flavor), puddings and what appeared to be a wedge of chocolate cake. I found myself staring at them while they grazed, I mean ate their meals. Having seen enough, I quickly finished my grilled salmon and steamed vegetables; not wanting to stick around for the second course.
The elimination of recess in many schools surely hasn’t helped in the race to obesity that infects our culture. I would have been devastated in grade school without recess; one of the few things in school I looked forward to and one that helped me expend excess energy in an approved fashion. Running around the playground three times a day burned up any calories that may have been consumed at breakfast and lunch; the streaks of sweat and dirt dripping down our sideburns, sweat and dirt necklaces, and rings of dirt under our arms told a story; fat was not welcome on these bodies and we were stinky. Tag, dodge ball, kick ball and even jump rope all ensured that we would receive more than the exercise we needed. To top it off; I usually threw half of my lunch in the trash in order be first on the playground and all that went with that honor.
I could add many other possible reasons for the obesity epidemic that we now face; Sam’s Club, technology, 150 television channels, video games, fast food, selective breeding, and others, but I think I finally figured out why America is fat. When all of us “baby boomers” were kids, the government of China (Mao Tse-tung specifically) made it a point to starve most of its citizens, especially the children; or so we were taught. Between 1959 and 1961 an estimated 40 million Chinese died of starvation. This information filtered down to the moms and dads in America and they used it as an object lesson for all of us who were kids at the time. “You have to eat everything on your plate (I even had to eat the slaw and beef liver on my plate). There are starving children in China” was a mantra that was pounded into our heads relentlessly. (How my eating or not eating everything on my plate affected the kids in China still confounds me to this day.)
So you see, we were taught at a young age that we had to eat everything on our plate, and as the plates and portions grew, we grew correspondingly. Why is America fat today? I think the answer is obvious; Mao Tse-tung. And like the starving children in China, we too have swollen and distended bellies; only for an entirely different reason.