New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert has just published “Why Are Americans Fat?“, a fun and somewhat morbid review essay of a number of recent books that tackle the national and international obesity epidemic. Here are some selections from the essay, followed by a few comments from me. (Picture: New Yorker)
The state of the matter:
“During the nineteen-eighties, the American gut, instead of expanding very gradually, had ballooned: 33.3 per cent of adults now qualified as overweight….she and her colleagues checked and rechecked the figures. There was no problem that they could identify. Finally, in 1994, they published their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In just ten years, they showed, Americans had collectively gained more than a billion pounds. “If this was about tuberculosis, it would be called an epidemic,” another researcher wrote in an editorial accompanying the report.”
Dramatic weight gains in the last thirty years:
“Men are now on average seventeen pounds heavier than they were in the late seventies, and for women that figure is even higher: nineteen pounds. The proportion of overweight children, age six to eleven, has more than doubled, while the proportion of overweight adolescents, age twelve to nineteen, has more than tripled.”
Coke instead of water=15 extra pounds per year:
“For most people, an ice cold Coca-Cola used to be a treat reserved for special occasions,” Finkelstein observes. Today, soft drinks account for about seven per cent of all the calories ingested in the United States, making them “the number one food consumed in the American diet.” If, instead of sweetened beverages, the average American drank water, Finkelstein calculates, he or she would weigh fifteen pounds less.”
Cinnabon and Starbucks breed “conditioned hypereating”:
“Kessler invents his own term—“conditioned hypereating”—to describe how people respond to these laboratory-designed concoctions. Foods like Cinnabons and Starbucks’ Strawberries & Crème Frappuccinos are, he maintains, like drugs: “Conditioned hypereating works the same way as other ‘stimulus response’ disorders in which reward is involved, such as compulsive gambling and substance abuse.” For Kessler, the analogy is not merely rhetorical: research on rats, he maintains, proves that the animals’ brains react to sweet, fatty foods the same way that addicts’ respond to cocaine.”
People foolishly depend on portion sizes to gauge how much to eat:
“The elasticity of the human appetite is the subject of Brian Wansink’s “Mindless Eating” (2006). Wansink is the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, and he has performed all sorts of experiments to test how much people will eat under varying circumstances. These have convinced him that people are—to put it politely—rather dim. They have no idea how much they want to eat or, once they have eaten, how much they’ve consumed. Instead, they rely on external cues, like portion size, to tell them when to stop. The result is that as French-fry bags get bigger, so, too, do French-fry eaters.”
Wow. That’s a lot of information to sift through and think about. Go ahead and read the whole piece, or The Fattening of America for more depressing and illuminating research. Here are my quick thoughts on the matter:
1. Obesity and fatness is a spiritual problem. To speak strongly, there is no good reason to be fat or even overweight. (Some medical conditions cause weight gain, but I’m not dealing with those, even as the above article is not.)
2. Obesity and fatness relate very closely to discipline. If you are a disciplined person and thus practice a formative spiritual duty, then you should be able to discipline your appetite.
4. Gluttony is not good. It is abhorrently evil. This in contrast to what our culture–especially marketing–tells us. Gluttony is no small thing. We should not treat it as such.
5. It makes no sense to treat your body poorly. There is no good reason to overeat and eat foolishly. No good argument can be made on this point. Eating badly and failing to exercise only brings harm.
6. It makes tremendous sense to treat your body well. Christians have a particular argument here. We steward all things the Lord gives us. Our health represents a massive stewardship area (no pun intended, I swear). If we do not steward our bodies well, we dishonor God. And we also cut short our opportunities to serve the Lord on this earth.
7. Without being grim, avoid excusing unwise behavior with jokes, cover-ups, and half-hearted arguments. This is hugely common, and helps to send many of us to an early grave. Be honest about your weight, just as you would in any area of your life. Weight/health is not cordoned off from holiness. It does not get a pass. It is as involved with your holiness as your media consumption is. Do not laugh off your gluttony or laziness. Like all sin, these things aren’t funny–and neither are unnecessary health problems.
8. Guys: eat lots of vegetables and fruit. Many guys are dumb. They eat a burger four times a week for lunch and swear off vegetables and fruit. This is colossally stupid, and it’s a key factor in many heart attacks and serious health problems. Yes, we all know people who ate horribly and lived to be 100, but we also know many who lived foolishly and died young. Vegetables and fruits are really good for you. So don’t be stupid–you’re not metro for eating a salad, you’re wise. No one is impressed with your excessive burger consumption, least of all the grandchildren who won’t get to see you!
9. Ladies: eat less snacks. What I’ve just written is way more than most people will say on this point. We’re all much too polite for our own good. Ladies, if snacks are a problem, don’t buy them. If desserts are a problem, don’t make them. Contra pop culture, you don’t need to look like a model–but neither do you need to struggle for years and years with weight.
10. Don’t treat weight in hyper-sensitive terms. Weight is a tough issue for lots of people. Work hard not to make it an issue that you’re so sensitive about that people cannot bring spiritual challenge and counsel to you. That’s a very unhealthy place to be. No area of our lives should be outside of the bounds of spiritual and theological examination and rebuke.
That’s enough for now. There are times and exceptions for principles like these (vacation, for example), and one needs to be balanced and not obsessive about body and image. But if you remember one thing from this piece, remember this: weight is a spiritual issue. The care of your body is one of the most significant stewardship opportunities given you by the Lord. In a way that many of us think little about, the way we eat speaks profoundly of the way we think of Christ.
If we think much of the lives He has given us, and much of the opportunity before us to magnify His name, and much of His fundamentally self-sacrificing nature, we can’t help but concern ourselves with our weight and health, even as people everywhere around us eat themselves into the grave.