Friday, July 11, 2008

Day 113, Obesity

I like the online magazine Slate and usually cruise over there once a day to see if they've got any interesting articles running. Well tonight this is what I saw. (Click the pic to go to the story)

With all the good things I've heard about WALL-E I was surprised by the headline, (which was of course the point) and as obesity and the environment are two things which really interest me, I dove right into the article even though I haven't seen the movie.

The logic of the article really baffles me. The author, Daniel Engber, who is usually pretty lucid, gets into his argument like this.

"Wall-E is an innovative and visually stunning film, but the "satire" it draws is simple-minded. It plays off the easy analogy between obesity and ecological catastrophe, pushing the notion that Western culture has sickened both our bodies and our planet with the same disease of affluence. According to this lazy logic, a fat body stands in for a distended culture: We gain weight and the Earth suffers. If only society could get off its big, fat ass and go on a diet!"

How is it lazy logic to see that overzealous consumerism is the cause of both the obesity rate and our current ecological situation? And his facetious sentence, "If only society could get off its big, fat ass and go on a diet!" makes perfect sense to me. A diet from fatty useless food, from fossil fuels, from overworking just to make more money to buy more crap, I'd say a diet is just what the West needs. Engber goes on:

"But the metaphor only works if you believe familiar myths about the overweight: They're weak-willed, indolent, and stupid. Sure enough, that's how Pixar depicts the future of humanity. The people in Wall-E drink "cupcakes-in-a-cup," they never exercise, and if they happen to fall off their hovering chairs, they thrash around like babies until a robot helps them up. They watch TV all day long and can barely read.

It ought to go without saying that this stereotype of the "obese lifestyle" is simply false. How fat you are has a lot more to do with your genes than with your behavior. As much as 80 percent of the variation in human body weight can be explained by differences in our DNA. (Your height is similarly heritable.) That is to say, it may not matter that much whether you eat salads or drink "cupcakes-in-a-cup," whether you bike everywhere or fly around in a Barcalounger. If you have a propensity to become obese, there's only so much that can be done about it."

This really confused me. DNA is part of the picture, but it's not the main part. There is a difference between eating salad (why is it always salad? The fittest people I know never eat salads, they eat vegetables) and eating a cupcake. There is a difference between biking everywhere and sitting in a chair all day. The difference is staring you in the face every time you go to an international airport concourse in the US. The Americans are fat, and the foreigners are not. Sorry to put it so baldly, but I've seen this with my own eyes for years now, and I've been on both sides of it.

I object to the idea that being obese is a disease that we can't prevent. Now this is where someone is thinking "easy for you to say, you're not one of those people with the fat gene." But I AM! I've always been a little heavy, and if I don't exercise and don't eat well I get fat within just a few days. I blimp out. It's in my family, it's in my genes. The author is seeming to say that if you are unlucky enough to naturally tend towards fat, you might as well have "cupcake in a cup" because you're screwed either way.

This is completely backasswards. If you have the DNA for obesity, you have more responsibility than anyone else to not eat the cupcake, to stick to a low fat diet, and to freakin' exercise. If someone has diabetes we tell them they have to be more careful than most people about the GI of their foods. If someone has heart problems we teach them how to eat vigilantly to keep their arteries clean. Why shouldn't the same be applied to people like me, who get fat faster than any of the people around us?

But the article did get me thinking. Since the PCP I have probably become less tolerant of obese people than before I started. This is because I now know exactly what it takes to lose fat and gain muscle. You just need to follow a few rules consistently, and the body takes care of itself. And I don't want to hear about your thyroid problem or obesity gene. There's no way to accrue that much mass without introducing that mass into your system through large servings of fatty food. There's just no way. (Well, technically, you could convert the energy around you into mass, but that would blow up the entire planet.) These people have eaten their way into their condition, and they can eat and exercise their way right out of it. And the truth is that it's not that hard.

It's not that hard. It's not that hard to take an hour a day to exercise your most precious possession, your body. It's not that hard to stop eating junk that only makes you feel sick and depressed when you finish it. So, yes, I do think an overweight person is weak-willed, indolent, and stupid, in a fashion. Weak-willed to not be fed up enough to finally change, indolent for, well, being indolent (indolent does mean habitually lazy, after all) and stupid to not realize that they're running their one and only body into the ground.

I can say this because I used to be one of those people, and I was all those things, and it drives me nuts when people like Engber hint that you have no choice but to be fat.

You do have a choice. And the choice is not that hard to follow through with. And you can do it.


Sean said...

Oh, god, thank you for this one. For so long I've been tired of hearing that sorry excuse of "I'm overweight/obese because it's in my genes/a thyroid problem. I've never in my life totally bought into that one and luckily now since starting the PCP I have proof that being grossly overweight like that is not some unfortunate, uncontrollable bit of DNA that' been passed down to you from your equally unfortunate parents it's due to you being a lazy sack.

I'm glad that I've never given up like that and blamed it on something that's out of my hands (which it isn't) because I'm sure I would end up feeling totally horrible about myself if I did. I'm glad that I've decided to better myself and be responsible for my most important possession instead of letting myself go into something horribly unhealthy and unattractive.

Three cheers for all of us, eh?

Anonymous said...

Bravo, bravo, bravo.

I couldn't agree more. I, too, have the "overweight gene", but I'm not letting it balloon me at all. Jessica Alba has the "overweight gene". All it takes is common sense to evade it.

Anonymous said...

The article states:

"After all, obesity is most prevalent among the poorest Americans, who almost by definition consume less than the skinny elite."

THAT IS SO DUMB! How can any half intelligent person make that statement about Americans? Poorest Americans eat the most cheap, fast foods! Also, poorer = poor education = no knowledge of how to be fit!

Dumb article!

Mike@PVL said...

Patrick, good article. I have an opposite problem - I have the scrawny gene. If I don't workout everyday, which I am lazy about, I will lose whatever muscle I've gained very quickly. It doesn't really matter what I eat.

During periods where I've eaten disgusting crap foods I hover at 145. When I eat veggies and higher quality stuff I hover at 143. My all time peak weight was 155 when I lifted three times a week and ate protean shakes twice a day for a total of 3000 calories.

What bothers me is shopping. Recently I followed you example and bought a pair of youth swim trunks. The adult sized ones would of been better as a towel if you ask me. And get this, yesterday I tried to buy a new pair of bike shorts and all they had was large and extra large. At a fitness based store. I can only hope they were sold out of regular sizes.

ANYWAY, I agree that our genes define us somewhat but if I want to get in shape I need to eat correctly for my gene-type. Which means excess calories I guess. Same as you had to cut way down.

Real quick, I wouldn't exclude this to the "west" in as if there is something in western culture (whatever that means) that causes this excess. I tend to think it is just wealth, those who can afford to over indulge do - those who can't don't. Look at China which is over indulging on the environmental side at an epic scale. Unless you're going to say that, like Japan is often called, China is now a western country. Sorry, this "east" vs "west" thing is just a pet peeve of mine.

Patrick said...

In my mind "Western" is just another word for "Modernized" and I do consider Japan a "Westernized" country and China is getting there as fast as it can as well.

But you're right, it's an imprecise and imperfect term which we need to move beyond. Thanks for pointing it out.

Anonymous said...

"But the article did get me thinking. Since the PCP I have probably become less tolerant of obese people than before I started."

So, yes, I do think an overweight person is weak-willed, indolent, and stupid, in a fashion. Weak-willed to not be fed up enough to finally change, indolent for, well, being indolent (indolent does mean habitually lazy, after all) and stupid to not realize that they're running their one and only body into the ground.

Kinda harsh/hurtful things for a buddhist to say about a group of people, isnt it?


miranda said...

To anonymous "B":

It may be unwise to glamorize Buddhists as being some sort of pure, perfect group of people who would never judge anything. Even those crazy monks who are all high and mighty still often have their trappings.

I sometimes dislike this nicey-nicey bullshit. To me, being too tolerant of something like obesity will leave us with just as many negative results as it will positive. For example, people who love to "embrace" their obesity and indulge daily in countless unhealthy things because it forms some sort of identity for them in a world they otherwise feel isolated from.

To pump kids with syrupy high self-esteem and never tell them, "Hey, you're gettin' a bit chubby, exercise more!" only hurts them! Sure, you shouldn't say, "You're a f**king loser," but I feel as though parents should be able to tell their children, if obese, that they must exercise and eat well.

Tough love gets a bad reputation because, if too tough, it can rarely produce eating disorders. But there's another side of tough love, and it is needed. Perhaps Patrick feels as though he wishes he could help these people, inform them, but this is not always possible on such a large scale!

Dara said...

First of all, everyone should check out this episode of "The Truth About Food" - Basically - few people have a fat gene, but many people don't realize how much goes in the ol' piehole.

Which brings me to my second point. Be careful of jumping on the fatty-bashing wagon. Every member of the PCP has posted something along the lines of "Wow, I didn't realize I was eating crap." or "Gee, I just can't workout today." Which could seem like stupidity or laziness. There's a veeeerry fine line between you, the fit and healthy commenter, and the lazy fat-ass.

If anything, the PCP has shown that it's very easy to slip into bad habits, even when you're aware of them. It's not a character flaw. I understand Patrick's frustration and I realize he's coming from a point of trying to be helpful. A little compassion and empathy goes a long way, is all.

miranda said...

Dara, maybe that's the reason PCP'ers are so concerned about 'fat people'... they were in the same boat once. Even if they weren't fat before, they know how it is to NOT be on the PCP.

Patrick said...

Re: Kinda harsh/hurtful things for a buddhist to say about a group of people, isnt it?

I feel huge compassion for overweight people, having been one myself. But there's nothing I can do to help them except try to lead by example.

I do think it's weak-willed to not lose the weight that's killing you. Lazy to never exercise. And stupid to fill up your body with junk. And perhaps I should have said I myself spent many years as a weak-willed, lazy, stupid person. It doesn't mean you're a bad person, just that you have some work to do in the physical department.

And part of my mission in life is to prove that yes, Buddhists do have opinions. I try to prove it every Sunday night on Zen Is Stupid.

Nate said...

Amen patrick great post.

I find it increasingly harder and harder to not have a harsh view of people who don't take care of themselves. I work at a pharnacy and see a ton of examples every day. And for everyone one that hates people who have slightly disgusted opinions of obese people let me ask you this question. Do you think it's a problem when people shoot up heroin? Probably. Why? Because they are ruining their body, adding more suffering to the world around them, and they could change that if they were willing. That's why it's so hard to ignore obesity. You are damaging your own body. To me that's very wrong.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Nate, it's incredibly amazing how frequent obese people are out in the world. I used to think it wasn't so prevalent as an "epidemic" but looking around in any crowded place and it's almost like 50% sometimes!

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