girth of a nation


I can’t decide whether to call it our big, fat problem, or our big fat problem.

Having just spent the week before Christmas in Daytona, Florida, where I saw tourists vacationing from all over the country, I’m concerned that obesity is to the United States what lead water pipes and decadence were to the Romans.

If you look at the decline of the Roman Empire, it’s striking how similar many of the criteria for its eventual demise are to happenings in our own country right now. I’m not a kook — this is not a new theory. Historians differ as to the number and kind of contributing elements, but they agree on some of them. This, from About.com, sounds just a little too close for comfort:

There are adherents to single factors, but more people think a combination of such factors as Christianity, decadence, lead, monetary trouble, and military problems caused the Fall of Rome. …Even the rise of Islam is proposed as the reason for Rome’s fall…

Sound scarily familiar? Okay, we don’t use lead pipes, which the advanced Romans used for indoor plumbing, way before Christ was even around, to pump water from aquaducts into their homes for bathing, drinking and cooking. You can imagine the eventual effects continuous heavy metal consumption had on the mental and physical health of the empire’s leaders and general populace.

Probably pretty similar the effects produced by continual overconsumption of bad food.

I live in a little bit of a bubble here in Minneapolis, which is annually rated one of the top three fittest cities in the country by several media outlets (Men’s Fitness,  and Forbes, for example).  In my neighborhood I probably rate as a schlub: all I do is play tennis, run and lift weights to keep fit, whereas many of my neighbors are in constant training for marathons or triathlons — their next 10k at the very least.  I am constantly berating myself for the extra 10 pounds I believe I should lose.

But in Florida, I felt like a freaking movie star. My husband kept asking how it felt to be the thinnest person in the hotel, at the pool, on the street. Other than at Cape Canaveral where there were more foreigners than Americans, he was not exaggerating too much.

While we were there, we ate out at least once a day, initially a luxury slowly morphing into dark dread as we contemplated the indigestion and salt-induced bloating it would inevitably incur. Portion-size and ingredients at family style restaurants are truly — how do I put this delicately — hideous. If we ate the whole meal, we felt like crap afterwards and even sharing meals, which we often did, we still felt overfull.

I know many people eat like this a lot more than we do. Fast food is practically a never for us, restaurants every few weeks, frozen or pre-fab meals (more often now than ever, I hate to admit) once a week. Even so, my husband and I struggle to keep the scale needle from creeping ever-upwards.

I don’t want to seem negative, uppity or elitist. I just know how I feel when I eat food that makes me gain five pounds in four days — logy, tired, crabby and depressed.  Is this how 50 percent of our populace operates every day as they fill their stomachs and their brains with empty calories, saturated fats and salt, salt, salt?  Ugh. Feels like getting hit over the head with a lead pipe.  It’s a wonder we get anything done in this country.

And as we are learning, the associated health risks and costs of obesity are as gargantuan as our waistlines.

Part of the problem is our culture, I think. We’re not only a nation of overconsumption, with a bigger- and more-is-better mentality, but we’ve also become a nation of two camps: the ultra-fit vs. the ultra-fat.  No matter which camp you’re in, whether you aspire to be in it or are there by default, you’re bound to be unhappy, feel bad about yourself.

If you’re an “ultra-fit,” there will always be someone thinner, stronger or more buff than you.  And if exercise is fun, you’re obviously not working hard enough. It should hurt.  If you’re an “ultra-fat,” and the only alternative camp is the ultra-fit, good god, might as well give it up — it’s simply too far to go and most of us don’t have the luxury of a Jillian Michaels from “The Biggest Loser” to whip us into shape from the depths of our fat-folds. Besides, exercise hurts, right?

Perhaps we need a new movement. I offer for consideration the “ultra-moderates,” those of us in that middle-ground who should feel pretty happy about only carrying ten or so extra pounds, who mostly eat pretty well and who exercise for health and fun — not ’till it hurts.

Maybe my movement will take off and give the other two groups something attainable to aspire to.  Rise up! Eat half that restaurant meal even if you love it! Run four miles instead of 15 if you hate running that much!  All it takes is moderation.  In everything. Which I think Aristotle and his ilk called “The Golden Mean” and Buddha, the “middle way” – a middle-ground between excess and deficiency or the “extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification.”

In both philosophies moderation is seen as the only way to achieve harmony, happiness and true freedom.

When you look at us through that ancient lens, hasn’t excess in everything brought us most of our current economic and societal problems?  I think we need to look to the past in order to move forward. If not, we only condemn ourselves to repeat the failures of history. Unlike the poor, lead-addled Romans, we are fully aware of the obesity-issue numbing our minds and destroying our bodies.

Yes, unlike them, we as a nation can change it before it’s too late. Get some Aristotle and Buddha on and spread my nouveau-ancient moderation philosophy!

Just don’t go overboard.

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