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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12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mary B.
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 14:34:18

    how funny you should make these observations, Molly…Rene, kiddles and I ate out several times over the holidays (probably more than we do ALL year), and I left with the same sentiments. The food was mediocre (I could have made better at home…), the salt content was enormous, as were the portions. The only solace we had was that for every huge portion we paid for, we had another serving to take home for left-overs the next day. Now I know why we don’t eat out. I’ll join that “moderate” club with you! I have 10-15 lbs extra to “love,” but I can still run a 9 or 10 minute mile, my limbs and heart still work, and my blood pressure is praised every time I go in for a check up. For that I am grateful, but it seems as the clock ticks onward, my efforts will need to increase to keep myself in that shape. Keep writing, I love your posts! Hugs, Mary B.

    Reply

  2. Teresa M
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 15:08:21

    Excellent, thought-provoking post. We travelled a lot this summer, and like you, I came to dread the next restaurant meal. And as you said, it is an odd feeling–especially for me, who could stand to lose 20 pounds–to feel like the lightweight in the crowd, but I sure did, especially in southeastern Kentucky (my oh my, do they love FRIED foods down there!).

    Reply

  3. Mom
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 16:00:28

    Great one, Moll. I am forwarding it to my nutritionist, who will love it. As a near septegenarian, I can confirm it gets harder and more time consuming to stay fit and healthy, but it is worth it, as the alternative is too awful to contemplate.
    Love, Mom

    Reply

  4. Anne-Marie
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 19:06:48

    Good post Molly. I feel that most people just don’t incorporate a daily exercise routine such as walking into their lives.
    That, in my opinion, is a much easier and less manic way to keep healthy. Not everyone has the time or interest to train for marathons, it doesn’t need to be that extreme. Just look at Europe where people walk, use public transport, buy fresh food outdoors, and eat well and in moderation. Its a way of life — otherwise exercise and “dieting” take on a new form of stress. Cut out the crap foods, walk more for simple errands instead of driving and enjoy nature. It shouldn’t have to hurt.

    Reply

  5. Amy Norton
    Jan 04, 2011 @ 20:35:38

    Molls, as always, your posts are both thought provoking and witty. Love the notion of taking a middle path toward diet and exercise at this middle point in my life. I’m inspired, and canceling my boot camp class at the gym. (Not really…) A toast to your sage advice with the modicum of wine that remains in my glass – I have always been a moderate, centrist, middle of the road kind of gal. Glad to know it’s good for my health. Cin cin! Ames

    Reply

    • mollykelash
      Jan 05, 2011 @ 08:18:53

      Fer shure drink that wine and go to boot camp – as long as it is enjoyable and causes you or no one else pain, I say go for it! 😉 I worry that by stepping into the social commentary arena, I have probably offended by sounding preachy or superior…but what is life if not a bit risky, eh?

      Reply

  6. Grace Sarber
    Jan 05, 2011 @ 09:52:29

    Molly,
    I love this! Johnny and I have often commented to each other about how disgusting Americans are—particularly when we are in Orlando (Disney World) and in Europe or other parts of the world. When abroad, one can usually spot Americans a mile away, and most often because of their weight. We have felt so complimented when Europeans or Canadians or Middle Easterners or Asians think we are European as opposed to American. I am sure you have had the same experience. Everything you said echoes our thoughts exactly. In addition, as Johnson and I have studied the Roman world–its rise and fall–this is one of the things we discussed in depth. The similarities to modern America are frightening. Thanks for the encouragement as we begin this New Year and I am facing the extra holiday “fluff.” Those extra 8 pounds or so don’t seem so daunting now, thanks to your blog. You are most right, and most articulate. Thanks!

    Reply

  7. sopranointherealworld
    Jan 05, 2011 @ 23:38:59

    Hey thanks for the comment on our Carlson travel blog 🙂 Also, I completely agree with everything you said in this entry… America’s lack of consideration for its health is truly frightening, and there seems to be a social stigma among some groups against watching what you eat and trying to stay healthy. I exercise at least 4-5 times a week (yoga and running) and eat small portions of healthy food…if I had a dollar for every time someone said “didn’t you get enough to eat??” when I didn’t finish an entire, huge plate of food. I’ve also been watching my mother-in-law struggle with fad diet after fad diet, swearing that she will never eat another cupcake again, and IMO deprivation of any kind or cutting out entire food groups is just as unhealthy as overeating. The American notion of how much we should eat, how much meat/protein we need in our diet, etc., and the focus on losing weight vs. being healthy, is totally out of whack and with our culture of extremes I worry whether there is anything that can be done about it.

    Reply

  8. gina a
    Jan 06, 2011 @ 21:06:27

    God isn’t it awful? We have the same feelings as you whenever we eat out. Now I’ve gotten to the point where no matter how tired I am when I get home, I cook-if it’s breakfast for dinner, then so be it. Homemade anything, (fried chicken, cakes, pies, eggs, bacon, scrapple-okay not scrapple) has got to be better for you than 99% of the food cooked for you in restaurants. And don’t even get me started on school cafeteria food-unhealthy, fattening and disgusting! One other thing-we’re letting our kids become more and more sedentary. I work on a program that is trying to get more kids to walk or bike to school, as my kids do every single day. In the early 70s, around 50% of children used to walk to school and the rate of childhood obesity was less than 1%. Since then, less than 13% of kids now walk to school and the childhood obesity rate is around 19%. Even in my neighborhood, where there’s an elementary school practically every 5 blocks, I can’t tell you how many parents will drive the 4 blocks to our school, and search for parking rather than take a 7 or 8 minute walk. My middle schooler walks with friends (her school is farther than our elementary school, about a 20 min walk) and has a huge backpack to carry, and my high schooler with his backpack and soccer/swim/lax gear in another bag, walks to the metro and takes the train uptown. They all whine about it sometimes, but I harp on the fact that we stay active, we stay healthy, we stay aware and this is why we live where we live.

    Reply

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