Obesity: A New World of Possibilities

“...they eat with the greatest possible rapidity, and in total silence...”
-Fanny Trollope

“They wolfed down their food, cramming corn bread into their sloppy maws during meals that were devoured in silence, punctuated only by slurps, grunts, scraping knives, and hacking coughs. “
-Simon Schamaii

On Christmas day 1827, Fanny Trollope arrived in “The New World” from Europe, and wrote a detailed account of her travels and observations of the newly formed country and its people a mere fifty one years after its independence from England. One could argue, what Trollope witnessed was the early moments of a country doomed to an epidemic of obesity. Two words tend to stick out from her chronicles of her encounter with American cuisine and foods: “abundant” and “inferior”.

“...for excellence, abundance, and cheapness, can hardly, I should think, be surpassed in any part of the world, if I except the luxury of fruits, which are very inferior to any I have seen in Europe. There are no butchers, fishmongers, or indeed any shops for eatables, except bakeries...”iii

Is this the moment America sealed its fate, when it veered off from its European roots in some post-war adolescent spite of independence combined with an almost careless attitude towards unrestricted consumption? Ignorance of the consequences would only last for a couple centuries for this naive country and in less than ten generations, the obesity epidemic in America would be the cause of more deaths than its wars (112,000 die per yeariv), slow the country's productivity and lead to a historic precedent with The United States becoming the most densely populous of obese and overweight people in the history of the world.v Good going forefathers!

What's worse is The U.S. ignored Trollope then, and today despite our enlightenment in science and health, we appear to be continuing to neglect advice in exchange for instant gratification. I am reminded of the dystopian future of the Disney movie “WALL-E” where humans become too overweight to walk requiring levitating recliners rather than their legs for movement.

Shelby Forthright:
"I'm sure a few laps around the ship's jogging
track will get you back in shape in no time!"
Captain McCrea:
"We have a jogging track?" vi

Consumerism in America would like you to indulge the fantasy of a future where your self image is a photo-shopped model and the processed foods we eat are healthy, but in reality, we can barely recognize ourselves let alone the food we eat. Today, we generally think of our foods arriving to us partially already prepared. The companies preparing these foods do so for profit, not for health. We are, after all, a capitalist nation. Worse yet, some of us rarely even use our kitchens other than storage for snack foods or drinks. We don't even expel energy to cook our meals. We turn to fast food; and that is turning 66%vii of Americans overweight and on the path to chronic obesity.

Prior to discovering Trollope's work, I had formed a working hypothesis I labeled the “box theory”, based on my personal experiences and the differences between The U.S. and Europe. I argued that much of America's obesity epidemic, was the result to The U.S.'s lack of social skills: education, communication, and personal interaction. Trollope's quote that begins this paper suggests this isn't a recent phenomenon. Americans typically live in isolated boxes of tract homes where we eat our preprocessed boxed food from a “big-box” retail grocer. We observe the outside world (rather than participate in it) through a box called the television. When we're forced to leave, we get in a “box” with four wheels (typically not public or communal transportation), isolated once again. We go to work in our cubicles, then go to lunch-break and order our food through a drive through with a square window. The metaphor could go on and on, but tomorrow like the movie “Groundhog Day” many of us will get up and do it all over again. We avoid social contact, we avoid conversation, and we've built an infrastructure on this deviant behavior. One that lends itself to obesity. People driving around parking lots for hours on end; too lazy to park and walk. Single occupants driving cars, sparse public transportation, and absolutely no walkability in our cities. Disagree? Consider this statistic on American walkability:

People in the five most obese states make about 5.2 percent of all trips by bike or on foot, according to data published recently in a 2010 benchmarking report. In contrast, people in the five least obese states made twice as many trips -- 10.2 percent of them -- by bike or on foot.viii

We hide nutritional information on the back of foods. We have politicians like Sarah Palin who argue Americans have a “God given right” to be fat.ix If we never think to look outside the box then how can we ever see ourselves as others see us?

While both the Europeans and Americans are suffering from an obesity epidemic; metropolitan areas of Europe tend to have healthier foods, and less overweight citizens. I've voyaged to many western European nations, and found the lifestyle to be one of the major reasons for our differences in obesity. A infrastructure based on walking, with less cars, requiring social interaction on public transit and a national collective willingness to tackle issues like transportation, and health-care that bridge into their nutrition and wellness. In contrast, recently here in America, a Colorado infant named Alex was denied health-care coverage for a pre-existing condition at the age of four months old. His condition, was obesity:
“They joked that when he is ready for solid food, they will start him on Slim-Fast. “x
From nutritional labels on the front of food, to the U.K. ban on trans-fats, comparable fast-foods like Big Macs or Domino's pizza are several grams less fat than the American equivalent. (As of this writing it's 5 grams less.xi) Visit K.F.C. in Belgium and be offered the choice of tomates cerise (cherry tomatoes) as an option on their version of the “dollar menu” (1€ menu). Europe has chosen “fight over flight”, and they start it at an early age. In the U.K. after their public schools switched to nutritionally balanced foods, the students preferred the healthier meals. xii In nearby Scotland, sweets and sugared drinks are banned in all schools.

The social aspect in Europe continues to influence eating habits. Take for instances the soiree though not exclusive to French culture (found common in Italian and Spanish cultures too) it is a four to five hour gathering with friends over dinner. It has less to do with food, and more to do with conversation and social interaction. Served smaller portions in comparison to American standards, the meal could be more described as a elongated snacking session among friends over drinks. Even in name, the British pub, short for public house embodies community before consumption, while the American “bar”, was named for the counter barring theft of alcohol. While Americans dress in their Billy May's infomercial procured Snuggies™, and settle in for prime-time TV of a jaundiced doughnut loving Homer Simpson, our European counterparts are traversing their cities on foot to meet friends, and engage in life outside the “box”. Here we've chosen to ignore and shy away, even to hide in our cars, homes, and cubicles while ridiculing anyone who might suggest that: we, though a great country, should consider the American way negotiable when non-Americans succeed and we fail.

It's not like it's not obvious too. We can't even fit in our seats on airplanes or theaters. Kevin Smith, known more commonly as Silent Bob from the movie “Clerks” was removed from a Southwest flight last year due to safety regulations in regards to his weight:

'Dear @SouthwestAir, I flew out in one seat, but right after issuing me a standby ticket, Oakland Southwest attendant Suzanne (wouldn’t give last name) told me Captain Leysath deemed me a “safety risk”. Again: I’m way fat… But I’m not THERE just yet. But if I am, why wait til my bag is up, and I’m stated WITH ARM RESTS DOWN. In front of a packed plane with a bunch of folks who’d already I.d.ed me as “Silent Bob.”'
-Kevin Smith via Twitter

Then there's the recent Federal Transportation Authority recommendation to manufacturers of buses who provide public transportation to upgrade the tires, and chassis to support the new more obese Americans.

The Federal Transit Administration, based in Washington, proposed raising the assumed average weight per passenger...
...suggested it increase the average passenger weight “to an amount that more accurately reflects the changes to the average weight of Americans over the last several decades.”
Bus manufacturers, may choose to upgrade chassis, tires, wheels, brakes or suspensions to carry more weight, the transit agency said in the proposed rule. xiii

Oddly, at the same time the British are proposing smaller seats on their trains.xiv And, it gets worse: obesity is partially to blame for global warming:

We tend to think of obesity only as a public-health problem, but many of its causes overlap with those of global warming.xv

What can be done though? We're too scared to change. Too embarrassed to admit we might have got it all wrong. Just this last week a man died fused to his living room chair:

A 43-year-old morbidly obese man in Ohio died after police found him literally fused to a chair. He reportedly had not moved from the chair in two years, causing his skin became stuck to the chair's fabric over time.
The man had two roommates, one of which was his girlfriend, who fed him because he was unable to move from the chair.xvi

Change begins with our willingness to accept correction. If not as a unified country then by each individual itself. We must first admit we're wrong, and that we're apart of it. I myself am obese. The result of my own ignorance and actions, it was only when confronted with how people in other countries live their lives was I able to properly judge the value of my own decisions. With my choice to step outside the box and experience the world, the world has changed me. I've seen the reasons that enable Americans into obesity, and our attitude of entitlement preventing our change. The way we choose to see ourselves often limits who we can be.

Whether the government has made the people what they are, or whether the people have made the government what it is, to suit themselves, I know not;
-Fanny Trollope

Unlike Trollope's doubt of America's ability to change, I believe the answer lies within our individual capacity to influence one another. Whether country to country or person to person. The choices we make define who we are, they shape our past and our future, more importantly they shape us more than obesity ever could.

“Every choice that I make, changes the course I take.” -Lily Frost


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