What's eating us

October 08, 2006|By Richard Seldin

Recently, while on vacation at Yellowstone National Park, my wife and I made the mistake of ordering separate meals for lunch instead of sharing one portion.

We have come to understand that in most eating establishments across our spacious land, ordering separate meals means being presented with outsize quantities of food that one person, even a stylishly overweight person, could not reasonably consume. Thus, we asked our waitress to bring us children's portions. Fifteen minutes later, we stared in amazement as she transported to our table gargantuan, triple-decker BLT and tuna-fish sandwiches, the separate dinner plates loaded with potato chips, and the two "small" sodas that filled quart-size glasses to the brim.

Overeating has become a critical national issue. According to Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "If you looked at any epidemic - whether it's influenza or plague from the Middle Ages - they are not as serious as the epidemic of obesity in terms of the health impact on our country and our society." Data from the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that 30 percent of Americans 20 or older are obese - more than 60 million people - and another 35 percent are overweight.

Health officials have long maintained that weight issues lead to significantly more health problems, not to speak of the high financial cost of dealing with them. According to the CDC, being obese, or even just overweight, increases the risk of numerous serious ailments, including coronary heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, osteoarthritis and some cancers. Other studies have described a link between obesity and depression.

Despite this evidence, our march toward obese superpower status only seems to quicken. What other country in the world could offer a competitive tour, like the PGA, that consists of winning big prize money for eating the most grilled cheese sandwiches, asparagus, pulled pork, tacos, matzo balls, hot dogs or fried chicken wings?

What are the reasons for this modern-day, biblical-proportioned plague?

Professional and academic studies emphasize greater food availability at ever-lower prices as one of the primary causes.

Many studies also point to the continuous replacement of physically intensive labor by deskwork, and the decreasing levels of exercise in our choices of leisure activities.

These factors no doubt contribute significantly, but it seems to me that increased availability of food is not, in itself, the primary cause of obesity. Rather, it seems that the ubiquity of food provides a readily available anodyne for coping with widespread and profound emotional hunger. Problems in family stability, a harshly competitive society and an overly fast-paced life have often been blamed for creating a kind of hunger that medical, religious and civic institutions cannot seem to abet. These stress-related problems have led to a rampant consumerism that demands "more" of everything we can take in - and "more" now rather than later.

Because of food's connection to our survival and the people we were mostly dependent upon as young children, eating becomes a primary vehicle for satisfying a hunger that has little to do with survival or even with eating enough to live well.

The answer to reducing our obesity problem is not simple. We are all familiar with the nostrum of eating less and exercising more, but its truth has had little effect. A friend who counsels people on the gamut of weight-related and substance abuse problems told me that getting people to sustain weight loss is more difficult than having them kick a drinking or drug habit.

What else then? Certainly, a vigorous national education campaign, emphasizing the connection between emotional hunger and overeating (as well as the obvious dangers to health that overeating can cause) could be quite helpful. Some efforts have been made along these lines, but they have lacked the energy and intensity of the anti-smoking campaign and haven't lowered obesity rates.

Restraining food purchases through use of regulations and taxes might have some effect, but, like other supply-control measures, I don't think they would work very well.

What is most important is for all of us to try and come to grips with what there is in our family lives, other relationships, professional activities and social institutions that contributes to our compelling need for excess food, despite the obvious dangers. This can be a painful process, but one hopes that we as individuals and as a society can tolerate this kind of inquiry, and, by understanding obesity's deeper causes, gradually deal with it.

Richard Seldin is a writer and former Government Accountability Office attorney. His e-mail is seldinr@comcast.net.

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