Don’t choose to be fat

Free choice is a slippery thing. If you think you don’t have it, you don’t. And it is tempting NOT to have it – easier to blame your problems on others or on capricious fortune than make the tough choices. A good test case is obesity, a growing problem worldwide. Most fat people choose to be fat by what they do or won’t do, but it is not that simple.

The Economist runs a special report on the growing problem of obesity. We Americans are still world leaders, but the rest of the world is quickly catching up. Fat people often blame genetics. They are wrong; people today are generally fatter than their parents or grandparents. Watch the “fat guys” in old movies. People who were legendarily fat in the 1950s or 1960s would today seem normal, maybe a little “husky”.  Thnk of Jackie Gleason, one of the fattest guys on TV.  If you saw him on the street today …  Genetics can’t change that fast. Habits can and habits did. BTW – I do not advocate that everyone be in Olympic athlete shape. Maybe a very simple standard would be to be no heavier than your grandparents at a similar age or to be consistent, given different generations,  be no fatter than whichever of your ancestors was about your age in 1950.  That would be a good start for many.  Fat people were few in 1950 America.

Change in diet is the most facile explanation for the new fattiness. We eat a lot more fatty or sugary food. Well, maybe. I grew on a diet of Polish sausage, bratwurst and the now defunct Hostess cupcakes – and in those days nothing was made “lean.”  But let’s concede the point that we eat more today.  We clearly have more chances to eat and we use of them. But it seems to me that the larger change is on the other side of the equation. We still eat like farmers and workers, but we no longer work like farmers and workers. Even people who are still farming and working don’t do the kinds of physical labor of the past. Machines do the heavy work. Most of us don’t do any real physical work at all. It gets worse. Many opportunities for routine exercise are gone. In lots of office buildings, you cannot take the stairs even if you want to. Stairways are locked and alarmed. Parking is provided close to buildings. Most devices come with remote controls, so you can do all you want to do from the comfort of your lazy-boy lounger.

Maybe we could start attacking the obesity problem by making life a little less convenient. Stairs should always be available. I know it is impolite, but when I know stairs are available, I sometimes inform people waiting for the elevator that they have fixed the stairs. It might be a good idea to copy an idea from our German and Scandinavian friends. They often have a central parking area, from which you have to walk significant distances to get to shops and offices. These little things don’t seem like much, but over the course of a day they can add up. It would be a good idea to get calorie rich junk foods out of schools, but I think the war against such things is a little misplaced. Young people like to drink soda. Why not let them, but make it diet.  I drink at least two liters of Coke Zero every day.  I have been drinking Coke like that since I was seven or eight years old, so that means I have fifty years of experience.  I think it is actually good for me, but no matter what, it sure doesn’t hurt.

One thing we should NOT do is to accept obesity. There is some push to regularize it, even to make fat people a kind of protected group, a civil right. That is why I don’t like the use of the word epidemic in relation to obesity. “Epidemic” implies that the victims have no choice. It is impossible to be obese w/o the complicity of the “victim”. We can never address this problem if we take that kind of attitude. As I said up to, choice is a slippery concept.

I don’t believe that the legions of fat people can simply decide to slim down by force of will. There is a place for public policy. We can encourage Coke drinkers to switch to Coke-Zero and we can put pressure on restaurants and shops to feature more nutritious foods. Consider the history of the anti-smoking movement. It is true that localities made laws against smoking and began to ban it from more and more places. But those laws did not turn the tide. The reason it worked was the social pressure. In the span of a very short time, it became socially unacceptable to smoke in most places. Smoking went from being a casual act (people lit up w/o a second thought), to being a slightly impolite one, to being an act of defiance of norms to being almost gone in the course of around two decades. A similar rapid social change is related to drunk driving. I can still recall when drunk driving was a kind of joke and the police would cut a drunk some slack. This is nearly impossible to believe today. We have to stigmatize overeating the same way we did smoking and public drunkenness. Obesity is already one of our biggest health problems. Fat people have greater incidence of almost any malady you can think of. I knew a woman so fat that she cracked the bones in her ankles and crippled herself. Being fat is associated with heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. It is probably the biggest source of preventable suffering in the world today. We weren’t so fat a generation ago, even a decade ago. We don’t have to be so fat in the future. It is a choice.

The gordos of the world have choices. They can eat less, move more or try a combination of those things (probably the best choice). Or they can choose to remain fat, not good for them and not good for any of us.  Normal people also have choices.  In the tradition of hating the sin but loving the sinner, we should help gordo when we can, but never accept obesity as a routine or accidental.