Living Large

Prior to the dynasty of Bush the Younger, my chief embarrassment about being an American abroad wasn’t that we were a nation of belligerent, imperialist, arrogant bullies. It was that we were fatties. Among the French and Finnish, Dutch and Danish, American tourists were easy to identify, whether or not they wore fanny packs. The Americans, candid locals confessed, were usually the ones with their belly hanging over their waistband and flabby flaps of flab flapping on the back of their arms.

“Why are Americans so fat?” I would be asked. “Does everyone there eat too much?”

The short answer was (and is): yes.

It wasn’t until much later, after many trips to countries that organized their affairs differently than we do in America, that I recognized the direct connection between our cultural imperative to over-consume and our position in the world as Fatty-in-Chief. When everyone is constantly telling you to acquire more, to get more, to spend more, to have a life that is generally more than the sub-optimal one you presently have, eating more (and more) feels not only natural but necessary.

Plus, the Extra Value meal, with two of everything and an extra-large sugar water, only costs $5.

The consequences? What consequences? Who has time to think about stuff like personal health and the environment and other abstract malarkey when so much of our energy and concentration has already been applied to getting and keeping that sweet new Lexus or the upgraded iPhone or the complete Season Two of “The Good Wife”?

Unfortunately, nature isn’t much interested in our distractions. The human body hasn’t evolved to a point – or condition – where carrying around an extra thirty, or fifty, or 100 pounds is a cardio-vascular advantage. Our fatness is no longer a shameful symbol of our gluttony. It’s a death wish.

Actuaries will tell you about lost productivity and higher insurance premiums and the catastrophic net economic loss that our national obesity causes. $300 billion a year, they say. And when you extrapolate the numbers into the future, it’s even worse. The American Journal of Preventitive Medicine claims that more than two-out-of-five (42%) Americans will be “obese” by 2030. “Severely obese” is considered more than 100 pounds over ideal weight; eighty extra lbs. is just, like, normal obese. By almost any measure, save for comparing ourselves to Samoans, we’re a bunch of grossly overfed, under-exercised piggies.

Our cute little piglets, weaned on high fructose corn syrup and sodium, will likely outpace us. Nearly a third of our beloved offspring are already considered “overweight” or “obese” by the accommodating standards set by our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This makes them nice and plump, the way we like our piglets. The butcher and cardiologist, no doubt, will also find them quite appealing. But the medical costs associated with fat-related illnesses, according to those killjoy actuaries, is going to rise to more than $500 billion annually.

National healthcare, anyone?

Society, meaning every single one of us, bears the burden of bad choices. The healthy, disciplined, conscious folks pay for the diabetes, heart disease, and cancers of the gluttonous unconscious. We would seem to have a national emergency on our hands that requires drastic, corrective action.

But Americans don’t like anyone – not least a damn government – telling them what they can put in their own damn mouth. And if you’ve forgotten this key fact, Kellog’s, Nestle, and MacDonald’s will be glad to remind you. Besides, attempting to legislate or tax our way out of fatness is too much to ask of a republic in which it’s legal to sell the citizenry cigarettes, alcohol, and all manner of deep-fried, sugar-coated food-like substances. (And where it’s illegal to sell them a dried flower that makes them feel better about living in a grotesquely imbalanced society.) Instead, we need to adjust our controlling paradigm. In place of a market-driven, consumption-dependent way of life, we need to make “good physical and mental health” synonymous with Good Quality of Life.

Many American businesses would prefer that we keep packing on the pounds. The healthcare business chief among them. Maybe our national obesity is the Works Progress Administration miracle we’ve been waiting for.

If you think we can get our economy kickstarted by a catalytic upturn in ambulance rides, emergency room visits, and dialysis machines, then there’s a financially compelling reason to continue over-eating.

If you think we’d all be better off getting by on less – fewer calories, fewer disposable dollars, fewer disposable products – then treating our food with the same oversight we give to our drugs wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Addicts need help, right?

Most folks who identify themselves as real Americans, the ones who treasure liberty and personal responsibility and the freedom to be free to eat things ‘cause they’re free, aren’t happy being unwell. But at least they’re not starving, and that, you see, is the whole point of living in a land of plenty.

If you’re a flat-belly who wants to modify the bad eating habits of everyone else, maybe you ought to try living in some socialist police state where they have socialized medicine and everyone is forced to take care of each other. Because we Americans certainly can take care of ourselves, even when we can’t.


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