Sunday, April 24, 2005

In which I write about food, fatness and health

This week, the Journal of the American Medical Association published report showing that overweight people might live longer than underweight people. Really, it's main point (from my brief reading) is that there were fewer deaths as a result of being overweight than as a result being underweight. For some more detailed quotes and links, go here. While I was at Drexel, I talked to the Dean, who told me about a study on mice that showed similar results. I haven't seen anything about the mouse study, but I've seen plenty on the other research.

John Tierney writes about the connection between body weight and class (completely unscientifically).

In four-fifths of the societies studied by anthropologists, people have sensibly considered a plump pear-shaped body to be the female ideal. Subcutaneous fat was traditionally a sign of fertility and health, a status indicator showing that a woman was not too poor to afford food.

But as food became cheaper and more available, the ideal changed. Avoiding temptation in the midst of plenty became a virtue and a status symbol of the rich. Thinness became a form of conspicuous consumption, what might be called conspicuous conservation. . . .

As long as it's more expensive to be thin, fat will not be fashionable, no matter what scientists find.

No matter where I've lived, it's been expensive to be thin. Yes, you can always get out and walk or run for free. But there's the food and there's the time. Healthier food (aside from some of the basics like beans and rice) are almost always more expensive. Fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive than frozen or canned (and take longer to prepare). Exotic fruits and vegetables in most of the country are really expensive or non-existent. Soy products are often expensive. Lean meat is more expensive than fatter meat. Healthier meat (like chicken or fish) is more expensive than beef (aside from really good steak cuts). And then there's the prep time for fresh food vs. buying prepared versions. And most of those prepared foods are less healthy (more sodium and saturated fats). Sure, once you learn some tricks or prepare ahead, maybe the time won't matter, but so many people are used to making quick meals (myself included sometimes) that they don't know those tricks or want to invest the time to learn them. And let's not forget about the people who don't even know what's good for them (thanks to the new pyramid).

And then there's the exercise side of the equation. I struggle to find time to exercise. Imagine if I'm holding down two jobs to make ends meet. I think there'll be Hamburger Helper for dinner and no workout. And yet, the CDC and the FDA and agencies of their ilk, recommend healthy eating and 60-90 minutes of exercise a day. The average American just doesn't have that kind of time. Interesting how this fits into work-life balance, isn't it?

Then David Brooks had to chime in and be all weird about it. Both Tierney and Brooks use the study to give middle-aged men an excuse for their middles (Brooks more so than Tierney) and that's just weird. Now I don't have a perfect figure, but I've been blessed with a small frame and a high metabolism, so I am considered thin by most of my friends. I do not feel healthy though--and that's what I think is more important--and it should be the take-home message of a study like this. The message should be extreme anything is bad--too fat, too thin. I do think our culture is obsessed with thinness and that that obsession is tied to class and race issues.

I have been trying to improve my health without worrying about my figure. As I said in another post, I just don't want to feel tired when I do basic things. I have been gradually increasing my exercise though it's hard to keep up with. And I've been thinking lately of going back to vegetarianism. I'm not going to rule out meat entirely yet, but just take it a day at a time. I'm thinking of starting with a no meat at home policy but if we're out, we'll have meat.

It will be interesting to see what the real fallout of this study is for the food and diet industry. I suspect nothing. Until you get the thin people off the covers of magazines and off tv and out of the movies, thin will still be in. It takes a cultural shift to change people's eating habits. They're part of our lifestyle not just sustenance. That's what someone needs to figure out how to change. How to change our lifestyle. If Heading Out and Prof. Goose are right, peak oil may have us living off the land soon enough.