The Big Issue

     |    Wednesday May 16th, 2012


A debate about obesity broke out recently at one of my cyber-hangouts, and it turns out that the reason so many people in the U.S. are so fat isn’t as simple as you might think, which is to say that a lot of the old arguments about processed food, high-fructose corn syrup, carbohydrates, exercise, genetics and so on all seem to have holes in them. I haven’t been monitoring this conversation as minutely as I might, simply because I don’t really have a dog in the fight. Oh, I’ll admit to being a bit overweight, and I also noticed that some of my clothes fit differently when I returned from my trip to the States, where I wasn’t nearly as active as I would have liked to be: when you’re driving or flying, you don’t get as much exercise as you’d like.


My doctor was appalled when I told her about this, of course. She wanted to make sure that I was getting out every day and at least walking around, which I assured her I was. I don’t have any choice: one of the things about living in a pedestrianized city center is that you have to walk to get places, and the configuration of this particular pedestrianized city center is such that most of the time, that walk is also going to involve climbing a hill, albeit a modest one. (My bicycle expert says it’s around 4-5% at best). I climb this hill to go to the wine store, to go to the record store, to go to the doctor’s office, or, most frequently, just for the hell of it, sometimes taking my camera along so that I can record any efflorescence of cool street art before the city’s zealous anti-graffiti teams destroy it.


A lot of this shows up on my other blog, as does writing about food and step-by-step recipes when I’m in the mood. But for some time, a daily walk — at least one — has been just a part of what I do. Sitting all day at a desk can be boring, and I’ve also now trained myself to the point that I get antsy in mid-afternoon if I haven’t been out yet. I look forward to the twice-weekly outdoor market because it’s held about a mile from my place, and the walk there and back is quite nice. I’m just back from there as I type, in fact, and hardly bought anything. That wasn’t the actual point of going. And, of course, if it had been pounding down rain and there was no food in the house but I had the money to buy it, I wouldn’t have gone.

Now, I know everyone talks about the French Paradox, about how French people eat tons of rich food but don’t get fat. In search of the miracle ingredient which does this, they’ve even run tests on red wine to see if there’s some agent in there which is responsible. And, although a source who should know tells me that the fabulous figure so many French women sport into middle age is often due in part to judicious application of amphetamines, it was my sister who used her medical training to come up with the answer which satisfied me: French meals take much longer than American meals, and, depending on the company and the general setting, you can wind up eating what, in the end, isn’t actually a whole lot of food over the course of two hours or more. Conversation takes time, and it’s not polite to talk with your mouth full. The wine, far from having some fat-busting chemical, is just another agent of relaxation.


As if to seal the argument, I remember that the first time my friends complimented me on having lost a lot of weight and looking good as a result was after I’d been living for six months in…Germany. When we think of Germany, the stereotypes are of people drinking lots of beer, and eating a lot of sausages and potatoes. Those of us who know a bit more about the German table have been to restaurants where, after you order, they bring you a basket of bread with a pot of lard to spread on it. Lard with little hunks of fried onions in it, but lard nonetheless. Which you then have the option of salting. There’s so much sodium in the German diet that if you grew up elsewhere you have to watch it, since it not only takes the form of salt, which causes water retention and aggrivates high blood pressure, but also monosodium glutamate, which has found its way into more places than you think (and to which I’m highly reactive).




And yet I, who had once been fat enough to have lower back problems and to try the occasional really stupid fad diet, and who hadn’t done a thing to moderate my habits (not that I was spreading lard on my bread, but I was drinking beer), had managed to lose weight. And I’ve continued to keep the weight off, for the most part, in the nearly 20 years since.


Wide turn ahead.


I recently finished Master of the Senate, the third volume of Robert Caro’s ongoing Lyndon Johnson biography, and one of the themes of this part of the story was how Johnson, a Democrat who was identified with the Southerners in the Senate, and who, in fact, was a protegé of the leader of all the Southerners, Robert Russell, managed to get a civil rights law passed in 1957. Caro is very good at getting the Southern viewpoint over without sympathizing with it, and the basic argument is this: you can’t make people accept social change by legislating it. And yet, as history has shown, once the wedge has been driven into the wall, cracks appear. The 1957 Civil Rights Act was weak tea indeed, and it wouldn’t be until 1964 that the U.S. government passed meaningful civil rights legislation — and even then, there was resistance and the violence in places like Mississippi continued. And yet today, while it’s hardly paradise there, things are unmistakably better. Because a lot of people made a discovery: those scary Negroes that were going to impregnate their daughters and tear down the very social fabric that made the South the wonderful place it was? They didn’t exist. Eventually, people realized that the black people they knew, the black people they liked in many cases — those were all the black people there were. And they were nothing to be scared of.


That’s oversimplifying, but with the current talk of whether or not Obama has shot himself in the foot by coming out for gay marriage, we see this picture all over again, and we also realize that yes, as a matter of fact it is a civil rights issue and nothing more, because all the screaming about mandatory homosexual bathrooms and other horrors of the gay agenda come down to the fact that none of that stuff exists, and yes, the guy who provided the flowers for your daughter’s wedding (to a man) does, in fact live with someone (a man) and yet your town is still standing.


Bad joke time: What did the Buddhist monk say to the hot dog vendor? “Make me one with everything.” Bad joke addendum (thanks to JJG): The monk hands the hot dog vendor a $20 bill. The vendor puts it in his pocket. “Where’s my change?” the monk asks. “Change comes from within,” says the hot dog vendor.


And that, just maybe, is why you’re overweight.