There's an old joke that that the Japanese eat little fat, the French eat lots of fat; Indians drink almost no red wine, the Spanish drink lots of wine, yet their heart attack rate is less than in the United Status. Conclusion? What kills you is speaking English. It's been turned into a YouTube commercial for French language school. The Mayo Clinic has validated it and a linguist has deconstructed that validation. (Image: Potato eating contest. As American as apple pie!)
This week, new evidence published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The article, "Changes in Diet and Lifestyle in and Long-term Weight Gain in Women and Men" (limited preview available), followed more than 120,000 men and women from 1986 to 2006 and ranked the diet and lifestyle datapoints associated with weight gain and loss. Agendas on all sides have been rankled by the findings and the authors note that many of the associations are not that strong (although when you look at their chart, the fries pop out big time). At the end of the day the most significant finding is the one that the study presupposed: As a group, the study subjects got fatter and fatter.
Per the article, "Whereas weight change associated with any single lifestyle factor were relatively modest in our three cohorts, in the aggregate changes to diet and physical activity accounted for the largest differences in weight gain."* In other words, the simplest outcome of the study isn't that a particular food or lifestyle factor affects weight, but that Americans are getting fatter all the time.
I've said before that losing weight is positively un-American. There are a host of other social and economic factors that come into play, and for the most part I'd rather leave those to the playground of the policy wonks and conspiracy theorists. The study also noted that TV watching itself is not responsible for the weight gain, but promotes behaviors associated with weight gain. Every day we face a culture that promotes weight gain and obesity. The individual costs in terms of health expenditure, job discrimination and inability to work are clear, but the individual benefits in terms of social cohesion and purchaser reward should be just as clear. The benefits to being fat and the ties that bind us into obesity are strong: how else would more than half our population be motivated to commit group suicide?
Forming a different tribe is part of the answer; trends away from obesity are contagious. Weight Watchers helped me lose a large amount of weight, mainly because for the first time I met people who had done so. These people are rare: you might see them in the paper, but a chance to speak to one day after day after day is less common. A string of ailments left me feeling a little hopeless again, but still I've got my tribe: Someone I know has recently lost 40 pounds. The boyfriend has lost enough weight for his coworkers to notice. Another friend has kept her weight off for more than five years. These people, including the policy wonks and conspiracy theorists (God bless em!), are the people who bring individuals back from the brink.
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.
*One fascinating surmisal of the study authors is that the benefits of behaviors associated with weight loss may be underestimated in longitudinal studies because people who have gained weight in the study interum period or who are responding preemptively to a tendency to gain weight may engage in more behaviors to control weight. In other words, the people who most need to eat vegetables or hit the gym to control their weight are the people doing so, therefore behaviors which are in fact beneficial nonetheless show up as things fat people do.
^My priest spoke well on this passage Sunday. It is one that every good Ellul-reading conspiracy theorist should know.