I'll never forget my first impression of America as I hauled my luggage off the conveyor belt in an airport in South Carolina: while the rest of the passengers pushed their carts on towards the arrival hall, a special transport buggy had arrived to shuttle away an obese woman in her 40's.
She had no visible impediment other than her weight and seemed overall quite content to relinquish the tedium of walking. The driver seemed impervious to the human luggage he was carrying and I wondered if I was looking at the next step in human evolution.
Of course, it's easy to poke fun. For years stand-up comedians and slapstick movies have fallen back on the have-a-cheap-laugh-at-fat-people routine. Smokers, drinkers and even drug addicts may have something of a tragic charm to them but of all the self-afflicted conditions a person might suffer from, obesity is often seen as the least excusable. Hence fair game for wisecracks like:
'How come I have to pay for extra luggage on my flight when the guy in front weighs 60 pounds more than me?'
Obese passengers supposedly cost airlines some $275 million a year but that's nothing compared to the health costs from treating medical conditions connected to being overweight, which run to around $78 billion a year. Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death (smoking wins every time) and is the major underlying cause of diabetes in the U.S.
Yet everywhere we look we see ultra-thin role models in advertisements, music videos, films and TV shows. All the products in the grocery store are required to show a breakdown of ingredients and calories, and science has laid out the formula for weight loss in terms that only a monkey would have trouble understanding: spend more calories than you consume and your weight goes down.
So how on earth did we end up in a situation where, according to the American Obesity Association, 64% of Americans are overweight, half of those qualifying as obese?
The answer is that America, God bless her, is a confused country. It's not so much that the information isn't out there, it's that there's too much data to digest.
Americans wanting to lose weight are confronted by any number of fad diets, calorie charts, pills to prevent food absorption, weight loss programs, nutritional controversy and food industries that are less than clear about just what their products contain.
And although there are countless unquantifiable factors that influence one's weight, in essence the problem is pretty simple: Americans eat too much and don't get enough exercise.
The roots of the problem
In the old days, most of the people were hungry at least some of the time. Scarcity was the norm and the temptation of a third helping of dessert just wasn't an option. There were no jars of Skippy's on the shelf to jazz up your bread and when you were thirsty you took a drink of water instead of breaking open a can of Coke. For the vast majority of the world's population, food was never abundant enough to be considered a luxury and obesity was only really an option for the rich.
All that changed (in the so-called developed nations at least) with improvements to agriculture and the economy in the 20th century. Hunger became a thing of the past. Eating out became an option for just about everyone as fast food outlets and cheap supermarkets replaced the local store.
But as Americans began to include the hamburger, the soda and the packet of cookies in their daily diets, they began eating food they didn't understand. Salts, fats and sugars made their way into seemingly innocuous produces, making snacking an exercise in gluttony. It didn't help that manufacturers could hide sugar content, for instance, under names like dextrose, glucose, sucrose, lactose and corn syrup.
Take sodas, for instance. Around a quarter of the calories that American children take in these days come from soft drinks. The promotional team at Coke may have convinced the national pysche that drinking sugared caffine water is as essentially American as pledging allegiance to the flag, but the current generation of 9 million overweight kids might one day ask themselves how they were suckered into swallowing some 140 calories a can or about 7% of their daily requirement.
Burning it off
Overweight people are often looked down for being lazy. If they could just be bothered to put on a pair of running shoes or pump a little iron they would slim down in no time, the thinking goes. Where's their get-up-and-go energy? They are, in the worst possible sense, self-made.
Yet many dieters include morning runs and laps in the swimming pools in their weight loss regimes and still get nowhere. A recent study featured in Time revealed that while people might burn off calories by putting themselves through the paces, they tend to put them all back on again by snacking out afterwards. Working out makes people hungry and they end up eating more than they would have done otherwise.
I remember trying to explain the concept of exercise to a friend in Nepal. I told him all about weight lifting, aerobics and jogging. He almost cried with laughter when I told him about power walking.
"What's the point?" he giggled, "Why don't they just walk everywhere normally?"
Living in a mountain village he couldn't imagine a country so dominated by the car that going places by foot isn't even an option. When he went to market he walked half an hour there and then carried his groceries back up the slope to his house. His wife then prepared lunch by grinding up the spices and then kneading the dough for the flat bread chapattis by hand. Her arms were already muscular from washing clothes by hand, just as her husband's were from chopping wood. Everything they did was exercise. What need did they have of a gym?
Of course, there's no turning the clock back. Most of us are happy enough to buy our bread and the washing machine was the salvation of mothers across the modern world. But we have largely failed to see the true costs of all the labor-saving devices that fill our homes. We get around by car. Any number of kitchen appliances save us from actually squeezing lemons, kneading dough or washing our own dishes. Hell, I remember when to change stations on the TV, you had to get up and push the button yourself.
Luckily, the free market is here to help.
I'd like to say I'd uncovered a secret agreement between the fast food companies, a major car manufacturer and the weight loss industry, the former two providing a customer base for the latter. But it's bad enough to think that it could even have been true. The number of diet plans and products facing Americans today is overwhelming, an almost gluttonous number of methods and pseudo-scientific approaches drowning out all common sense as they cash in some $30 billion a year.
Take for example, Body Solutions, a company that promised you could "lose weight while you sleep." Their secret formula? You had to swallow a spoonful of their fruity liquid and wait for those pounds to come rolling off. Following a lawsuit alleging false advertising Body Solutions now urges exercise to complement its product.
In fact, you'd have to be a little too trusting to believe any of the claims the diet companies make. As Richard Cleland of the Federal Trade Commission noted: "The ads are filled with testimonials about amounts of weight that are just physiologically impossible for a person to lose. You just don't lose 30 pounds in 30 days."
But then came Atkins, a diet that seems to actually work. At least, in the beginning. Never mind that we'd been eating wheat for tens of thousands of years, that it was a healthy staple of the American diet providing fibre and minerals. People were reportedly losing pounds on Atkins and that was all there was to it ... until they came off the diet and put them all back on again.
The human body is a complex organism and its core mission is to stay alive. Storing fat is part of its survival strategy for times of scarcity and it's believed that it can be tricked into burning those reserves of fat by eating a protein-only diet. But apart from the strain on your overall health that such an approach entails, the fact remains that once you go back to your usual menu, if you're consuming more calories than you spend the weight will come right back on again.
As food writer Michael Pollan observed about the Atkins phenomenon: "Such a violent change in a culture's eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder."
While researching this article a biologist friend even told me about the tapeworm approach. The parasite is bought (illegally) over the internet or is consumed at a roadside restaurant in Guatemala and pretty soon, you have a little friend lightening the load from inside.
"It makes about as much sense as Atkins." she shrugged.
The boring but sober truth is that it takes at least as long to lose weight as it did to put it on in the first place. A healthy target of losing a pound a month puts you on course to lose 12 over the course of a year. No stress is placed on your body in the process and it's likely to involve sustainable changes to your lifestyle and thus be a long-lasting change.
One way to shed pounds is to burn fat more quickly. Lots of expensive nutritional supplements claim to help you do that, but there's really only one way and that's through eating right and keeping fit. But you already knew that, didn't you? For a how-to guide, see Laurie Hedlund's excellent Speed Up Your Metabolism.
A modest proposal
So here is Tom Glaister's Common Sense Guide to Losing Weight not the kind of title that makes a national best seller but then I couldn't in all honesty make money by giving advice your grandmother could have given you.
1. Don't Eat As Much The first time I went to a restaurant in America my friend suggested that we save money by sharing a meal. I was feeling pretty hungry but my doubts vanished when I saw the size of the plate the waitress brought us. To be honest it could have fed three.
We eat way more than we need to. We're gotten used to being greedy. But if you eat slower, then less becomes more. Slow down and chew your food, enjoy the tastes as they meet your palate instead of just shoveling it all in.
2. Drink Water When You're Hungry We're supposed to drink about 36 ounces of water a day but almost no one does. When our bodies dehydrate we often confuse the need to drink something with the urge to eat something. So next time you feel like snacking out, try drinking a pint of water and see if that does the trick.
3. Don't Eat Out If you go out to eat you have no idea what's in the food. Eat meals that you prepare yourself and you can make sure that it's not packed with salt, sugar and fat. Of course if you'd believe the ads from Center for Consumer Freedom, an organization partly funded by the fast food industry, obesity is not an epidemic but 'hype'.
Don't you just love how every time a corporation tries to sell something that's bad for you they invoke the "freedom to choose?"
4. Cut Down On the Carbohydrates But Don't Cut Them Out Completely. Eating less carbs does seem to help lose weight but you still need them to stay healthy. Got that? Never go to extremes where your health is concerned.
5. Walk Places You Want To Go Those two things at the end of your legs were designed for doing more than just pushing gas pedals. Walking gets you out into the fresh air, gets your circulation going, gives you time to think and burns calories at a steady, gradual rate.
Of course in an ideal world, people would recognize their limits by themselves, food manufacturers would sell products that were good for us rather than addictively tasty and cities would be redesigned to get people out on their feet and bicycles.
Will it happen?