Just the other day, it became official: I am obese. And I’m not the only one; more than 30 percent of the American population is, too. Actually, my weight is fine, that of a normal 6’5” football linebacker. Unfortunately, I am just 5’3” tall and capable of tackling nothing bigger than a sandwich.

Believe me, I tried to ignore the elephant in the room for as long as I could, which was quite a feat, given the elephant was myself. I wore my pregnancy pants with elastic waistbands that could hold up the Golden Gate Bridge at a pinch, used only bust-length mirrors, and bought a bathroom scale that was a few pounds off. I made sure I always had an excuse: the clothes shrank in the wash, the weighing machine is broken, I am retaining water, etc., etc.

One day, I was earnestly explaining to a friend that my weight was mostly bone density, when my little daughter stepped into the conversation.

“Like a mammoth,” she said helpfully.

Hello, reality.

Once I confessed to it, I began to exercise, walking and biking mainly. Soon I had lost enough weight to be downgraded from obese to overweight status. But it was impossible to keep it off. I had to constantly work out just to stay at the same weight. I had, until then, believed researchers when they said that lack of exercise is the cause of obesity. Now I think I know differently.

“Monkey see, monkey do” is a saying not usually associated with eating, but it’s true, nevertheless. The main culprit here is television, of course. You only have to turn it on to be inundated with ads for food or with references to it, and after a few of those, you find yourself in the kitchen picking up a snack. You may try to minimize the damage by eating healthy in front of the TV, but come on! Trying to satisfy your taste buds with a stick of celery while watching an ad for cheesecake is like imagining you are Julia Roberts while watching Pretty Woman: it doesn’t last. Besides, self-hypnosis on that scale is called delusion.

Ask anyone in the advertising business, and they’ll tell you “sex sells.” Well, here is the latest: Food sells. Today, the subliminal message is “eat,” no matter what is being sold. From underwear to grooming products (hair and skin care) to credit cards—you name it. Food is ubiquitous on TV, radio and print media, on public transportation, and now even in bookstores. What with restaurants, food courts, coffee shops, convenience stores, street vendors, and vending machines, urban Americans are never more than ten feet away from a feeding trough.

Even stores that do not actually sell food use its appeal to sell their products. In fact, the easiest two pounds that I ever gained was after a trip to a store that sells bath products. I had a few minutes to kill while waiting for a friend, and I didn’t want to be tempted by empty calories. But after looking at, smelling, and trying body butters and hand creams with flavors like raspberry-black currant, triple latte, and chocolate mousse, I cancelled my appointment and fast-food-restaurant-hopped all the way back home. That day, another pair of pants bit the dust.

Even weight loss ads are bad. It is either “Eat our stuff” or “Don’t eat, our way”—the operative word always being “eat.”

So just how does the constant presence of food in its present refined and highly processed state result in obesity? Here are some of my theories.

Most people are primitive in their attitude to food. We are a hunting-and-gathering species, and it ensures our survival to eat when we see food. This was useful when the caveman had to work hard to get a meal. If he was partial to auroch (a prehistoric ox), he would have to stalk and slay one; in order to prolong the availability of the meat, he would probably eat a little of it and store the rest in a cool part of his cave. But if this same person were offered a chance to have auroch 24/7, smoked, grilled or baked, smothered in wine-and-cheese sauce, chicken-fried or as nuggets with hot sauce, to eat-in or take-out, with a million different side-dishes, just to name a few options, he would have eaten more.

The second biggest problem is that of food additives. Food itself is not as addictive as the sugar, salt, fats, and other added flavor enhancing chemicals. For example, you can only eat so many boiled potatoes. But deep fry them, add salt, barbecue flavor, sour cream and/or other seasonings, and whole bags of chips can be inhaled. I should know, for, like Homer’s heroine Helen of Troy, mine is the face that launched a thousand chips. Some food ideas are out there that are downright cruel to the easily tempted. For example, do we really need to deep-fry Mac-and-cheese or Twinkies? I say, just shoot us.

The other big deal is unnecessary sauces and dips. I once went on a salad diet and stuck to it religiously. Five pounds later, I learned of this insidious thing called Ranch dressing. This adipose-in-a-squeeze-bottle will go with anything, and help you take on ballast, no matter what you eat. Personally, I could eat shoe leather, provided I have Ranch to go with it. For those suckers that believe in its fat-free versions, I have only sympathy, for the palatability lost by using fat-free ingredients is more than compensated by salt, sugars, and MSG.

One weight-loss article that I read advised reading labels carefully. Big mistake. I ended up spending over an hour in the snack aisle and more than $50. I actually bought more than I usually would have, because the write-ups were so full of moving stories about how these foods were invented and manufactured with the greatest care and against all odds. When I read on a bag of potato chips how people had carefully and painstakingly made them, but then decided to share them with me for just $2.95, I was nearly in tears at their magnanimity. Of course, I had to buy at least three bags of the stuff. Who knew when their altruism would run out?

Reading labels can also give you the wrong impression. A group of women at work were discussing cookies the other day. “These cookies are sugar-free and fat-free,” said one misguided friend. “They are actually good for you!”

A small misstep in reasoning, a giant leap towards the super-sizing of Mankind.

In a nutshell, we have a problem of plenty. And let’s face it; there isn’t going to be any law that forbids serving dessert to those with BMI over optimum levels, or banning store displays of candy near checkouts. But don’t despair. With all the money being thrown at research, an Anti-Fat Pill just has to be around the corner. Once it comes, just watch us XL-ers strut our stuff!

In the meantime, however, I am working on losing the extra cargo that I carry by trying to exercise and eat right, and by chewing tons of sugar-less mint gum, just like the “experts” advise. And, of course, I love to hear weight-loss sob stories. Just the other day, I was listening to another well-padded friend.

“I was so upset the other night, I wanted to dive face-first into a bucket of fries,” she said. “My fridge was full, but there was nothing to eat.“What did you do?” I asked in sympathy and horror.

“I ate a whole bag of rice cakes,” she wailed, “dipped in fat-free ranch dressing!”

I felt her pain.

Lakshmi Palecanda is a biology research technician turned freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana. Email: palecanda [at] msn [dot] com

 

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