Posted by: bkivey | 15 March 2010

BM-Aye-yi-yi

Soothsayer: Caesar!

Caesar: Ha! Who calls?

Casca: Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!

Caesar: Who is it in the press that calls on me? I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music, cry ‘Caesar!’  Speak; Caesar is turned to hear.

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

It’s already the middle of March. Didn’t this year just start? On the bright side, only a few more weeks until major-league baseball season.

Much in the news lately have been reports of plus-size people on airplanes. While I haven’t had quite the travel experiences some have with blimps on board, there have been a few times when an airline seat has been made smaller by the person sitting next to me. Now, in truth, I fill up the typical coach-class airplane seat pretty well, but very few people who saw me would describe me as ‘fat’. Because of time I’ve spent in the gym and on a bike, I fill the space up rather than overflow it.

The stories do reflect a reality about American society that few people seem to want to acknowledge: we’re a nation of fat-asses. I am constantly amazed and a little concerned when I look at a typical crowd and see the number of people who are not just a little overweight, but considerably overweight. Aside from the health risks, don’t these people care any more about themselves than that? As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve become an international laughingstock where our collective girth is concerned. That, and the way a lot of people dress, but that’s a post for another time.

While I am pleased to live in a society where food is plentiful and cheap, I would like to see a bit more self-restraint on the part of my countrymen than that displayed by goldfish. There are medical conditions that lead to weight gain but they are comparatively rare and cannot explain the proliferation of obesity in this country. As far as I know no-one is forced to eat. Just because one can do something doesn’t mean one should do something. There’s nothing wrong with going to the local fast food joint and getting the jumbo combo for six bucks, but you don’t have to, and shouldn’t be, doing it every day.

There is really only one number a person needs to know when making choices about eating and exercise, and that number is 3000. That’s the number of calories in one pound of fat (yes, yes, technically they are kilocalories, but that distinction is irrelevant to the point). The average adult male requires about 2500 calories daily and the average adult female about 2000 at normal levels of activity. If you take in more energy than you expend you will gain weight. That’s it. There is no magic formula.

Some might argue that another number to know is your Body Mass Index (BMI) score. I have some real issues with this measurement as it is currently used, not the least of which is that it is a statistical tool not intended for individual use. BMI also fails to take into account the unit mass difference between adipose and muscle tissue, so that an individual who builds muscle mass may well score as ‘obese’, even though they may have a low body fat percentage. Nonetheless, people have been beaten over the head with this concept and the internet is littered with sites offering to calculate your BMI without once mentioning the impropriety of using it for individual diagnosis. One site that does offer BMI calculations with appropriate caveats and some other interesting discussion can be found here.

Ultimately society has to make choices about what is acceptable and what is not. And with those choices come trade-offs. When I was a child fat people were uncommon, partly because a lot of food and lifestyle choices that are extant now weren’t then, but in large measure because obesity was a stigma. Fat kids were teased mercilessly and socially isolated, and fat adults would find themselves publically castigated. There was a lot of social pressure not to be fat.

At some point American society decided that it was more important to be sensitive to individual feelings than to enforce societal taboos. The implication, perhaps unrealized even by the proponents of the ‘kinder, gentler’ movement, is that with the relaxation or abolishment of societal control comes a need for an increase in individual self-control. In some ways this was a positive development, as it paved the way to tearing down barriers for minority members of society, but in other ways the change has been less beneficial. Human nature being what it is, if a society abolishes collective institutions and customs without replacing them with others or increased individual maturity, you’re gonna have some pretty serious problems.

In American society, obesity is one of the few that each individual has control over. Barring the occasional physical or psychological disorder, everyone controls the amount of food they put in their mouth and the amount of exercise they get. Everyone makes choices. The flip side of “It’s my life.’ is “It’s you’re responsibility.”

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