"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, February 21, 2015

New Dietary Guidelines–Eat, Drink, And Be Merry

“She runs to fat”, commented my mother about my overweight classmate. “The Bannons are all on the heavy side.” Binny Bannon had indeed been dealt a bad genetic hand – although in those days people were fat because they ate too much, a sign of a weak will and lack of discipline. Her father had a beer belly – un bon point as the French call it.  In Belle Époque Paris and in America, it was a sign of wealth and good living.

Not so for Arthur Bannon whose beer belly was a ponderous overhang of excess flesh.  Impossible to restrain by belt or even suspenders and epic in size, it bowed his back, forced him to waddle like a hippopotamus, and made sleeping in any way other than on his back unthinkable.

Maggie Bannon was a mountain of flesh – pendulous breasts; thick, mammoth thighs, arm flaps as big as topsails, and a neck that had all but disappeared in a goiter-like circle of fat.

Neither Bannon was particularly happy with their obesity – not comfortable in their skin at all – but there was little they could do about it.  Maggie tried dieting, but her attempts were desultory at best, giving up eggs and bacon twice a week, cutting down on chocolate brownies and crumb cakes and passing up her fourth soda of the day.  She simply couldn’t drop a pound if her life depended on it – which it did, of course; but again in those days being fat was being jolly and of no particular concern to health.  Maggie wished she could climb the stairs with a basket full of wash without huffing and puffing; but she had no idea that she could pop her aorta at any time.

Image result for images crumb cakes

Her husband hated exercise of any kind.  He drove his car the short distance to his office when he could have walked through Walnut Hill Park, one of Frederick Law Olmsted’s classics. Saturdays and Sundays in nice weather he spent in the back yard listening to Yankee games, and in the winter holed up in the den playing pinochle with his wife. 

Beer bellies are funny things.  A man can be slender in all other departments but still carry a bolus of fat, gristle, and supporting sinew that throws his center of gravity thirty degrees forward.  Medical textbooks describe the phenomenon this way: “An excess of visceral fat is known as central obesity, the ‘pot belly’ or ‘beer belly’ effect, in which the abdomen protrudes excessively. This body type is also known as ‘apple shaped‚’ as opposed to ‘pear shaped‚’ in which fat is deposited on the hips and buttocks”.

Image result for image beer belly

Calling Arthur Bannon’s beer belly apple-shaped would be exceedingly generous. In fact one would be very hard put to see any similarity whatsoever, so distended and grossly distorted it had become.  Perhaps in his thirties when he began to gain weight the description might have had some salience, but never since.

A lot of people were fat in New Brighton, although the pattern of obesity was quite different than it is today.  Then it was the factory worker who spent eight grueling hours in one of the city’s industrial sweatshops or his wife who raised five children, took in laundry, and did housecleaning two days a week who were thin.

Only burghers like Arthur Bannon and his colleagues who had desk jobs at banks, insurance companies, and real estate agencies; or who owned furriers, drug stores, and notion shops were fat.

Poor Binny Bannon, then, had no chance of slimming down.  Not only were her genes against her, but the horrible example of the excesses of her parents. Downing quarts of beer on a hot weekend afternoon was nothing for her father; and finishing an entire Sara Lee fudge cake a second thought for her mother.  Not only that, there were no such things as nutritional guidelines, food charts, whole foods, or calorie consciousness. In other words, she was doomed.

The irony of all this is that despite today’s understanding of genetic disposition; an appreciation for the complex of calories, proteins, vitamins, and minerals that make up food; a culture which defines beauty as svelte, Americans are fatter than ever.  In fact obesity levels keep rising with no end in sight. What we Washingtonians see on the National Mall every summer – i.e. a cross section of Middle America – is a harbinger of things to come. 

Image result for image fat tourists on national mall in summer

Despite decades of hectoring, shaming, public information, and incentives, we are still the fattest nation on earth. There is not a bag of chips that we can pass up, nor an extra serving of ice cream. We cannot resist candy,Twinkies, pizza, peanut butter, cheese spreads, all-you-can-eat buffets, and thirds on vanilla pudding and peach cobbler.

To make matters worse, the federal government has chucked the nutritional guidelines it has promoted for years.  Don’t worry about cholesterol and fat, they now say. Carbohydrates are the problem.  As Nina Teicholz reports in the New York Times (2.21.15):

Uncertain science should no longer guide our nutrition policy. Indeed, cutting fat and cholesterol, as Americans have conscientiously done, may have even worsened our health. In clearing our plates of meat, eggs and cheese (fat and protein), we ate more grains, pasta and starchy vegetables (carbohydrates). Over the past 50 years, we cut fat intake by 25 percent and increased carbohydrates by more than 30 percent, according to a new analysis of government data. Yet recent science has increasingly shown that a high-carb diet rich in sugar and refined grains increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease — much more so than a diet high in fat and cholesterol.

What were they thinking?  The only sensible response of any American is, “Fuck it”.

Now people will not have to stoke up on sugary desserts to compensate for the lost calories in fatty foods, they can eat both. Chow down on triple cheeseburgers with bacon and go for the double-dip chocolate cone for dessert.  Who can possibly believe the government and their claques of CDC ‘scientists’ in Atlanta? Fuck ‘em is right.

Image result for image triple cheeseburger with bacon

The federal reversal will have much wider repercussions than just nutritional.  It is one more painfully obvious case of government distortion, overstatement, and manipulation. Those who were on the fence concerning global warming, persuaded but still doubtful, can now stop worrying about tidal surges, the disappearance of New York City and Miami, and the fiery Armageddon within our lifetimes.  The anti-vaxxer movement will get legions of new recruits.  If the government bullshitted us about cholesterol, they are certainly selling us a bill of goods on autism.  If there were hundreds of crazy conspiracies before this scientific recanting, there will thousands now. 

Image result for images anti-vaxxers

There are now only two options left to us Americans: 1) Fuck it; or 2) The Buddhist Middle Way, everything in moderation. The temptation is to go for Option #1. Live it up without guilt or self-recrimination. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Revel in we-told-you-so individualism.

Image result for images buddhist middle path

Option #2 is the more temperate and the more logical.  The retraction of the old nutritional guidelines was a wake-up call for anyone who has not gravitated to the mean. Given the fact that even science – supposedly the bedrock of rationality – goes wobbly all the time, then pay no attention to its extremes but take wisdom from the middle.

At least now we know there’s something up with fats, carbohydrates, sugar, and salt, although we don’t know quite what.  In the Bannons day, it was either beer or more beer. The Middle Way says two beers.

Binny Bannon is my age, so she has gone through all the same paroxysms concerning diet and health that I have. Because of her weight, she tried everything, listened to every bit of advice coming out of Washington, and tried every commercial diet on the market. She is still fat. Moderation can’t help her, and Fuck It binging will just make matters worse.  Her set point has been set for years.

For most everybody else, the federal retraction might well be a reprieve from both compulsive eating and obsessive dieting. Find your own way, eat what you want, and stop worrying.

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