Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Culture & their fat Kentucky home

posted by Rod Dreher

Via The Browser, here’s a really good slice-of-life portrait of a small, rural Kentucky town where most people are obese. Excerpts:

The residents of this town of 2,100 — 95 miles southeast of Lexington and deep in the Appalachian foothills — indeed appear to celebrate the joys of community closeness. The bake sales, the volunteering. But it’s what goes uncelebrated, and even ignored, here that has become Manchester’s defining feature: In an increasingly unhealthy country, it is one of the unhealthiest places of all.
The national obesity rate for adults is 24 percent; in Manchester and surrounding Clay County, it’s been estimated to be as high as 52 percent. In a study of the healthiness of Kentucky’s 120 counties, Clay County ranked dead last, with 41 percent of the population classified as in poor or fair health.


There is no YMCA or YWCA here.
There is no department of parks and recreation.
There is no fancy dues-paying gym with energy drinks and literature about healthful eating habits.
“I just don’t know a lot about obesity,” confesses Mayor Carmen Lewis. She ponders what unchecked obesity might mean to the future: “Until you realize it, you’re blinded. Then you get to an age where you suddenly say, ‘Oh, my God! What have I done to myself?’ ”


Charlie Rawlins loathes every fast-food joint in Manchester.
He might be the town apostate. He used to be “like, way overweight, man,” tipping the scales at 251 pounds. He’s 5 feet 9 inches tall. He’s 20 years old. The weight caused so much pain on his knees that he had to undergo several knee surgeries. Now he’s down to 185 pounds, and could a person be any prouder of himself?
Charlie began speaking out about the fast-food places to friends a while ago. “I realized that no one was going to listen to me,” he says. He educated himself about nutrition. “I started going in for the fruits, the asparagus, making my own salads.” He realized he could live without the large boxes of sweets he used to load up on at Wal-Mart. “The kids around here, they’ll eat cornbread and taters for lunch. They’ll get a 20-piece chicken meal. It’s killing them.”
He knows these kids. He waits for them to come see him where he works. They don’t. He is a personal trainer at Clay County Physical Therapy, a small space affiliated with a local hospital. It is not advertised as a gym, because it’s mostly for physical therapy. He figures there’s a reason that people don’t come, a lack of resources. It costs $25 a month for individuals and $40 a month for families. “Which is a bargain,” he proclaims. “I mean, look how much money these families around here spend on fast food!”
But they don’t come.

A researcher interviewed for the story says you cannot blame this wholly on genetics, because the one-third increase in childhood obesity observed since 1980 cannot possibly be explained entirely by genes. So, what is it?
I believe that it’s mostly a matter of culture. If the people of this town weren’t extraordinarily obese in the past, what happened? The story says there’s no YMCA or parks, but those things didn’t exist in the past either, and half the people in town weren’t obese. That Charlie Rawlins shows that it is possible to live in the town and be at a healthy weight, but you have to want to do it hard enough to avoid the temptations to comfort and ease. You have to be willing to walk. You have to be willing to avoid the pleasures of fatty, starchy food. You have to care more about your health than you do satisfying your immediate cravings. I don’t buy this idea that half the people in town are helpless in the face of their obesity. I would also be skeptical of the idea that most people don’t come to Charlie’s gym because of a lack of resources. A family membership is $10 per week. You can’t take your family once to a burger joint for that. And yet, people stay away. Why?
Is it possible that obesity works like a virus? That once obesity becomes normalized, people unconsciously acculturate to it, and stop worrying about themselves. Becoming obese in an environment like this town’s (like our country’s) is what you get when you follow the path of least resistance. We work in more sedate occupations, we drive everywhere, and sugary, fatty foods are ubiquitous. I think about why I’m 20 to 25 pounds overweight. It’s not for lack of resources to buy healthy food. I do buy healthy food, and I eat healthy food. For me, it’s my sedentary lifestyle, and flat-out laziness: I hate to exercise, finding it boring and unpleasant. I do have something of a genetic propensity toward being overweight, but I can’t blame my genes: in the past, when I have limited my proportions, stayed away from sweets and starches, and exercised half an hour every day, I’ve dropped pounds like wax on a candle. But this is hard for me, and it’s so much easier for me to be a sluggard. And so, I’m overweight. And lately, I’ve been noticing that a lot of guys my age — mid-40s — have beer guts like I do. Maybe this isn’t such a big deal, I think, trying to make myself feel better. And so I worry about it less, and feel less of an urge to do something about it — this, even though heart disease and diabetes runs in my family. I can see what’s happening in slow motion, and know that I’m doing it to myself — all because I’m unwilling, at least at the moment, to spend 30 minutes a day on the elliptical trainer. Hell, I could walk: I live in a beautiful neighborhood where it would be pleasant to walk. But it’s more pleasant to pour a glass of wine, sit down and read a book.
I am responsible. It’s not society’s fault, though environmental factors play a role. It’s not my genes’ fault, though hereditary factors play a role. It’s my own fault. And though I could be wrong, I bet that explains most of the problem in this Kentucky town.
I’m going to come home from work today and get back on the damn elliptical. Enough of this. Thank you, Charlie Rawlins.

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posted July 13, 2010 at 9:33 am

The American diet has become too inclusive of refined carbohydrates. They are tasty, inexpensive, and make you feel good while you eat them.
Excessive intake of refined carbs, I believe, is killing us as a nation.
And I believe the underlying root cause of obesity is a yet poorly described metabolic condition.
Something makes people over consume.
Rod, have you read Good Calories, Bad Calories by Taubes? It has made me rethink the whole paradigm of obesity.

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Mary Russell

posted July 13, 2010 at 9:40 am

Get an ipod and download podcasts. While I was training for a half marathon this spring I listened to NPR’s Fresh Air, its health podcast, also downloads from the Dominican House of Studies, Orthodox and Catholic “Saint of the Day” downloads, and Garrison Keillor’s daily “Writer’s Almanac”.
These days I tool around town with my two kids in a double jog stroller and listen to above for about an hour per day.

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posted July 13, 2010 at 9:48 am

I remember exercise walking down the road in the rural community where I then lived, and having a pickup pull up next to me A concerned woman leaned out of the window:
“Do you need a ride somewhere?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’m walking for exercise.”
Look of befuddlement: “Oh…okay…”
It just wasn’t normal, even in the 80′s, to see people walking for fitness in that community.
My dad the farmer — who despite regular physical activity was a BIG man (and tragically died of an aortic aneurysm) – thought of exercise for its own sake as pointless and foolish; something that rich city slickers do.
IMHO, that is part of the mentality that creates barriers to healthful living in parts of rural America.
As far as unhealthful food, to me it’s not only about its ubiquity and immediacy and cheapness vis-a-vis healthier choices — for people who don’t feel that life is treating them right, consuming a bag of potato chips or a 2-liter of soda or a box of snack cakes is a pleasure, and an act of self-determination, that they feel entitled to in the midst of their otherwise difficult, un-satisfying lives. That’s the feeling I got, anyway, growing up in such an atmosphere.

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posted July 13, 2010 at 9:49 am

My family has lived for centuries in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. I remember going out to visit my grandma, great-grandma, and various other kinfolk and my mother (from northern Ohio) always commenting on their greasy, heavy food. She had stomach issues and always complained when we were visiting the mountain relatives because every day started with bacon, eggs, sausage, red-eye gravy, etc., and even the vegetables were always cooked with bacon.
However, none of my relatives were obese. My grandma and great-aunts were a little stout, as you would expect ladies who had borne half a dozen children and were now in their 70′s and 80′s, but my male relatives in particular were lean and tough well into their 80′s.
They were also extraordinarily long-lived; many of them reached 90, 95, even a few over 100 years old. And most of them worked in the fields til the day they died. Despite their fatty diet and the lack of medical care (when my dad was a little boy, medical care was provided by a midwife with knowledge of “herbals,” and you only went to the doctor if you were “nigh unto dead.”
Now, my dad and his brothers were the first generation to leave the farm in the mountains and move to the city and suburbs. They also were the first to have white-collar jobs, and sadly they were the first generation to suffer from hypertension, heart disease, and cancer. None of the three brothers lived past sixty-five.
My theory is that mountain folk were adapted to a diet heavy on animal fats — and that their traditional fare, while it was pretty much the opposite of what most doctors would tell you to eat, was 100% natural. You grew your own vegetables, you raised your own meat, you shot your own game. No chemicals, no trans-fats, and sugar was a luxury. They also engaged in hard, physical labor on the farm, and while one of my uncles did brew a bit of moonshine now and then, they were devout Baptists and only indulged in whiskey for “medicinal” purposes.
However, once they left the farm and sat behind desks and in traffic, and developed a fondness for Twinkies and soda pop, their bodies rebelled against this soft living and they succumbed to heart attacks and cancer.
Human beings were not meant to have such easy lives as we moderns live. And we are fighting out own biology when we are surrounded by plentiful, calorie-laden foods year round. Our bodies are designed to endure the boom-and-bust cycle of plentiful food during the summer and fall, and the “starving time” of winter and spring. It is completely unnatural for us to have such plenty year round, and to lead such indolent lives.
Rod, I urge you to try to find a physical activity that you LOVE — I was always an intermittent gym-goer (I’d go work out every day, lose the 5-10 lbs, then stop until I gained it back and had to start again) until I discovered mountain biking. Biking doesn’t feel like exercise to me at all; I can easily ride 2 hours a day and still want more, and we now take biking vacations where we ride 6 hours FOR FUN!!! Believe it or not, if you can find something you LOVE to do, the exercise takes care of itself. But running on a treadmill or an elliptical or even a spinning class — bleah. Bo-ring.

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posted July 13, 2010 at 9:50 am

Zoetius, the book sounds interesting. Thanks for the mention–I’ll have a look at it.
Mary: While I was training for a half marathon this spring….
Kudos, but that makes you atypical and not in much danger of obesity already! Also, while I laud your regimen, it is certainly true that marathon running (half or full) is not a prerquisite for weight loss!
Rod, we’ve been down this track before, and I hope this doesn’t become another beat up on yourself and decry lazy fat people thread.
CAPTCHA: ingests into Major Twilight Zone…. On the other h and, it’s redundant–you can’t ingest out of….

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Larry Anderson

posted July 13, 2010 at 9:56 am

“And so I worry about it less, and feel less of an urge to do something about it — this, even though heart disease and diabetes runs in my family. I can see what’s happening in slow motion, and know that I’m doing it to myself — all because I’m unwilling, at least at the moment, to spend 30 minutes a day on the elliptical trainer.”
I used to be the same way. Then I started getting neuropathy in my arms and feet, and blurred vision, and excessive urination and thirst. Yup, I was diabetic.
It’s been a year. I’m ninety pounds lighter, and feel much better. Your time will come too, Rod. It’s just a question of how bad things have to get before you acknowledge, deep down where it counts, the reality of your situation. Please do it sooner.
Captcha: popeye United

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posted July 13, 2010 at 10:00 am

LutheranChik: My dad the farmer — who despite regular physical activity was a BIG man (and tragically died of an aortic aneurysm) – thought of exercise for its own sake as pointless and foolish; something that rich city slickers do.
This and Salamander’s post ring true to me, as a fellow Appalachian. I’d only add the following part of the conundrum: many rural people (Appalachian and elsewhere) had a keen memory of biting poverty (in the Depression, but before and after as well) and wanted a life for their children in which they didn’t have to bail hay, plow fields, etc. Even those who stayed on the farm quickly embraced tractors, etc. In short, there was a love-hate attitude toward physical labor. It made you better than those effete city slickers, but it also branded you as “poor white trash” so that you aspired to something more. This theme pops up in some of Flannery O’Connor’s work, btw, particularly “Good Country People”. Anyway, on some level you wanted your kids to “get out” and get white collar jobs; but since the old folks didn’t see the value of exercise for its own sake, that wasn’t passed on as a virtue; so the younger generation got the worst of both worlds.
This is one example, I think, of why the whole situation is so frustratingly complex. It’s not all about culture and genes; but it’s not just about ironclad willpower, either. I don’t know what the solution is, unless the economy crashes so badly thst we solve the problem by just not eating!

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posted July 13, 2010 at 11:02 am

I second the recommendation for the Gary Taubes book. At the very least check out his NY Times article from 2002:
It details study after study that conclude that it’s not high fat foods that are causing obesity, diabetes and heart disease but rather refined carbs, i.e. grains. Yet the dogma over the last several decades has been that we should be eating a low fat, high carb diet to be healthy. That recommendation, as he goes into in his book, had more to do with politics than science.
I too found middle age weight gain creeping up on me despite exercising and eating what I thought was healthy food, meaning a lot of whole grains and beans and such. Then, without changing my activity levels, I adopted the primal/paleo diet in the early spring and lost 15 pounds within 6 weeks. Basically by eating fruits, vegetables, seafood and as much meat as I want. It’s truly an awesome thing to eat bacon and steak and still watch the pounds fall off. I have maintained this weight loss effortlessly by continuing to follow this way of eating. I eat as much as I want, whenever I want.
The science behind it says that the foods to which we are best adapted are the ones our species evolved with over millions of years. These are the foods that hunter gatherers ate: fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, fish, meat. The fossil record shows that hunter gatherers were very healthy and exhibited none of the degenerative diseases that began when man started farming, when widespread cultivation of grains entered the picture around 10,000 years ago.. Long story short, grains/legumes alter our metabolism and cause us to store fat rather than burn it. When you cut these foods out, your body begins to burn the fat. This is what our bodies were built to do.

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John L

posted July 13, 2010 at 11:11 am

Just as risk analysis tells us you usually have more than one failure point for a catastrophic event to occur, so I think there’s more than one failure point/contributing factor here. The sedentery lifestyle that most of us have become accustomed to is surely a major factor, but given the location, poverty and its attendant effects also are probably a major factor. Cheap foods are usually higher in fat. Poverty usually menas a lack of education about nutrition, exercise and health in general. Kids of the working poor may spend less hours with parental supervision and more fending for themselves and thus getting into bad habits that last into adulthood. In short, it’s not simple and there’s no single magic bullet.

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posted July 13, 2010 at 11:15 am

Actually Rod, there’s a growing theoretical approach that considers that obesity may in fact be triggered, enhanced and sustained by an actual virus, not just a mental-memish one:,2933,482788,00.html
On a different note, I’ll just say again that for anyone who really wants to burn calories, learning how to freestyle swim (Total Immersion method is a great place to start) will give you a lifetime exercise that can’t be beat.

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Rod Dreher

posted July 13, 2010 at 11:32 am

B.D., I’m a firm believer in the Taubes hypothesis, based on my own experience. The *only* diet I’ve ever been able to stay on and maintain a healthy weight was a high-protein/low carb diet. I don’t like a lot of fat, so Atkins was too fatty for me. But a Zone/South Beach approach — lean meats, lots of fresh veg — was easy to do, and a real pleasure.
But for someone who loves rice and bread as much as I do, it’s so, so easy to backslide.

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Anon Prof

posted July 13, 2010 at 11:46 am

bd_rucker wrote, “The fossil record shows that hunter gatherers were very healthy and exhibited none of the degenerative diseases that began when man started farming…”
The fossil record shows no such thing. Hunter-gathers had life spans of 30-40yrs.
Refined carbs are great if you are physically active. Most of sit on our tails all day at work, and 30minutes at the gym isn’t going to radically change your caloric needs. Yet we eat like people who spend all day on their feet working. Our bodies crave the calories necessary to energize us through such activity because through most of human history most of us needed it. Now we don’t and our cravings haven’t caught up. Add to that subsidies and policies that make calorie dense food cheap, and you have a recipe for whopping weight gain (seen worldwide).
We either have to learn to adapt to being fatter, make food more expensive, and/or make exercise/physical activity more common. The obesity stats for kids are the most alarming and probably the place where we could make the most headway. How about increasing PE from 2 days a week to 5 days a week (starting in K5), continuing it through high school, and make the time physically demanding?

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posted July 13, 2010 at 11:51 am

Rod, maybe you should fast for unLent 325 days a year.

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Mary Russell

posted July 13, 2010 at 12:29 pm

I was addressing Rod’s boredom with exercise, not recommending that he train for a marathon. And, as a matter of fact, I was an overweight teen and 20-something but then decided I didn’t want to look like that anymore and cleaned up my diet, started exercising more routinely, and now wear clothes 3 sizes down from when I was 15.

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Geoff G.

posted July 13, 2010 at 12:30 pm

I think the commentariat has hit most of the main issues on the head already.
Lots of cheap, simple sugars (HFCS or some other kind of sugar in just about everything these days, cheap refined white bread, tons of carbs everywhere)
Most people no long work in physically demanding jobs but in jobs that provide little or no exercise (but they still have the bias against exercise for its own sake as a rich man’s hobby)
To this, I’ll add that there is way too much meat in the diet, especially of the high fat variety (game tends to be a lot more lean). Nothing wrong with some meat now and then, but we don’t need it in every meal and actually don’t even need it every day.
Much of this is government policy. We deliberately encourage production of corn on a massive scale, which ends up as feed for animals (thus making meat cheaper) and in a number of other surprising places (your off-the-shelf tomato sauce has corn in it in the form of sweetener). There’s a good reason this was done: we wanted calories to be cheap and plentiful so no-one would starve.
Tackling the obesity problem would likely require changing government policy, but current agricultural policies (and subsidies) are so well entrenched that it’s highly unlikely to happen. The structure of the federal government (which favors rural states) is the primary hurdle.
Anon Prof, I think your study is right concerning morbidity rates among hunter-gatherers. But that can largely be attributed to lack of modern medical care and poor hygiene and sanitation. It doesn’t mean that their diet and exercise patterns aren’t better (especially healthier) than ours.

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John E. - Agn Stoic

posted July 13, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Heck, there isn’t any thing mysterious about this – Salamander and bd_rucker laid it all out in detail above.
The best physical shape I’ve been in in my life was when I lived in Africa for two years. I walked everywhere and ate non processed food.
Even recently, I used to work at a desk job where the office had a snack drawer that I partook of way too often. After I got laid off, I turned my attention to working on putting up fencing around my property. It is hard physical work and I’m slowly dropping the weight I put on.
Restrict calories and increase activity and anyone will lose weight.

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Franklin Jennings

posted July 13, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Your dad was right about exercise for its own sake. Watch the denizens of any gym, or see if our wonderful host will let you watch him on his elliptical. You might not laugh, but only by self-control and discipline. Grab the handles, plant your feet, and contort your body in repetitive patterns reminiscent of daily activities like climbing stairs and riding bicycles. Just take the stairs and ride a daggum bike!!!
Or do real work (work being energy expended to move mass over a distance), then you can eat cornbread and taters for lunch AND avoid walking pointlessly to the end of the road and back.
There is just something horribly rotten and wrong about a society that is ordered such that most of it’s members have to pay close attention to their heart rate and calorie consumption. These simply aren’t human considerations, and before industrialisation, such attention was wholly unnecessary.
Break the machines.

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Richard Barrett

posted July 13, 2010 at 1:10 pm

All of this talk about exercise for its own sake being an eccentricity of the wealthy reminds me of what C. S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, right after the oft-quoted line about “Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither”:
It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more — food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we will never save civilization as long as civilization is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more. (Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 134-5)
At 33, in terms of diet and activity level I hardly sit on the couch eating Doritos all day, and a recent fitness checkup revealed that cardiovascularly I’m in great shape, and I have a lot of lean muscle, as well as strength, in my upper body and core, but — as I already knew — somehow none of what I do manages to burn any fat in addition to building the muscle. I’m as healthy and toned as I have ever been, but only if you factor out my midsection. C. S. Lewis’ formulation would suggest somehow there’s something I need to want more that I’ve not yet figured out. The question is, how do I figure out what that is? How do any of us?

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posted July 13, 2010 at 1:26 pm

I’ve managed to lose ~ 20 pounds this year by simply paying attention to how full I get when I’m eating – I try to stop when I’m no longer hungry.
This is tough for me when I’m having lunch and only half way through a nine dollar burrito and have to decide to toss the rest of it…but it has made a difference.
What I’ve found to be the culprit is portion size today. Dinners at restuarants literally are twice the size they really need to be to be satisfying – my wife and I will often split an entre with out any problem.

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Scott Lahti

posted July 13, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Speaking of the YMCA, there was this in the NYT yesterday:
Y.M.C.A. Is Downsizing to a Single Letter
? It’s fun to eat at the…?
In reading therein of the Y’s C21 version of the mission civilisatrice – bringing produce to the inner city, sidewalks to carbound fatties, donated apartments for recreation the better, apparently, to help teen vandals keep dry in inclement weather – I recalled a standup comic recently who, in recommending the legalizing of marijuana, the better to tax it in shoring up hard-pressed government finances, noted the wondrous range of programs to which the pot taxes could be applied – health care, education, renewable energy, pre-school, drug prevention…
I laughed when seeing in the article that AARP has gone out of its way to discard its old “Retired Persons” portion of its ID, given that more than half its 40-million+ members are not, in fact, retired. I guess that’s what happens when you target everyone the minute they turn all of 50.
It seems that in the latest iteration of the “Y”‘s essays in muscular Christianity, making as they now do a combined push to make us all lean and green, that the Y and I are working at cross purposes in they key area of diet: I have not only taken up the daily habit of making French fries – from the big 5-pound store-brand bag, no less – I have shifted from baking them in the oven to frying them in the electric skillet awash in oil, heavy on the salt, and drowned upon serving in store-brand ketchup from Hannaford, a steal at $1 the 40-oz bottle. If I’m feeling upscale, I sprinkle chili powder and onion powder over ‘em.
You can read all about it in my new essay in apoplectic apologetics, Mere Gluttony by D.S. Lahti…

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posted July 13, 2010 at 3:19 pm

My not at all original theory about healthier living is that “diets” and workout “regimens” will fail for just about everyone but professional athletes (people PAID to be in shape), as they are by definition, short-term and impossible-to-sustain bursts of will power. In running terms, they are sprints, not marathons. Real and sustained weight loss and better health in general only comes from a gradual and manageable change in habits. I don’t want to say “lifestyle”, because that is pretentious, and implies more radical changes than are probably necessary for most.
On the food front, I suggest gradually swapping in healthy foods you like for unhealthy ones, up to whatever point that doesn’t make it too hard. For me, I just try to eat one fruit or veggie serving with every meal possible, and drink water by default. And understand you will inevitably have binge days that break all the rules: holidays/family gatherings/restaurant dates etc. Feel absolutely no guilt about this, just try to make the next day and day after that healthier.
For exercise, Salamander is exactly right: find something that makes you sweat that isn’t a chore – something you look forward to doing. It could be just a brisk walk. Listen to music if that makes it less boring, and your neighborhood isn’t so rough that this is personal safety problem. Walking is a great compromise between running and sitting. I’m into running (yes, I actually like it), but there are times when my schedule won’t allow for a run, and I’ll go walk for 20 minutes instead, and get much of the same benefit.

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Erin Manning

posted July 13, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Great post with lots of great comments, as usual!
I, also, lost weight on a low carb diet–once. However, while I did lose weight, I didn’t sustain the loss, and even at my best weight my blood pressure was still as bad as ever, possibly because of the high amounts of salt one ends up consuming on a diet in which meat factors heavily.
The problem for those of us who cycle between gaining and losing (yo-yo dieting–quite a lot of us) is that unless we’re really committed to following the low-carb plan *forever* we won’t stay thin. Worse, some people regain more weight faster once they add carbs back in, and then find this weight even more difficult to lose the next time around, making things progressively worse as they go on.
MikeSJ above has hit on one thing that has gotten really bad–no proper understanding of portion size. But this is combined with a second problem: few of us have any idea how many calories we should be eating each day, anyway. One quick, fairly common calorie calculation is this: multiply your present weight by 10, and then multiply that result by 1.5 if you’re fairly active or by 1.2 if you’re more sedentary (don’t multiply at all if you are extremely sluggish). That will give you the number of calories you need to eat to *maintain* your current weight.
To lose weight, you can eat fewer calories than you need for maintenance, add exercise, or, ideally, both. To get an idea of where you should end up, take your *target* weight, multiply by 10 and then multiply that by your activity number, and you’ll see the number of calories you’ll need once you reach that goal.
One of the biggest problems we have, though, with this is that we tend to underestimate our daily calorie intake by quite a bit. “Hidden” calories that we forget to count may include sweet beverages (juice is almost as big a culprit as soda in terms of calories we forget to count), spreads like butter or mayonnaise on sandwiches, snack foods consumed thoughtlessly between meals, and, as Mike mentioned above, restaurant foods. The “Eat This, Not That” websites and books do a good job of reminding us how many calories are in that “healthy” lunch we’re ordering; in some of the worst instances, a single breakfast or lunch menu item can contain more calories than some of us need in a day: the website includes mention of a 1,700 calorie *salad* at one chain restaurant, a 1,500 calorie pancake meal at another, or an almost 2,000 calorie individual *vegetarian* pizza at a third!

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posted July 13, 2010 at 4:12 pm

I think the issue is complicated and most people have hit on the major themes, subsidies for bad food, cultural attitudes about exercise, sedentary lives, and the ease and tastiness of fast food.
I agree with Rod that it is human nature to do what is easier and more pleasant. However, I do think the incentives and the way a community is structured matters, too. If it is easy and safe to walk to the store (sidewalks, not much crime, etc), some people will walk to the store. If it isn’t, almost no one will walk there. The more people who walk, the more it becomes acceptable to walk there and the more people on the streets the less the danger of crime.
Take my community. Ten years ago, you seldom saw people on the streets on bicycles. Slowly, bike paths have been added. Wider street have been identified (with specific signage) as bicycle friendly. Now, bicycles are everywhere. Fewer people in my community think the idea of bicycle commuting or running errands on a bicycle is crazy. Structural changes can make a difference in attitude changes.
Captcha: mused as

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posted July 13, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Some thoughts:
1. I think I’ve said this on a former thread, but school gym classes are NOT an answer– at least not as they are currently organized. They generally involve playing a bunch of team sports, which is fine for the jocks, but everyone else is left standing around feeling awkward and stupid, and many are let with a lifelong hatred for physical activity. Moreover some of the games aren’t even that good of exercize since they involve lengthy periods of doing nothing (think baseball). For physical fitness you want kids to walk, run, bike, cross country ski and swim. Sadly, only one of those activities is viable inside the limited confines of a school building– and not all schools have swimming pools.
2. I don’t think diet matters all that much (within reason– a diet of Big Macs and twinkies obviously would matter). But as others note, those old time country people ate a lot of “bad” things, whether you define bad as fatty foods or carbs. Yet they stayed at a reasonable weight. Unlike Rod I have never been able to lose more than trivial amounts of weight by diet manipulation– even the Orthodox fasts do not do it.
3. Our Stone Age ancestors didn’t eat that much meat. There was no Bedrock Krogers where they could buy mastodon steaks. They had to kill to eat meat, and they weren’t always successful, especially with big game. Fish was a more likely source of frequent animal protein back then. Possibly also insects and other things we wouldn’t dream of eating now.
4. Exercize matters- but I hypothesize what also matters is when you do it. Exercize late in the day (after work) probably doesn’t do much good as your body is going into its sedentary rhythms. We humans are diurnal after all. Five years I biked like a fiend in the evenings– and lost all of five pounds. The only time, post-college, I have been able to lose real weight (20 lbs+) was an unpleasant several months when I could only find part-time work in the evenings. In my frustration I also biked a lot, mornings and early afternoons– and the pounds melted off me despite eating fast food several times a week and drinking a fair amount. The key seems to be that your physical activity should happen when your body is in high rev mode naturally. Sadly, our sedentary jobs and standard workday do not allow this

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posted July 13, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Recent studies are finding that obesity is indeed contagious; having obese close friends more than triples your chances of being overweight too:

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kevin s.

posted July 13, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Until very recently, we spent decades vilifying certain foods (such as bacon) at the expense of others (milk, bread). The well-intentioned learned terrible lessons from a federal nutrition bureaucracy that was bought and paid for.
A slice of thick-sliced bacon has 40 calories. A slice of your average store-bought bread has 2.5 times that.

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Formerly Fat

posted July 13, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Like MikeSJ, I am a believer in portion control. I’m a native Kentuckian although I haven’t lived there for many years. I also belong to a profession chock full of wide load bodies: I’m a librarian. We library types like climate-controlled buildings, and good books. And doughnuts. Lots of doughnuts.
Years ago, I made a firm decision not to be another large librarian. Since I gained 50 pounds with each pregnancy, this was a painful struggle. I now maintain my normal size by eating every meal off of a salad plate instead of a “dinner plate”. I climb on the scale each and every morning, and if I see the numbers inching toward the Bad Number, I go into panic mode and cut out all carbs and exercise until the number comes back down where it should be. It’s worked for a decade now.
I also recommend adopting a dog, the kind of crazy dog with behavior problems that require a fast walk twice a day to keep him sane.
Captcha: landtag of

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posted July 13, 2010 at 7:55 pm

All these “I lost weight by [insert method here]” stories are interesting, but they don’t address questions raised by this article.
As Salamander and others have rightfully pointed out, people in this region who lived more “traditional” lives ate a lot of greasy, fatty, high-calorie, refined-carb foods, and still weren’t fat, by and large. That in itself should prompt more than diet recommendations. What precisely was it about their food, and their lives, which made such a difference? Commenters above have answered it – for one thing, many worked on the farms or at manual labor, and probably walked far more frequently than today.
Next question: how is it fixable? It’s not enough to forego fast food. Food has to come from somewhere. In the past, people of that region shopped probably for very few items, compared to today. Most likely they bought white flour, white sugar, molasses or sorghum, baking powder, salt. The rest they probably grew, slaughtered, canned, smoked, and dried.
I don’t know what the differences were. However, it would behoove us to find out, without the simplistic mantra of “eat more fruits and vegetables.” Traditionally, the only fruit you got in the winter came in the form of jam or pie filling; the only vegetables were your canned green beans or sauerkraut (both highly salted, by the way.)
The 1990 timeline is interesting. It was in the late 1980s that high fructose corn syrup began replacing sugar in a lot of products. Coincidence?
A final word about genes. First off, I do believe the genetic makeup of a population can change VERY quickly (within a generation or two) IF there is sufficient selective pressure. (See Stephen Jay Gould on “punctuated equilibrium.”) If mostly fat people are having children, you’re going to see a huge genetic “loading” in the next generation.
Also, the genes for obesity were probably there in the Eastern KY population; they just weren’t *expressed* until the “right” conditions occurred (i.e. less work-related / transportation-related activity, and a radical change in diet from homegrown to processed foods.)

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Scott Lahti

posted July 13, 2010 at 8:05 pm

There was no Bedrock Krogers where they could buy mastodon steaks.
Maybe not, but as long as that modern Stone Age family that is this blog’s audience is determined to meat the Flintstones, I merely note the inconvenient truth that when Bedrockers ordered ribs at their local drive-in diner, the rack resulting was “mammoth” enough to capsize the stoutest of foot-started family sedans…
For a salutary counter to the goose-stepping food fascists responsible for prosecuting the War on Fat People, stinking up the national joint with their accustomed moralistic hysterics on this as on all other issues, have a look at The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos – run, don’t walk, to it, fatass. It’s the single most concentrated counterblast to the great Everests of pious groupthinking claptrap we’ve had shoved down our collective gobs on this issue since I don’t know h’what-all (thank you, Andy Griffith). One takeaway: it is a far, far better thing to be “fat” as defined by the usual suspects and at the same time moderately active and of baseline cardiovascular fitness (say, 1.5 miles run in 12 minutes for a man, the original measure for white-coated aerobics patriarch Ken Cooper), than to be of unimpeachably low body fat and low BMI and out of shape.
For a recent piece from the sound Campos mentis, see
Childhood Shmobesity
Hey Michelle, stop picking on fat kids.
*NYT, 2004: Paul Campos, a professor of law at the University of Colorado, argues that obesity is used as a tool of discrimination, citing disturbing similarities to the eugenics movement, with its emphasis on ”improving” the species. Obesity in America is ”primarily a cultural and political issue,” Mr. Campos writes in his new book, ”The Obesity Myth” (Gotham), due out this month. ”The war on fat,” he argues, ”is unique in American history in that it represents the first concerted attempt to transform the vast majority of the nation’s citizens into social pariahs, to be pitied and scorned.”
In what may turn out to be his most controversial claim, Mr. Campos writes: ”Contrary to almost everything you have heard, weight is not a good predictor of health. In fact a moderately active larger person is likely to be far healthier than someone who is svelte but sedentary.” To bolster his argument, he cites several studies, including one published by the Cooper Institute, a private research institution in Dallas.
Most medical experts warn of the dangers of fat, but Mr. Campos disagrees. ”There is no good evidence,” he writes, ”that significant long-term weight loss is beneficial to health, and a great deal of evidence that short-term weight loss followed by weight regain (the pattern followed by almost all dieters) is medically harmful.”
He said in a recent interview: ”The current hysteria about body mass and supposedly devastating health effects is creating a stratification in the society of power and privilege based on a scientifically fallacious concept of health. What we are seeing with this moral panic over fat in many ways is comparable to what we saw with the eugenics movement in the 20′s.”

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posted July 13, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Re: Recent studies are finding that obesity is indeed contagious; having obese close friends more than triples your chances of being overweight too:
I’d consider it highly likely that the causation is the opposite of what’s implied in this statement. Obese people are considered unattractive, so it’s reasonable to conclude that the slender simply avoid befriending them, and only befriend other slander people. leaving the obese with only their own “type” as social connections.

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posted July 13, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Scott, the TNR article to which you link is excellent. Everyone should read Campos’s book The Obesity Myth to understand just how vexed the whole situation is.
stefanie, good post–thanks for pointing out just how fast genetic drift can be.
Jon, good point–all together now: “Correlation is not causation!”

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posted July 14, 2010 at 12:11 am

anon prof: “The fossil record shows no such thing. Hunter-gathers had life spans of 30-40yrs.
Ok, it just read the link quickly, but it seems to say no such thing. The conclusion of the authors seems to be that once you eliminate infant mortality and the like, humans live healthy lives to about 70, after which they relatively quickly enter senescence and die.
The whole people used to die of old age at 30 or 40 story is, well, just silly. If 30% of a given population dies before the age of 2, and the average age of death for the entire population is 40, how old will someone live who has survived the first two years? Hint: it is a lot more than 40.
In truth, almost all of our so called gains in life expectancy are been the result of reducing infant mortality and death from the (once) more common contagious diseases. It is only very recently that we have begun to increase life expectancy at the other end the life span (the end), and then only by a very small amount, just a few years really.
Once you eliminate infant mortality as a factor, hunter-gatherers live longer and healthier lives than cereal eaters.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 4:17 am

As a person who’s struggled his whole life with obesity and a chronic genetic disease, I’m always more than a bit insulted when thin people berate the obese for simple “lack of willpower”. I have changed my diet, gave up car ownership, and exercised. I’m still 40 to 60 over. I know my medication is partly responsible for my obesity. What choice do I have? Die of obesity, or lose my career and become disabled from meds noncompliance? The pills might kill my cardio system and shorten my lifespan. Still, I’d rather have a functional fat adulthood than a thin disabled one.
Give obese people a break. Only the obese person truly knows his or her backstory.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 6:25 am

Re: Once you eliminate infant mortality as a factor, hunter-gatherers live longer and healthier lives than cereal eaters.
I don’t think this due to diet so much as to way-of-life. There’s little or no inequality in hunter-gatherer societies: no starving masses contrasted with a small elite living in luxury. Hunter-gatherers kill animals but other than dogs sometimes they don’t domesticate them– hence fewer zoonotic diseases. They don’t usually live in really large groups so no crowd plagues. And they move around a lot so they aren’t living in an environment heavily polluted with their own wastes.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 8:08 am

I would just echo Salamander’s call to find exercise that you like to do. Obviously you are not enamored with cardio machines (many people are not). But there are sooooo many other options, including in-gym options. For example, you might find interval training/circuit training a more interesting form of cardio. In studies interval training is more effective than long slow distance, like an elliptical would be.

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Rick Road Rager

posted July 14, 2010 at 9:25 am

Or is it simply “The Good Life” Americans like too much? Too many comforts (recliners); too many conveniences (garage door openers, snowblowers, riding mowers, etc.).
My wife and I go to a fitness center twice a week for a hour-long workout with a personal trainer. Neither of us are really excited to go every time, but we always feel much better after we finished. It takes about 30 minutes before our bodies really respond to the workout and then we begin to really enjoy it! And we do realize the benefits of it the rest of the day. However, as busy retirees, our schedules involve a lot of running errands, attending meetings of various organizations, etc. Ours is a quasi-sedentary lifestyle and it’s not uncommon.
Contrast that to my father-in-law, a small dairy farmer. He was up about 5:30 a.m. every day of the week to milk at least three or four dozen Holsteins; a chore that usually took at least two to three hours, depending upon the weather. After breakfast and a mid-morning nap, he was usually out and about the farm doing a wide variety of chores. And at the end of the day, he had to spend another two to three hours hassling the cows, cleaning their udders before and after milking, cleaning out the stalls and especially the storage room where the milk was stored until pick-up. He had plenty of physical activity every day, except during the worst winter days. Hardly anyone I know works that hard anymore.
Incidentally, the big mega dairy farms hire Mexican immigrants (legal or not) to do most of their chores. The “natives” guys and gals around here don’t want to work as hard as the immigrants do!!!

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posted July 14, 2010 at 12:05 pm

praesta, thank you for pointing out that it’s wrong and judgmental to presume to know any fat person’s “back-story,” even in the context of a news article.
grendel, thank you for mentioning the problems with eating grain. I strongly recommend Bryan Sykes’ book, The Seven Daughters of Eve. Most people of European descent are related to the Upper Paleolithic hunter/gatherers of 40,000 years ago. A subset of Europeans came from the “fertile crescent” area of Asia about 7,000 years ago, bringing grain agriculture with them.
While Sykes doesn’t talk about grain per se, it’s reasonable to assume that those peoples who became increasingly dependent upon grain agriculture became *adapted* to it. Those who needed more protein; those who developed metabolic syndrome (including female infertility from problems like PCOS) died off or didn’t contribute as much to the gene pool. On the other hand, those who lived in the most northern parts of Europe (like Scandinavia) adopted widespread grain agriculture latest (where barley was more commonly cultivated than wheat.) Interestingly, Scandinavians have way more celiac disease (i.e. intolerance to the gluten found in wheat) than do more southern Europeans.
IOW, for *some* people, grain simply isn’t a good food, no matter what the USDA and Congressional grain subsidies to farmers may indicate. Nor is food *fed* by grain (i.e. most animal food in the US) as good for you as grass-fed or forage-fed meat, eggs, and dairy. I remember as a kid, restaurants and butcher shops advertising “corn-fed beef” as a *specialty item.* Presumably far more beef was grass-fed as a matter of course.
Some people aren’t going to have a problem with grain (or indirect grain in meats, etc.) Others are going to put on weight. Since we don’t have genetic testing for ourselves, the only way to tell is by experimentation. After all, the food industry has been experimenting on *us* for decades.
ironic captcha; marauder think

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posted July 15, 2010 at 3:26 am

You can’t frighten yourself into exercise. You’re far better off visualising something you want to do in the future (playing with your grandchildren?) and thinking about the rewards that fitness will have for you then.
Dances in. But of course.

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