Anybody who doubts that many Americans have a problem with obesity need only visit an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant. Most of the customers fill their chairs and then some.
Nevertheless, it is not a government problem. Freedom means you can have a lot to lose if you want to, and it’s nobody’s beeswax. Some people are genetically programmed to be hefty, some people have glandular disorders, and the rest of us just eat too much.
By eating "too much," I mean taking in more calories than we burn. Arthur Jones, the inventor of the Nautilus exercise machines, said something years ago that I believe is true. He said the human body was designed for hard manual labor.
That makes sense when you think about how many thousands of years human beings had to perform hard manual labor. It’s really been only in the past few decades that those of us in the industrialized countries have been rendered sedentary by our jobs and by labor-saving devices. We go from house to car, from car to office, and then reverse the process at the end of the day. Most men no longer wear hats because they are indoors all day.
I keep waiting for the fedora to come back, but not even Indiana Jones could make it fashionable again. People who keep records know there has been a steady decline in the physical fitness of children. I was leafing through an old book published in the 1920s. There was a picture of about 300 Boy Scouts running down to a lake for a swim. There wasn’t a fat kid in the bunch. You’d be hard-pressed to find 300 boys with no flab on them today.
There is a paradox. All children are growing taller, and athletes tend to be more muscular even without steroids because of better nutrition and weight training. But a handful of student athletes does not a healthy student body make. Physical education, which has been dropped in many schools, ought to be reinstated, and all the vending machines taken out of schools. The vending machines were a dumb idea to begin with.
I interviewed a guy who was supposed to be one of the foremost geriatric scientists in the world. At the end of our conversation, I asked him if science knew anything that would prolong life. "Eat less," he said, and then explained about tests with rats. Those whose caloric intake was reduced 30 percent lived longer and were healthier than the others.
That’s true, no doubt. Reducing caloric intake isn’t the whole story of healthy eating, but it’s an important part as far as keeping the flab off. Women, however, should be careful not to let Hollywood’s current fascination with slimness cause them to go on extreme diets. Nature designed women with 30 percent more fat than men, and there’s probably a good reason for it. Besides, "beauty" and "weight" are not synonymous.
Healthy living is always a personal decision, and government, though it itches to control every aspect of our lives, should stay out of it. For one thing, you can’t compel people to live healthy lives, nor should anyone desire to do so.
I’ve heard our current situation described as a "therapeutic" society. That’s a euphemism for busybody meddling, and optimistic to boot, since a great many therapies don’t accomplish anything but improving the income of the therapists.
There is a role for government, and it’s called public health. That means keeping the sewer systems running properly, pursuing bug and rat control, and providing vaccinations. A doctor once pointed out that sanitary engineers have saved far more lives than doctors by properly disposing of sewage and maintaining a clean water supply. That’s another truth to keep in mind.
The bottom line in a free society is that if people wish to pack on the pounds, that’s their choice. Fat or skinny, nobody lives forever, and if food is one of the great pleasures of your life, then enjoy. The Dutch and the Turks are reputed to be the world’s biggest eaters, and they seem to have the same life spans as everybody else.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.