On Obesity

I was listening to Morning Joe last week as they were discussing a new book titled The Oz Diet. The discussion went on to repeat the familiar mantra: poor people can only afford food that is bad for them.

I was brought up in what I guess we would today call a “poor” family; although we didn’t know anybody who was “rich,” so the definition was not part of any conversation.

We lived in a second floor walk-up in the city of Chicago. We had a washing machine in the basement with the rollers, which you used to squeeze the water out of the clothes and then rinse the clothes in the sink, then run it through the rollers again and hang them on the line outside. My little sister Jean and I always “helped” mom with the clothes. It was her only way to keep her eye on us. Plus climbing up and down three floors was tough for Mom. Once Jean helped too much and got her fingers caught between the rollers. I remember being scared that she lost her hand.

The railroad tracks were near by. School was a 20-minute walk across seriously busy streets where cars competed with streetcars. Think Huntington Avenue times five.
Once a year for one week, we borrowed someone’s old car and drove eight hours to a place called Glen Lake in Michigan, which I thought was the most beautiful place in the world. There were few homes there then. We rented a tiny cabin, two bunks, one single bed for the folks, and a sink with a pump for water. There was an outhouse about 10 yards to the rear that somehow was the favorite place for black widow spiders. Jean and I decided it was safer to be constipated than to compete with those giants.

Dad put up a tent which we and new baby brother Bill thought was our special house. The lake was cool and clean, and you could walk out forever before the water was over your head. A kid up the lake once lent me his sunfish, which I managed to turn over umpteen times before I figured out how to stay afloat and tack. I was so proud I took my Dad for a sail and explained to him how you had to tack left and right to go straight. He was OK with it for a while, but at 6-foot-5, he was done and said no more tacking. The boom was too low. Yeah, but we’ll run into the rocks if we don’t tack. He won most arguments and we landed in the rocks. My pride never returned.

There was what to us little kids seemed like a huge hill near by made entirely of sand. It was called Sleeping Bear. Climbing up and then running and rolling down was so much fun we pretended not to hear when the folks said it was time to go. Only the threat of not returning made us obey.

Back at the cabin, we bathed in the lake and helped with dinner. There was a burner attached to a gas tank in the cabin for cooking, which brings me back to the issue of food.

We did not have money for “extras” like potato chips or french fries. There was a little store near school that sold hot French fries, and, boy, they smelled good. Sometimes a friend would let me taste couple of hers. Once in a while, we were treated to an ice cream cone, which was a very big deal.

We ate eggs or hot oatmeal for breakfast. Lunch was a peanut butter sandwich with lettuce (still my favorite), or something that might have been left over from supper. Supper was soup, or chicken or hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, spaghetti and meatballs, pura (cornmeal and water and cheese), liver and onions, “round steak” smothered in onions and ketchup. You had to slice it real thin to be able to chew it. Stews were the best, inexpensive cuts of meat which when braised for hours, and they were delicious. Even the canned vegetables tasted good in the natural juice.

Once my grandmother made some kind of cod, which you could smell walking up the street. I never could get that down. Canned vegetables and fruits accompanied most meals, as did a glass of milk. I don’t remember having dessert.

As I think back, we had a pretty balanced diet. I’ll never forget the first time I ate fresh asparagus. I couldn’t believe it was the same thing that was in the can that used to make me want to regurgitate. There is no question, fresh fruits and veggies are way better than canned but at least we got the nutrients. I don’t think frozen foods had been invented yet.

We didn’t have a TV or car or bikes, so we got plenty of exercise because we walked everywhere: to school, to the grocer, to the streetcars to get to places far away.
Fun was throwing a rubber ball against the brick building in a game of “seven up,” jumping rope, and playing catch. One Christmas, Santa left roller skates, the kind you strap on to your shoes. Trouble was the many cracks in the sidewalk made for a run on band-aids.

So I tell this story to explain why I believe too many people do not take personal responsibility for their own health. It takes an effort to cook something healthy, canned peas and cooked rice for example. Unhealthy packaged foods are in abundant supply today, but we don’t have to buy them. Actually, they are not inexpensive. A can of nutritious soup can cost less than a candy bar. An apple or banana is less expensive as well.

Now I know there are some people who can’t afford the candy bar or can of soup, and those people deserve our tax dollars and gifts until they can get back on their feet.
I also know that some people have physical problems that can result in being overweight. But in the main, obesity is the result of eating too much of the wrong food and exercising too little. It might help to think of a simple equation: calories in, calories out.

I spent my life in the world of information. Information is power. I urge my colleagues in the media to focus on educating people about ways they can take charge of their health, via eating right on any budget, and using their bodies (walking, running, biking, climbing stairs) to be healthy. Obesity ruins people’s lives and costs taxpayers bundles.

Individuals have choices when it comes to weight gain. This is not Mother Nature delivering a hurricane or tornado over which we have no control.

That said, education is key in changing the health crisis. And while it should begin at home, it also needs to be augmented in school. We should be teaching our kids about nutrition and exercise. And we should be offering our children good food and gym class everyday when they are in school. It is unconscionable to do otherwise. I know some cities are making such efforts, but they don’t go far enough and are not taking place fast enough.

We could be more innovative in supplying food to schools. How about making an arrangement with a local farm for milk and an apple for a morning snack for our kids in school in exchange for a tax break?

Staying healthy takes education, and it also takes willpower and effort. When we remember we only get one body per lifetime, why would we not choose to take care of it, at least most of the time? Hey, no one’s perfect. While sometimes we can get new parts, we can’t turn our bodies in for a newer model.

So let’s stop blaming someone or something else. Let’s correct the institutional issues and also step up to the plate and take charge of the one thing we — rich or poor — own: our body.