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Everything's big in America...

Posted Nov 21 2008 4:26pm
Hello. I’m back and I’m jet-lagged, as you can probably tell from the time of this posting.

I spent two weeks in Florida - Disney World to be precise. I’ve been there twice before; twenty odd years ago and again in the nineties when I took my son (and a few others) with me. I love the place and it has really improved in terms of value for money I think but I noticed a disturbing trend that I hadn’t seen before – lots of people who either couldn’t or wouldn’t walk around the parks.

I’ve told you all before that I spent the last year of university studying the trend for obesity and its possible consequences for medicine and particularly pre-hospital care. I’ve discussed it in the book and I make reference to it whenever I can because I still feel strongly about it. Now I have seen first-hand the dangerous changes that are taking place in one of the worst offending countries.

America has one of the highest growing populations of overweight and obese individuals. The USA’s National Centre for Health Statistics recently reported that 63% of Americans are overweight, meaning they have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 25 and 31% are clinically obese (a BMI of over 30). It also stated that childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past two decades. This is shocking but there are very good reasons why it is happening – not only over there but in the UK and many other developed countries.

Notwithstanding the odd argument about genetic propensity for fatness, our behaviours, opportunities for sloth and the easy availability of cheap and abundant food make us ideal candidates for an early death as a result of piling on weight. As simple energy-consuming machines, we are required to eat to create ‘fuel’ which is then used up in order to make life possible. Excess fats and sugars are stored by the body for later use, as and when required, which is useful when you are facing a cold winter and a depletion of natural resources for food. Body fat would be used to keep us alive until we can stock up on fresh food again. That’s the idea but it doesn’t work when the nearest source of food is the local Tesco and its open 24 hours a day. Neither does it help that today’s modern society actively encourages less physical activity, thus when you eat a certain number of units of energy, you use up less and store more.

Back to my Disney World observations. I noticed an excessive number of people using electric wheelchairs to get around. I can’t believe for one minute that they all had disabilities that made it impossible to walk – some of them were in their teens. A lot of them were wheeling about as couples. A few of them demonstrated their perfectly able bodies by getting out to walk to the food stands for lunch, only to return to their chairs afterwards. Most of them were obese.

Even more alarming was the sight of so many kids being pushed around in ‘strollers’ – buggies. Only a small number of them were of an age where walking would have been a problem; they either couldn’t walk yet or the distances would have been difficult for them to tackle on little legs. The vast majority were definitely old enough to get out and walk for themselves but the opportunity to be pushed around the parks by their parents proved too good to be passed up. Again, many of these kids were overweight or obese. I found it ironic that a few of them were being wheeled about whilst eating burgers and crisps, courtesy of their parents. Clearly the paradox now in play is that these kids will get bigger, thus heavier, thus less easy to carry, so the parents will simply continue to push them around because its a hell of a lot easier on their backs.

And here’s a conversation I witnessed on the bus between a four year-old girl and her father.

‘When we get to the hotel, we’ll be leaving straight for the airport.’

‘Yeah but you’re gonna roll me there in my stroller, aren’t you dad?’

‘Yeah, I can do that.’

The little girl was actually expecting to be wheeled from one place to another on demand. She will be eating the same diet as most kids her age I would imagine but she won’t be burning the excess stuff off and she will probably just get fatter until she no longer fits properly inside her stroller. A few of the children I saw inside these buggies were far too big to sit down properly and had to wedge themselves in side-ways.

Now I am not a skinny person who is finger-pointing at overweight people and I know that many of my readers may well (and statistically are) overweight or obese but when are we going to get real about this? It is an epidemic and it is killing people.

I’m also a realist and I know that overweight children (and adults if they want to) can and do lose lots of weight and become lean and healthy. I’ve seen it in my own family so it happens but it’s not a social trend. How on Earth is the USA going to put together a standing army to defend itself in the future when most of the kids in its population are just too fat to fight? The same applies to us.

Inside and outside Disney there are a few ‘alternative food’ stands scattered about and you can get apple slices or carrot sticks instead of chips if you want but most of the stuff on offer is heavy, fatty and completely unhealthy if you are already overweight. Burgers, fries, coke (I didn’t see much diet coke anywhere) and large portions of chicken are much more easily bought than fruit or salads. In fact, on a trip to SeaWorld, which is not owned by Disney, I tried to find a place where I could eat something healthy and the one and only salad bar they had was shut (probably due to lack of interest). Getting alcohol is often difficult and you are going to have your ID scrutinised if you look younger than 21 - they are very hot on this, yet over-eating is probably now a bigger potential killer than drinking booze.

Inside the parks, one of the most popular items on sale to eat on the go is smoked turkey leg. I have no idea of its calorific value or how fatty it is but for me it would be a two day meal. In fact, I couldn’t finish many of the meals I had over there, not because the food is unpalatable but because for a little Brit like me, it was just too much in one serving. Even the cakes and sweets are huge and, regardless of my sweet tooth, I couldn’t bring myself to try any of them – they looked too sickening.

This problem is entirely reversible but the giant food-churning corporations are making billions from our laziness. Fast food tastes good when you are hungry and it suits busy lives. I know this myself of course because sometimes I have to eat the stuff during heavy shifts but that supplies me with the energy I need to get through a 12-hour day, much of which will involve physical activity, so I feel confident that I am ‘burning’ off at least as much as I shove in. My weight hasn’t changed much over the years and apart from my well known chocolate habit, which I am addressing, I only eat when I am hungry. I try not to eat too much too often. It’s that simple.

Maybe an anti-snack patch needs to be developed, much as nicotine patches can dampen the desire to smoke. It could be slapped on the arms of every fat child who refuses to get off their wheels and walk. They might eat less, lose weight and realise they feel better for it. Or maybe that would just be another way of pandering to a lazy population. The fact is things are too easy, especially for people in developed countries: Lots of cheap food, available any time you want it, loads of excuses for not exercising and a trend for staying fat once you are fat. I’m even convinced that it is less of a stigma for children now because they are almost in the majority wherever you go. We might soon be hearing ‘thin-est’ jokes and my whole argument will be burned with all the research that has gone before as day by day the population dwindles and the healthcare bill grows. Who needs a war? We have food.

So, what’s the magic formula that will save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who are too fat? Eat less, exercise more. Less in than out...or at least keep it balanced. For the kids of America I have this to say: get out of your strollers! Start a revolution and shock your parents. Convince them that you can and WILL walk around the Disney parks or wherever it is you are going. Walk until you are tired and need a nap. Walk off the fat and give yourself a healthier heart. Spend less time on your play-stations and more time playing real sports.

Our kids aren’t far behind, so we better keep an eye on this because it will get worse before it gets better.

If you want to check your ownBMIclick here. It’s not definitive by any means but, if you are honest about your height and weight, it will give you an indication.

Usual postings will start again shortly. I have a few from December that didn’t get published so I will do that over the weekend. I’m back at the helm next week and should be posting new stuff regularly. Thank you all for your kind comments about the book and my well-earned rest and please, keep everything I write in perspective.

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