I will miss Tim Russert badly. As a political junkie, I have been riveted by the spectacular fireworks of this year’s presidential race. No one has told the story or shared my passion as well as Tim Russert. He was smart and decent; an everyman whom anyone could relate to. But Tim Russert’s death, just like the deaths of approximately 300,000 other good and decent people each year, was unnecessary. After the tributes, mourning and remembrances....who will focus on that part of the story?
In recalling Russert’s health in recent months, Tom Brokaw commented that there was “the issue of his weight”. The two of them had been on a diet, competing to see who could lose more. But it seems that the competition had lost steam. Brokaw remembered that Russert was “cutting back on the snacks”. But it was too late by then. On Friday the thirteenth, Tim Russert collapsed and died at his desk at NBC. An autopsy showed extensive coronary artery disease. He was 58 and he will never know who won the election that so fascinated him.
I’m a body watcher by profession and for some time I had been noting Russert’s expanding waistline and thin legs. This is the shape that should strike fear into our hearts because it is the shape of heart disease itself.
Ironically, on the very day of Russert’s death, the front page of the New York Times ran a story about a new health initiative in Japan. Health care in Japan is nationalized, and with the population aging the government does not want to find itself awash in medical costs related to obesity. So, it has mandated that companies and local governments measure the waists of all those aged 40 to 74. Moreover, the government has set limits for waist size: 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women. Those who exceed these limits are given education about weight loss and told to reduce. If they do not, the companies they work for face strong financial penalties. In this way, Japan has tightened the screws on business: do something about your obese employees or pay. How would Americans fare if our government decided to do the same? Poorly. American men have an average waist size of 39 inches and women of 36.5. Virtually no one would pass muster.
While mandatory waist size could never be enforced in the United States, we should take a page from something else that Japan has done about obesity. They’ve changed the way that it is discussed. For some years, Japan has focused on the metabolic consequences of too much fat, rather than simply on the weight itself. The country has become educated about Metabolic Syndrome, the gang of deadly companions to fat that probably killed Tim Russert. These fellow travelers include high blood pressure, problems with blood sugar, elevated cholesterol and/or triglycerides, increased inflammation and increased blood clotting. All of these things stem directly from the accumulation of fat that sits in the middle of the body. In Japan, the word obesity has been replaced by the word “metabo”. It is a much more comprehensive description of the overweight state; one that is tied to all of its consequences. In Japan, no one wants to be a metabo.
The word metabo is no small adjustment in vocabulary. Right now in America, we see weight in terms of scale numbers and the numbers on our clothing. We need to see weight in terms of the numbers that measure the damage to our arteries. We lose weight by competing with each other to drop a few pounds but have avoided taking a good look at the deadly seriousness of that fat. Suppose we are not overweight but metabo. Would a “metabo” Tim Russert have been more worried about his expanding waist than one who was simply “overweight” ? Had NBC measured waists every year and insisted on treatment for those who were in trouble, might Russert have lived? Had our government advanced more initiatives to make us aware of Metabolic Syndrome, would people like Russert have thought twice about getting heavier? I believe the answer to all of these questions is yes. The death of Tim Russert reminds us that our national weight problem is no small matter. America is metabo and it’s time we faced up to it.