Perilously Plump

Why does Texas have four of the ten fattest cities in America? The answers lie at the heart of our culture.

Since this column is about the current fat epidemic in the state of Texas, I should say from the outset that I’ve never had much trouble with my weight. Some might argue that this disqualifies me from discussing the subject, but it’s not like I’m one of those disgusting ectomorphs who can eat what he wishes and never gain a pound. I’ve always had to do something to maintain my weight. Early in my adulthood, I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day—still the most effective but, unfortunately, most dangerous diet possible. When I quit smoking several years back, I turned to the second most effective means of controlling weight, an hour of exercise a day, which is a lot more trouble but a lot less dangerous.

So I think I have sufficient empathy to proceed here without violating any canons of political correctness. No doubt about it: Overweight people are still too often treated cruelly and discriminated against. At the same time, the fat problem can’t be regarded as some arcane little pathology that can be appreciated only by daytime talk show hosts. It is the nation’s most pervasive and intractable epidemic of disease. As such, I figure anyone who is alarmed about it is qualified to investigate.

I’m especially alarmed lately because it appears that Texas is home to some of the largest concentrations of fat people in a very fat nation. For two years running now, Men’s Fitness magazine has named Houston the fattest city in the U.S., with Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio not far behind in the top ten. It’s an unwieldy, epidemiologically imperfect survey that incorporates intuitive factors such as a city’s TV-watching habits along with more empirical data, such as its number of fast-food eateries. But I paid it heed because it tended to validate my own Atkinson Survey, which examines the same problem by observing morphologies at the main Fletcher’s corny dog stand at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas each fall. This is hardly empirical research either, but thirty years of personal observation suggests that despite the aerobics movement; the low-fat, low-cholesterol movement; the Atkins and the Pritikin diets; Healthy Choice and Lean Cuisine; turkey sausage and SnackWell’s cookies, and so on, Americans are just getting fatter and fatter—and Texas is leading the way.

Fatness is now so prevalent that it seems to be the norm. Sixty-one percent of Americans are either overweight or outright obese. Among children obesity has doubled in the past twenty years, and among African Americans it’s a virtual plague, afflicting nearly 30 percent of the adult population. Plumpness has even become acceptable in the previously anorexic strata of network television, where overweight actors such as Camryn Manheim of The Practice and Roseanne Barr are increasingly common.

Unfortunately, being embraced by popular culture has not made it any healthier to be fat. Fatness and inactivity are responsible for conditions that lead to 300,000 to 580,000 deaths a year—heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes—five times the number that are killed by AIDS, drugs, and guns combined. It will soon supplant smoking as our most dangerous behavioral risk factor. According to Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the Dallas aerobics pioneer, “You cannot be overweight and be healthy.” Indeed, government studies have found that if we ate less and exercised more, we’d save nearly $150 billion a year in health care costs related to fatness.

There’s no shortage of explanations for the fat epidemic, but they all arrive at the same bottom line. Whether because of genetics, neurochemistry, or socioeconomic reasons, people are fat because they take on too much energy and don’t burn enough off. What’s not so transparent is why Texas seems to be leading the fat movement. You’d think with all our sunshine and wide-open spaces, our frontier tradition and love of athletics that we’d be lean and mean. But we’re not anywhere close. Aside from having four of the fattest cities in the nation, we have the highest percentage of obese citizens among the most populous urbanized states. Poverty, of course, has something to do with this, but it can’t explain all of it: New York has almost the same percentage of poor people but only three quarters the percentage of obese citizens. What puts us over the top are four of our most cherished cultural icons: Tex-Mex food, the SUV, high school football, and fundamentalist religion.

Fries With That Burrito? One reason that America is so fat is, of course, fast food. Every day, a quarter of the adult U.S. population downs meals like the triple-meat Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger with fries and a drink at Jack in the Box that, unbeknownst to them, may contain nearly all of that day’s allotment of calories. Texans may be fatter yet because we are not only rapacious consumers of burgers and fries but of an equally fattening genre, Tex-Mex.

Let’s say you eat fast food or Tex-Mex four days out of the week. That means that on a majority of days, you may be taking in 2,000 to 2,500 calories in a single meal if you include fries or tortilla chips and soft drinks or beer. That is about all a moderately active adult needs for the entire day. Anything else you eat on those days—even a nice, healthy piece of fruit—is adding to “positive caloric balance,” the favored dread phrase among nutritionists these days. Do that for enough weeks and months and years and … well, you do the math.

Most distressing is the fact that the one dietary deprivation that most Americans adhere to—reducing fat intake—has proved to be a double-edged sword. We are eating less fat than twenty years ago, but according to Cooper, we’re compensating for it by taking in three hundred more calories a day.

Don’t Walk, Don’t Run. Taking in extra calories wouldn’t be such a problem if we regularly burned them off, but we don’t. Whatever happened to the exercise movement? Well, after the number of Americans who exercised regularly doubled from 1960 to 1980, it began

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