Perilously Plump

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

April 2002By Comments

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 to wane in 1984, seemingly in response to the death of distance runner Jim Fixx, a paragon of cardiovascular health who succumbed to a heart attack after running one day.

Nearly thirty percent of our citizens confess to getting no exercise at all in their leisure time. And because of the sprawl of Texas’ cities and our often blisteringly hot summers, which necessitate our driving everywhere, most of us don’t get much during the workday either in the way that denizens of, say, New York do. Three Texas cities are in the top ten nationwide for time lost to delays in traffic during the day (two of those, Dallas and Houston, are also among the fattest in the country)—confirming that when we’re not at our desks at work or on the couch at home, we’re in our air-conditioned SUVs.

Bigger Is Better. The idea that our obsession with high school football could have something to do with our fat problem may seem a little counterintuitive, but bear with me. American obesity has often been traced to how we were taught to eat as kids—meaning, actually, how we were allowed to gorge. This culturally sanctioned pigging out, experts suggest, is a product of the American belief that big, plump kids bespeak good parenting and an affluent society. Nothing better manifests this attitude than the worship of high school football in Texas, which continues to have more kids participating than any other state. Size is an advantage in football, and a hefty coating of fat over the muscles can improve the performance of a guard or tackle. This has transformed child fatness into an implement of success.

In fact, this “fat cool” seems to be very much a part of the male youth culture these days. Three-hundred-pound offensive linemen have become role models. So have outsized wrestlers and beefy rappers. Actually, the football players are probably better off than the non-jock students, who likely don’t even have a daily physical education requirement (less than 10 percent of U.S. schools do) and may down something like a 7-Eleven Double Gulp (64 ounces of soda pop, containing eight hundred calories) on the drive home everyday.

As with all matters involving kids, it’s tempting to think that such behavior is “normal” because it seems universal. But as social historian Peter Stearns has pointed out, the French much more strictly regulate their children’s eating—enforcing set meal times, disallowing snacking in between, limiting intake of animal milk and meat. Developing such consumption habits during the formative years, he believes, helps to keep French adults thinner than their American counterparts despite the legendary richness of their cuisine.

The Last Guilty Pleasure. A friend of mine opined about ten years ago that food would soon be the only safe, mood-altering drug left—and, boy, was he prescient. Post-crack, post-MADD, post-AIDS America has only lard and chocolate left to get the dopamine and the serotonin flowing, and you have to believe that the urge to do so is all the stronger here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, home of the world’s largest Baptist church, where sins like smoking and drinking and premarital sex have been especially frowned upon. It still may be tough to get a drink in a lot of Texas towns, but there’s always a Dairy Queen in the middle of town and a doughnut shop just around the corner. Apparently, the sin of gluttony is contingent on what you’re overindulging in.

It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before all this food neurosis led to a proliferation of twelve-step self-help groups for overeaters and something called a refined-carbohydrate addict. Assuming food addiction is a real pathology—and I tend to think at least some cases of overeating are—the present era may be seen as the food equivalent of the crack epidemic back in the eighties: a period when it seems as if everyone is on “the stuff,” and nothing’s going to stop it until enough people die.

With that in mind, some experts have begun to suggest more radical cures. Cooper has said that the government could consider offering tax breaks to people who meet certain body mass index requirements. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington research and lobbying group, is supporting efforts in some states to put a kind of sin tax on all soft drinks. It also favors restricting advertising for high-fat foods and requiring schools to serve one percent milk.

As much as I sympathize, I have serious doubts about whether even these measures would work. Look, cigarettes are just about the most flagrantly deadly product one could imagine, and it has taken half a century to make a serious dent in smoking. Food is not so easily demonized. It is our most widely and intensely shared biological experience, other than breathing. Butter on my cheese, please—what the hell, it’s not like it’s going to kill me, right? Fatness didn’t become our primary health problem by accident. In Texas anyway, it has always been our cultural destiny.

Related Content