Weight? Who cares about weight? To tell the truth, I used to care
seriously about weight when I was around 20, when I boxed in the
regimental championships at the U.S. Naval Academy (undefeated). My
“weight class” was 145 pounds, which is to say I couldn’t weigh in at
more than 149. Actually, for the official weigh-in, I usually tipped
the scales at something like 153, which meant I immediately took a
thorough workout, which regularly brought me down to 148. Then, amid
all the hollering midshipmen, the bell rang. Round one.
Since I weighed in for my last boxing match, I’ve hardly even looked
at a weighing machine. What for? Who cared? And I’ve passed with a
blind eye all articles in the press about weight gain, weight loss,
anorexia and bulimia. These were stories for women readers, I assumed.
Until I suddenly realized that there had been cover stories on the
weight “problem” in Time and People and, just last week, saw two stories
on page one of the New York Times — one suggesting that personal weight
was the result of a hereditary predisposition (and a person couldn’t do
too much about it) and the other suggesting that a person could do a lot
about it — a decisive factor being whether or not you spent most of
your free time inert (or nibbling) in front of a television set.
I only made the front page twice as a reporter for the New York
Times. The first time was when I got myself arrested by Soviet combat
troops when Moscow decided to crush the Czechoslovak insurgency with an
invasion of half a million men (which is one of those things you don’t
forget). The second time I made page one was when I aired the
controversy over whether or not Solzhenitsyn (then a recent Nobel Prize
winner) was an anti-Semite.
The New York Times’ recent page-one controversy (you can see how the
world has changed) is whether or not Americans can control their
tendency to be overweight. (Further Times articles plan to investigate
the psychology of eating, our national culture with respect to class
relationships and fat, along with the diet business.)
The decline in the amount of foreign news covered by the American
press has become notorious. But being overweight? Was this a national
plague? Apparently, it is. Even for children.
Dr. Richard Strauss says the reason for the obesity epidemic among
children is obvious. Children today, he says, “are so inactive as to
defy belief.” In the past, they used to play outside, he explains. “Now
they just sit in front of a television set or a computer screen.” Dr.
Strauss and his colleagues at the Johnson School of Medicine in New
Jersey recently finished a study of children aged 10 to 16, having given
them electronic monitors to determine how active or inactive they were.
“We found that for about 10 hours of the day they’re basically doing
nothing (physical),” Dr. Strauss said. “And what we call vigorous
activity — moving faster than three and a half miles an hour — came to
on average of 12 minutes a day.”
But were children that much more active only a decade or so ago? It
turns out that no one knows for sure as the instruments were not around
yet to measure amounts of physical activity. Nor, for that matter, did
people think it necessary to measure expenditure of energy. But then,
of course, there’s the eating side of the picture.
Many think a fair amount of social history is involved here. We no
longer eat “family” meals together in a peaceful environment but,
instead, we on the run grab meals made up of “fast food.” Children,
moreover, do not report that they’re eating more — sometimes even
reporting that they’re eating less. But it takes only the tiniest
incremental imbalance for an individual’s weight to creep up. To gain
15 pounds a year, a person needs only an imbalance of 150 calories a day
— which is one soft drink. A Life Saver is 10 calories. An extra Life
Saver a day is a pound a year.
Social habits as well are an obstruction. Many people that have been
studied in academic research are eager, enthusiastic and convinced that
weight is a matter of major importance. But what are we to do with the
mother of Mrs. Sanchez of East Palo Alto, Calif., who often invites her
family to dinner?
“If we eat just a little bit, she is offended,” says Mrs. Sanchez.
“She feels she has cooked all day for nothing. She’s only happy when
everyone is still at the table, asking for more.”
As loving as is the intention, this is the way to a fat nation.