Sunday, December 18, 2005


Chewing the fat


Blame it on Sidney Taubenfeld. Sidney and I were childhood pals in the early 1960s on New York's Lower East Side. I was a skinny runt who, especially at the table, made my mother's life miserable. One day, Mrs. Taubenfeld invited me for supper and put a bottle of ketchup on the table. Suddenly, foods I wouldn't touch became flavorful. That's when my addiction to sugar, and - with it, a life-long struggle with being fat - began.

Roger Cohen, who writes the always-worth-reading 'Globalist' column for the Herald Tribune, recently described returning to New York from an extended overseas journey. As his taxi made its way from JFK Airport, Cohen looked out the window and noticed that Americans had become fatter and fatter - something he attributes to dysfunctional American culture.

Cohen wrote that he always worried about being squashed up next to a fat person during a plane journey. Then the blubber-basher added: 'Let's face it: Nobody likes to be shapeless or gets that way without suffering. And let's face this: If you punish yourself by getting fat, you may also want to punish others. In obesity lurks anger.'

I'd always had a lot of anger in me, and I have always been fat, but I never put the two together. Maybe one day I'll find myself sitting next to Cohen on a plane and he can elucidate.

It may be hard for the skinny and smug to appreciate this, but grappling with obesity - like post-aliya absorption into Israeli society - is a-one-day-at-a-time struggle.

Some 39 percent of Israelis are overweight and 23% are grossly overweight, or obese. Men tend to be overweight; women, obese. Israeli Arabs are fatter than Israeli Jews. Partly, this reflects a preference for larger women in Arab society, but it's also the paradoxical result of poverty: In developed societies being fat is associated with being poor.

That may be changing. Obesity is America is growing fastest among those making more than $60,000 a year.

For many of us, the day after Pessah signaled the dawn of yet another Sisyphean effort to lose weight. Yet for all the chatter about obesity - blame it on metabolism, social class, emotions, genetics, lack of exercise - whatever, according to The Merck Manual its actual cause 'is unknown, [though] the mechanism is simple - consuming more calories than are expended.'

Some blame the financially gluttonous purveyors of addictive junk food for the fat epidemic. Take Hardee's, a McDonald's wannabe, which markets a 'Monster Thickburger' packing 1,420 calories. Critics label such processed meals 'food porn.' But by the time you realize how ghastly processed foods are for you, it's too late. You're hooked.

NOW, I could join a class-action suit against companies which produce addictive foods - maybe go after Heinz over my craving for their scrumptious, sugar-saturated, condiment. But that would be like saying I have no free will. And, whatever my weaknesses, I take personal responsibility over what goes into my mouth.

Then there's an outfit called the Center for Consumer Freedom, which has been placing full-page advertisements in major US newspapers warning that the common man is being 'force-fed a steady diet of obesity myths by the 'food police,' trial lawyers, and even the American government.' The campaign is being orchestrated by Richard Berman, a Washington lobbyist for Big Food, Big Restaurants and Big Tobacco. Berman recently told The Washington Post that 'junk science, intimidation tactics, and even threats of violence' are being used to push an 'extremist' food agenda.

Maybe Berman is a follower of economist Milton Friedman, who commented back in 1974: 'Do corporate executives, provided they stay within the law, have responsibilities in their business activities other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible? My answer to that is, no they do not.'

But it strikes me that there's a third way between 'junk science' and 'food porn.' People have a personal responsibility to resist Monster Thickburgers. And corporations have an ethical responsibility not to market damaging foods.

And whether out of altruism or pragmatism, the good news on the corporate front, at least in America, was Kraft's announcement back in January that it would stop advertising addictive snacks to children. And other US companies are promising to remove harmful trans fats, added in processing to promote shelf life, from their products. Unfortunately, Big Food in Israel has made no similar moves. Only now is there talk in government circles about listing trans fats on product ingredient labels.

Myself, I'm not waiting for government or industry to get off their fat asses. For the past six months I've been on Arthur Agatston's South Beach Diet, which emphasizes breaking sugar addiction. I've learned to pick foods low on the glycemic food index so my blood sugar level doesn't fall too rapidly (making me famished). Generally speaking, Agatston advocates keeping away from processed foods, white bread, white rice, potatoes, pasta and corn.

I'm not pushing South Beach - though I've lost 10 kilos. Anyone with a weight problem should do what works for them, such as checking out the 2005 Dietary Guidelines recently issued by the US government. These emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat milk, as well as the avoidance of trans fats and added sugars.

During Pessah, I cheated. It's almost impossible not to.

But I am back on the wagon, Sidney.

– From a May 2, 2005 Jerusalem Post column

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