June 24, 2002

At the turn of the century, we had fat cats — those captains of industry, like Carnegie, Mellon and Rockefeller, who amassed huge fortunes off of the almost slave-like conditions they put working people through.

Back then, a big belly signified a person with the riches to fill it; there was a certain prestige to being fat in times of scarcity. Most working folks were pretty skinny, if not downright malnourished. Through the early part of the 20th century, hunger was still a problem in the United States.

But now, as we stumble into the 21st century, the average person can barely get through the door. The fact is that we are facing a health crisis of epidemic proportions in this country. Too many people are fat.

The interesting thing is that this is happening just as the disparity between rich and poor becomes greater. How great? We live in a time when CEOs are fired and then given $100 million in return for failing.

Things have reversed themselves: people in the top ten percent of wealth in this country look pretty good, they stay in shape and eat the right foods. And their kids probably don’t suffer from type 2 diabetes.

You can’t say the same for the working class. In fact, until recently type 2 diabetes was known as “adult onset” diabetes. But just over twenty years ago, doctors, started seeing it in kids, too. In the last ten years, doctors have seen a fourfold increase in type 2 diabetes among children, because of the rising number of overweight and obese kids.

With all of our technology and conveniences, we are killing our kids with junk food and video games.

While the underclasses get physically fat, the upper classes do everything they can to economically fatten up. And the fatter they get, the more expensive the gyms and the health care facilities and personal cooks they can afford.
And, of course, as we and our kids get fatter, the businesses that sell us on eating all that junk get fatter, too. The massive advertising aimed at children selling junk food or electronic toys really get to feast on how much we spend.
It’s a simple equation: the fatter McDonald’s or KFC’s stock value, the more prone to diseases like diabetes and heart disease our children are. If we put more stock in our children’s immediate and long-term health and fewer french fries in their mouths, I’d feel a whole lot better about all of this.

Look, I’m not a health nut. Actually, over the last thirty-something years, I have abused my body in ways that astound me. But I always sought moderation. I tried to balance my vices with virtues. So the more I drank, the more I exercised and so on. I’m in pretty good shape. I’m 5’10”, about 170 pounds, and look good. My kid didn’t grow up on fast food or video games, so she looks pretty good too.

Most of you know that I have lived all over the country, but most of my adult life was spent in Northern California. So I was kind of used to how Californians looked. Then, about four years ago, I moved here to the wonderful Hudson Valley. I quickly came to appreciate the incredible natural beauty of the environment.

Everything up here is beautiful, with the possible exception of a lot of the people. Now everybody is beautiful on the inside — but the fact is, we’ve got a lot of fat people here. Worse yet, we just have too many overweight kids.

So, if you’re an adult, your shape is the shape you are and I’m not to judge. What I do judge, though, are the kids that I see. Too many of them are carrying too much weight, and science has shown that if they hit adolescence with that weight, there is a good chance that they are stuck with it and all the related health problems for the rest of their lives.
I’m not trying to create guilty-feeling parents here. Guilt is one of the biggest time wasters of an emotion that I can think of. What we are looking for here is awareness, and hopefully some changes in behavior.

According to the medical establishment, there are two major culprits responsible for too much weight on too many kids: junk food and a lack of exercise.

It’s not easy. Working parents scarcely have any time to cook, and even less time to shop. Everyday, I see the cars lined up at the fast food places, and I know it’s not parents being bad parents. It’s more like parents being exhausted parents. Fifty percent of our kids are now raised by single moms. So its six o’clock and dinner time, the kids are whining, the two of you are tired and it’s just easier to say, “Okay, everybody jump in the car,” assuming one of you didn’t hit the drive-through on the way home.

I’m not all too sure how we can get our kids to exercise, but I do have some thoughts. One is that we are the most important models of behavior for our kids. If we live on the couch, chances are that they will also live on the couch. If we invite them out to play tennis or basketball or soccer, chances are that they are going to learn how to get active and stay active.

The point is that by being aware of the problem, we can perhaps hope to manage it.

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