I hear a lot about how Americans are crazy overweight. And we are. About a third of us are overweight and another third of us are obese. But there are certain parts of the media and certain denizens of the Twitterverse (especially those that spend a lot of time covering health and nutrition) that seem to go out of their way to remind us of this. They seem to take unholy glee constantly reminding us that we’re a bunch of decadent, fat slobs. But I’m not so sure it’s quite true. We tend to overdo it, but analyzing what I eat and burn in the way of calories has shown me that I, at least, wasn’t completely out of control.
In the years before I got married, I was hovering around 200 pounds, which for someone of my size is overweight, but not obese. My story about attempting to lose weight was a familiar one. I got plenty of exercise (I would run five miles a day), but the weight never seemed to come off. Like many people, I told myself that I was just having trouble burning it off because I was getting older. Naturally, I was completely deluding myself. My problem, like many bachelors, is that my food regimen was an atrocity. An affront to all that is right and good and decent. An abomination in the eyes of God and nature. A caloric crime against humanity.
I was doing various things wrong. For example, I’ve pointed out in a previous piece that I tended to put cheese on everything because many of my attempts at cooking ended in disaster. This tended to add 200–400 calories. I might also inundate the food with some sort of sauce. Usually very fattening sauce. Dousing food in some sort of tasty thing in an attempt to cover up the evidence of my culinary contravention was hurting me more than I realized.
And every now and then, I’d get a craving for the unhealthy and down a bag of potato chips. A single portion of potato chips is only about 140 calories. But the whole bag usually has seven to ten portions. And I would frequently impulse buy french onion dip or ranch dip, compounding the problem. And that spinach dip that’s right next to the other on the rack two isn’t really healthier. The spinach part is a trap. It’s like putting spinach on a pile of lard and convincing yourself that it’s healthier.
And like any good bachelor, I spent a lot of time carousing. And since my town is chock full of microbreweries, I tended to guzzle high-calorie IPAs on the regular. I’ve already written about how alcohol can mess up a diet. A night or two tearing up the town with your pals can really wreck your waistline. Which can, in turn, wreck your clothes. I started to realize one of the hidden costs of being fat after I split a few pairs of pants.
One upside was that I was unintentionally offsetting these calories a bit. The day after a night out, I was frequently so hungover that I didn’t want to get out of bed until mid-afternoon. Or so poisoned with alcohol that I was afraid I’d upchuck anything I ate. So I didn’t eat anything until the evening. I’d inadvertently discovered the benefits of intermittent fasting. Although frequently it was more like involuntary bulimia when I lost the battle with my sour stomach.
But by far, my worst vices of all were at the grocery store. You know how people tell you not to go grocery shopping hungry? That’s good advice because if you do, you buy all of the worst stuff. And my supermarket posed a particular problem.
The Tampa Bay area, where I currently reside, is the birthplace of Publix supermarkets. Which has all sorts of temptations. There’s a deli, you see. A deli of food both great and terrible. Massive hoagies loaded with mounds of lunchmeat and slathered with mayo and mustard. Racks of rotisserie chicken. Pulled pork and ribs that are to die for. And I mean that literally. If you eat them, they probably will kill you eventually, say, from stroke, heart disease, cancer. Pick your favorite chronic disease.
But the most epic of all selections was their fried chicken. Because I’m from the southeastern United States, eating fried food is a quasi-religious experience for me. And Publix has the most epic fried chicken there is. I don’t know what they put in it, but I suspect it’s infused with the ambrosia of the gods and fried in a vat of oils made from the Tree of Life itself. No fried chicken chain has food that remotely compares to Publix fried chicken. It’s rare that I could walk by the deli without succumbing to the dietary lust produced by it’s overpoweringly delectable smell.
Of course, as is usually the case with things that taste good, it came with a high cost. And I don’t mean in dollars. One full chicken was 2,750 calories. So even just eating the wings could be an entire meal. And if I got the coleslaw and mashed potatoes or mac and cheese to go with it, it was a rather heavy meal. And this was typical, since cooking for myself was something I was rarely in the mood to do.
So my bad eating habits were washing out my good exercise habits. A combination of unwillingness and inability to cook for myself combined with inability to restrain myself from the enticements of the least healthy of foods in the grocery store was preventing weight loss. Still, I was maintaining my weight, so I wouldn’t say that I was terrible. I just needed to improve the quality of what I was eating a bit. Which happened when I got married.
After I got married, the quality of the things I ate improved because my wife started cooking things that were actually healthy. And that didn’t taste like a failed science experiment. The kind of failed experiment that produces supervillains. The type of lab accidents that turn people into homicidal lizardmen and whatever. This is probably why I bought so much precooked stuff. My wife was a much better cook than I am (an admittedly low bar), so we were more likely to eat home-cooked meals after we tied the knot.
But there were plenty of other changes that went along with marriage that didn’t help. We spent a lot of time going out. The idea that married people don’t have lives is nonsense. We went out constantly. And as I’ve pointed out before, eating out is generally not all that healthy. Restaurants these days have a tendency to pile obscene amounts of food on your plate. And my natural frugality didn’t help. If a 12-ounce steak only costs a dollar or two more than a 9-ounce steak, I’d get the larger one, assuming I was getting a deal. But I wasn’t considering the calorie cost, just the dollar cost.
And as our circle of friends increased, we’d go to house parties. These were generally a cross between a potluck dinner and a keg party. And I always felt the urge to eat a little of everything. I told myself that I didn’t want any of the people who brought food to feel unappreciated. This is utter nonsense, of course. I just couldn’t resist the urge to graze. The cornucopia of sinful delights lured me back again and again with its seductive siren’s call. This is why I avoid all-you-can-eat places like the plague. There’s a risk that I’ll eat until I pop.
Other times, when we ate in, I’d cook the only thing I was good at, aside from hamburgers and hot dogs, which any real American can prepare. And that is…giant ribeye steaks on the grill. Publix tends to sell these in one pound slices, which, although I didn’t realize it at the time, can contain over 1,000 calories. Add in a baked potato and some other side, and I was eating the equivalent of two or three meals.
But the main problem with married life is that the exercise mostly stopped. There were a few things we did while we were out, like dancing (which I hate) that burned a few calories. But, especially early on, our days were full of work and our nights were spent on the town. So I never really went running or anything. And I gained fifty pounds in five years.
When I started measuring what I eat and what I burn, I realized what I’d been doing wrong. When I ran five miles a day, I probably burned about 3,400 calories a day. But the atrocious bachelor diet and hard-partying with my buddies probably equaled about the same amount.
After I got married, when I became mostly sedentary, that burn probably dropped to about 2,000, although my intake dropped too as the meals foisted on me by the self-proclaimed queen of all creation (or at least the house we live in) caused me to eat more healthily. With the exception of the nights out I mentioned above. So I went from good exercise and bad food selections to the exact opposite. And my waistline slowly expanded.
Even though I was getting crazily obese, I realized recently (after I crunched the numbers) that my consumptive choices weren’t that bad. As I mentioned, I gained 50 pounds in five years. To do that, you need to eat about 100 calories or so more than you burn per day. 100 calories more than you burn isn’t good, but it’s not evidence of uncontrolled dietary debauchery. And it’s really not that hard to cut 100 calories a day.
So what I’m doing now is my bachelor exercise routine with my married diet. And I made up for those five years in one year. All it took was the elimination of a few bad eating habits, the addition of a few good ones, and a moderate amount of exercise, maybe thirty minutes to an hour per day. If a few small changes put me on the fast track to good health, it means I wasn’t an incorrigible lazy bum. I was just slightly off course.
This is why it irritates me when someone on the internet imperiously lectures the general public about how horrible our lifestyles are. The internet is awash with hundreds of dismal stories about Americans being giant fatties who eat garbage. These pious pontifications often lecture us about the “SAD” or Standard American Diet. Which is a BS term, since people in various parts of the country actually eat radically different things. This is just a pejorative term used to sneeringly berate us for our occasional dalliances with fast food or fried food. It implies that we are haplessly self-indulgent. But this is an exaggeration.
Even though most people are overweight, only about 8% are extremely obese. That means most people are in the range I was or less. And America didn’t blow up all of a sudden. The average American weight (for men and women) grew by about 40 pounds between 1960 and 2010. That’s not that fast at all. This suggests that most of us aren’t abysmal gluttons. Most people are, as I was, probably only slightly overdoing it.
For most people, it’s probably not about the food at all. This has everything to do with Americans not being active. Since the 60s, our jobs and recreation have become increasingly sedentary. The food doesn’t help, but Americans have been eating hamburgers and for over a century. Fried chicken and barbecue have been consumed here since before indoor plumbing was a thing. But we only got fat recently. Our food choices aren’t the real source of the problem.
It’s all about physical activity. Most people don’t work in factories or warehouses or farms or construction sites anymore. And we tend to be more likely to play sports on a gaming console than in real life. Which doesn’t burn anything, unless you have that cutesy little Wii thing. We work long hours behind a desk, drive through miserable rush hour traffic, and get home and don’t feel like moving at all.
This is where the discipline comes in. I may feel drained when I get home, but it’s important to do something active as quickly as possible. I’ve discovered that doing thirty minutes of exercise when I get home improves my mood noticeably. And if I manage to drag out of bed early (I’m really not a morning person) and work in thirty minutes of exercise, my mood is better for the entire day. Even the humdrum mundanity of the accounting profession which fills my daylight hours can’t diminish the good mood I’ve acquired from morning exercise.
American obesity is entirely reversible. The truth is, you only need to make small adjustments. If I had exercised thirty minutes a day when I got married, or maybe had a beer or two less on occasion, I’d have probably been losing weight. So there’s good news for anyone looking to lose weight. You don’t need massive changes. You just need to add in a few good habits and dump a few bad ones.
If you don’t feel like tracking everything like I do, just try running thirty minutes a day or biking thirty minutes a day. Just try eating more vegetables with your meals. Just try eating fish instead of steak occasionally. Just try eating an apple at snack time instead of potato chips. Any of these would have knocked off at least 100 calories for me, and I’d have been in great shape. And the exercise is probably the most important part. When I was younger, my mother insisted that I spend at least an hour outside every day. She was onto something. Listen to your mother.
We don’t suck as badly as the media would let on. We aren’t hopeless losers. In a year or less, most of us could be healthy. Most Americans are not lazy, fat slobs. There are fat slobs among us, but most of them are very hardworking fat slobs who sit behind a desk all day and don’t get any exercise at night. But for anyone like this who has given up on ever being healthy again, you don’t have to turn into some fancy pants bourgeois health nut who only drinks green tea and only eats kale and collard greens. You just need to clean up your act a little and stick to it. You don’t need a complete, radical change. You just need to smooth out a few of the rough edges of your lifestyle.
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