America Ruins On Dunkin

It was National Donut Day last week, in case you didn’t notice.

For anyone connected to social media, it had to be hard not to notice as status updates and sponsored links flooded cyberspace with pics, tweets, and hashtags announcing the Great Donut Giveaway taking place at every “Coffee &” shop across the country.

Personally, I was horrified – though not for the reasons most of my friends on Facebook assumed. Listen, I love an indulgence as much as anyone. Give me a fresh Boston Cream with my black coffee and you’ve won my heart forever. Guard your chocolate chip cookies when I’m anywhere near. And when it comes to margaritas, mojitos, or manhattans, it’s always five o’clock somewhere. I cannot be holier than thou.

No, my horror – my outrage, really – had much more to do with culture than confection. As a nation, we willingly choose to ignore the obvious. Imagine, if you will  a National Tobacco Day and a free Lucky Strike with your coffee instead of that Cinnamon Old Fashioned. And why not? One cigarette will no more kill you than will one donut.

Of course, the cigarette is part of a much larger problem. Smoking is responsible for about one of every five deaths in the United States each year. What does a donut do?

Let me tell you.

More than a third of all American adults are defined as clinically obese. Since 1980, childhood obesity in the US has very nearly tripled. Tripled. Not surprising then that internationally, Americans top the charts in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. In just fifteen years we’ve managed to nearly double the prevalence of diabetes in this country. I could add that American men are the least likely of any first world nation to reach the ripe old age of fifty and American women are second-to-least likely, but reading that is just downright depressing. Trying to put a positive spin on it, let’s note that together American men and women lead the pack in the race to the grave.

Three cheers for American exceptionalism. Here’s a donut.

When I posted those obesity stats on Facebook, a friend of mine called me out. He dismissed as “BS” the BMI charts that clinically define ‘normal’ weight in an individual versus the categories of ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’. (For those of you who don’t know, BMI stands for Body Mass Index and is number calculated by comparing an individual’s weight against their height.) He referenced himself – 5’11” and 173 pounds – and noted that according to the charts he was ever so slightly in the ‘overweight’ category. He’s healthy. He’s active. He’s not overweight…

…by modern American standards.

And that’s the key. That’s the point. That’s the reason why I sat down to write this today. To try to explain what ‘overweight’ actually is, and to explain how we’ve become blind to it.

We have come to equate ‘overweight’ with ‘fat’, and to think of ‘obese’ as just ‘really fat.’ But this is not the case. It is possible to be a reasonably healthy individual and still fall into the overweight category. Consider…well…most of us.

And I hope you are noticing all the qualifiers. Possible. Reasonably. Most. You can live a long and engaged life outside of your optimum weight. It’s true, even though you won’t hear many of us trainers say it. Get moderate exercise. Eat moderately well. Drink only in moderation. Limit your sweets and treats to a moderate level, and – yes – you will have a moderately healthy life.

But it won’t be optimum.

The rest of my friend’s comment on facebook was that if he did lose the weight to get himself within the bands of what the BMI chart called normal healthy weight, that he would “look anorexic.” The comment is not unique. I have heard it from countless people. I have said it myself, in the past.

In response I offer a brief story of two pictures of my father. The first was taken just as he finished basic training in the army during World War II. He is what we would consider the picture of health. Here is a man who has just completed weeks of intense physical training with little room for digression. At the time of the photo, he is likely to have that morning dropped and completed more push ups than he has at any time in his life before or since. Nothing wrong with him. At all.

Until you look at the second photo, taken about two years later. He is a master sergeant in the First Army Air Commando Group in Burma. He is at a desk. He has been living on rations and been called upon to do what we all hope never to be called upon to do. And he is radiant. Easily 15-20 pounds lighter, he is neither underweight, nor gaunt, nor ‘anorexic’. He is fit. Able. Light. Capable. Adaptable. Ready to immediately deal with the next crisis.

Our understanding of health, weight, and real fitness has died a death by a thousand tiny cuts. Our nation did not go to bed fit and wake up fat. It took time. Not a lot of time, as the charts above indicate, but enough time to go unnoticed and unchecked. We gradually accepted the extra five pounds as the norm. Ten the ten. Then the fifteen.

But it’s not how our bodies were designed to be.

“Yes, but still,” you might say, throwing the conversation back to my cigarette comparison, “still – you can drop the sugar and be fine. Cigarettes are not only poison, they’re addictive.”

Uh-huh. Spend thirty days reading the label and taking out of your diet anything which the body will mistake for sugar . Then tell me how you are not addicted.

Listen. If America actually did run on Dunkin, it might not be quite so bad. But America doesn’t. America sits in the car and the cubicle and ruins on Dunkin. Telling ourselves otherwise is how we got into this mess in the first place.

And I just don’t think delusion deserves a national holiday.