Let's Reminisce: The problem of obesity

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

In the past two decades, one dimension of U.S. public health has undergone a shocking transformation: body weight. In 2000, the residents of West Virginia had an obesity rate of 23.9%, the highest of any U.S. state. By 2019, Colorado had nearly the same rate (23.8%), and it was the lowest of any state. Leaving aside a few small nations, the United States is the fattest country in the world, with an adult obesity rate exceeding 42%.

The diseases and disability that accompany excess weight have contributed to higher health-care costs and lower life expectancy. They’ve also created a $72 billion industry devoted to telling people how to shed extra pounds. These combined conditions—reasons to worry and strategies to manage— set the stage for Barry Estabrook’s new book “Just Eat,” an enlightening first-person account focused on the diets that Americans attempt to follow and the cultures that seem to have found a healthy relationship with food.

Estabrook’s chronicle begins with his getting a physical—and admitting to himself that he is 40 pounds overweight. He is saddled with high cholesterol, so his doctor ups the dosage of a drug to treat it: to the maximum permissible level. But with high blood pressure, a family history of heart disease and a self-image as “lumpy,” Estabrook sees that something more is needed. So he decides to go on the first diet of his life.

While his journalistic background includes food writing, Estabrook poses as a dietary Everyman: someone with no expert scientific or medical knowledge and no investment in any one regimen. He believes that if he can find a way of losing weight after an adulthood “defined by chubbiness and a spotty record in the willpower department,” then “anyone could.”

But he’s candid about the challenge he faces, citing studies showing that few people succeed by using diets to achieve long-term weight loss. “In many ways,” he writes, “dieting is a multibillion-dollar scam.” Still, he gives it a try.

First up is a diet called Whole30. It claims more than three million socialmedia fans and followers. The experiment with it has a poor start. Estabrook struggles with strict rules—no peanuts, grains, dairy, beans or booze (though he’s free to eat as much meat or fish as he likes). His digestive tract goes haywire. The first month of Whole30 leaves him 12 pounds lighter, but he quickly gains all the weight back.

He discovers the diet’s creators have no formal training in nutrition and little scientific research supports their diet plan. Estabrook returns to this theme several times, profiling the “unscrupulous quacks” who, for more than a century, have been peddling diets that have few, if any, redeeming qualities.

Estabrook goes on to experiment with more than a dozen other eating strategies—including Weight Watchers, plant-based diets, South Beach, Atkins—and still finds himself 40 pounds overweight. “Why couldn’t I just eat?” he asks. “Plenty of other cultures do.”

This is the starting point for his exploration of eating routines that are integrated into broader habits. He travels to Loma Linda, Calif., a community that is home to large numbers of Seventh-day Adventists.

They are nonsmoking vegetarian teetotalers whose lives are filled with physical movement, spiritual devotion, socializing and purpose. Studies show that men in the religion live up to 9.5 years longer, and women 6.1 years longer, than the average of their white counterparts in California.

He also travels to Greece to experience the vaunted Mediterranean diet, dominated by vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, unprocessed grains and olive oil. While the food consumed is high in fat (thanks in large part to the olive oil), the cocktail of vegetables, seeds, legumes, herbs and spices helps fend off cancer and heart disease.

Overall, “Just Eat” illuminates the struggles that come with trying to lose weight, and Estabrook’s story does have a happy ending: He drops 26 pounds.

The slimming wasn’t a product of any one diet. Instead he found himself drawing from elements of several to “radically” change what he consumed. The core of his new regime: more beans, more vegetables; less meat, no sandwiches, no snacking and no alcohol—all supplemented by an hour a day of walking or cycling. His story shows that weight loss is possible through determination, experimentation and a willingness to cook for oneself.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.