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Americans need to look in mirror, face facts on fat

The Baltimore Sun

Americans are too fat and getting fatter, a new study shows. I'm one of them. I'm not cool with that, but some people are.

Some of them work in the restaurant and fast-food industries that lure us, the fat challenged, into feeding our habits.

Some of them are loved ones who, like my late mom, have three memorable mantras: "Did you eat yet?" "Please have some more" and "Don't forget to clean your plate."

Little did Mom know how cleaning that plate would clog our arteries.

Mom comes to mind this time of year as Trust for America's Health, a research group funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, releases its fourth annual fatso survey. (They call it an "obesity" survey, but I like to think of it by the nickname that I earned as a 12-year-old butterball at Boy Scout camp.)

Adult obesity rates rose in 31 states last year in the survey, based on body mass index, a measure calculated using height and weight.

If you don't know your body mass index, you can find a calculator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site, among others. It was a shock for me to discover that my penchant for midnight snacks pushed me into "obese." A moment in front of a full-length mirror in my underwear confirmed the awful truth.

The South leads our portly nation in obesity for the third year in a row. This also came as no surprise to me. All that soul food.

Weight also tends to be a marker of socioeconomic class. The poor in America ironically tend to be the most plump. That's because rich people tend to relate to food differently from the way poor folks do. Author-educator Ruby K. Payne describes the key question about food among the poor as, "Did you have enough?" In the middle class: "Did you like it?" Among the wealthy: "Was it presented well?"

In that light, it is not surprising that Mississippi, our poorest state, topped the list with the highest adult obesity rate. It also became the first state to see more than 30 percent of its adult residents weigh enough to be considered to be obese. Colorado came in as the least pudgy state, with a lean 17.6 percent. Yet the Rocky Mountain State's obesity percentage edged up almost a full point, too.

Less visible in us tubbos are our alarming rates of diabetes, hypertension, heart attacks, kidney failure and other weight-related problems. No wonder health care costs are soaring.

Trust for America's Health recommends a wide range of prescriptions to help us help ourselves lose weight. For example, it calls on federal, state and local governments to offer more recreational opportunities, promote workplace wellness programs and encourage healthier food choices in schools and elsewhere.

A spokesman for a group called the Center for Consumer Freedom, a coalition of restaurants and food companies, argued that government should butt out of the business of trying to reduce our waistlines.

"Obesity is an individual issue that will only be solved by exercising personal responsibility," he said.

Ultimately that's true, but government can help. The restaurant and food market lobby fears more regulations such as the anti-trans-fat laws that New York and other cities have passed or legal action modeled after the tobacco lawsuits. Yet, for all their complaints, I notice more fast foods and snack foods advertising "low calorie" and "no trans fat." Coincidence? I don't think so.

Anti-trans-fat campaigns and other similar efforts help make good dieting cool, even to loving moms and dads who are eager to show their love through food. Trouble is, a lot of us become conditioned to associate food with mother's love.

A medical expert told governors meeting recently in Biloxi, Miss., that 61 percent of U.S. active-duty military personnel are overweight. Again, I'm not surprised. I went up at least three sizes in two years of Army service. Blame that sign in the mess hall that read, "Take all you want, but eat all you take."

Nation, it's time to push ourselves away from the table. Before dessert. Mother would understand.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column usually appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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