As I mentioned in an April column, I carry on a love-hate relationship with food.
Some guys are suckers for bad women. I'm a sucker for bad chow. I've never met a cheeseburger or a chocolate chip cookie I didn't want.
That's why a recent Washington Post opinion piece by Eugene Robinson caught my attention.
Robinson highlighted the obvious: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is fat. Very fat.
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Christie doesn't disclose his weight, Robinson said, but the 5-foot-11 politician "appears to exceed the 286 pounds that would place him among the 5.7 percent of American adults the (National Institutes of Health) classifies as 'extremely obese.'"
Robinson wasn't being mean. Or at least he wasn't merely being mean. Christie conceivably could end up running for president (although Christie has said he will not seek the office), Robinson said, and obesity is a serious personal and public health problem.
About one-third of American adults are obese, which increases their risks for illnesses ranging from diabetes to heart disease to certain types of cancer.
Health care costs for obese people are 42 percent higher than for people of normal weight. "It costs Medicare $1,723 more a year for an obese beneficiary than a non-obese one," Robinson wrote. "For Medicaid the differential is $1,021, and for private insurers it's $1,140." That means we all pay for other people's spare tires.
Christie, Robinson said, should prove himself a real leader by losing his excess weight and keeping it off. "Today, I'd just like to offer him a bit of unsolicited, non-partisan, sincere advice: Eat a salad and take a walk," Robinson concluded.
To his credit, Robinson did say that the causes of obesity are complicated. He prefaced his advice for Christie by implying that his own suggestion might be simplistic.
But a lot of people seem to think it's really that easy.
Fat people are one of the few groups it's still OK to judge and dismiss, to talk down to.
However, like alcoholism and many other addictions and personal problems, overeating usually results from a complex cocktail (sorry for the pun) of causes, not simply from sloth, lack of willpower or ignorance about how calories function.
A guy like Christie doesn't become a governor and a possible contender for the U.S. presidency by being lazy, weak-willed or stupid. There's some other cause, or multiple causes, for his lack of control over his weight.
There are indeed countless contributors to obesity: bad genes, the side effects of medications, family environments, depression, grief, low self-esteem, the hormonal high that food gives certain people, the marketing campaigns of fast-food and junk-food companies. Even religion can play a role. Some Christian groups make gluttony an acceptable way of coping with stress. And can anyone say "potluck dinners"? The triggers for an individual's obesity, then, can be biological, medical, environmental, psychological or spiritual — or all of the above.
I've been battling my waistline my whole adult life. I've thought endlessly about why I eat too much, choose the wrong foods and don't exercise as I should. I still don't have a clear answer.
I grew up in a nurturing two-parent family, was popular in school, was a reasonably accomplished athlete, am well-educated, mainly have worked at jobs I enjoyed and have been blessed with fulfilling personal relationships.
Yet I've never been able to overcome overeating. I partly conquer it all of the time, or else I'd weigh 600 pounds. I totally conquer it part of the time, and shed three or four belt sizes. But I never permanently beat it. The fat I lose invariably comes back.
I probably inherited fat genes. My mom was a wonderful woman but quite obese.
I also think I arrived on earth with an addictive personality. Maybe I had another chromosome that zigged when it should have zagged. As a friend of mine put it, for me anything worth doing is worth doing to excess. At various periods, I've battled alcohol and cigarette addictions, too. I even became addicted to exercise once. For a year or more I was running 5 miles a day, doing scores of sit-ups and push-ups and bench-pressing nearly 300 pounds. In the process I damaged my shoulders, back, hips and feet.
I licked booze and smokes with God's help, and by summoning a fair measure of willpower and perseverance. The exercise addiction cured itself. I reached the point where I was in such chronic pain I could barely crawl out of bed; I hurt too much to damage my bones and muscles any further.
But none of those things — prayer, willpower, determination or physical discomfort — has enabled me to defeat my food issue. It's the stubbornest addiction of all.
So I agree with Robinson that obesity is a national health problem. I agree that Christie, and I, need to shed some pounds. But I get frustrated when leaner people become judgmental and dismissive toward those who struggle with their weight. They assume fat people aren't trying. Most overweight people have spent years and a small fortune trying to get thin.
I don't know exactly what the cure for obesity is. I do know that arching an eyebrow and telling a hefty person to eat a salad isn't it.