President Trump and the Obesity Epidemic

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U. S President William Taft

Cultures change and that includes how we perceive success and wealth. This goes into how we eat, and what we do to get exercise. This is about signaling to others in the social group we belong on our well being and status in society. This is clear from artwork, as well as our comments around health, food, and fitness.

When Chris Christie decided to run for president, immediately people started to speak about his obesity. It is obvious that he was big, but most of the conversation did not revolve around health issues, but rather his weight as a moral failure. Let’s be clear about this, there was a time when an overweight president was not that much of a problem. Howard Taft came in at 300 pounds, perhaps more. In his case, there were conversations but mostly because allegedly he got stuck in the White House bathtub. People did make fun of that, and he decided that perhaps he needed to lose weight. His struggles to both lose weight, and keep it off, would be familiar to any modern dieter.

The diet that the president went on was quite modern, with concepts familiar to any modern-day combatant in the battle of the mid-section. According to the New York Times:

Meals were to be eaten at certain times and meats were to be weighed. Taft was to eat a small portion of lean meat or fish at every meal, cooked vegetables at lunch and dinner (no butter), a plain salad, and stewed or baked fruit (unsweetened). He got a single glass of “unsweetened” wine at lunch. The doctor also allowed his own diet product, gluten biscuits, that were produced to his specifications in London. Taft bought them and had them shipped to the United States.

Taft tried to adhere to the program and also employed a personal trainer, known at the time as “a physical culture man.”

By April 1905, six months after he first wrote to the doctor, Taft had lost 60 pounds. But even though people told him he looked good, he was “continuously hungry,” he wrote the doctor.

Taft began to gain back the weight and stopped writing to the doctor, who asked Taft’s friends and family what was going on. After learning Taft had regained 19 pounds, he told Taft he needed to return to his diet program or “in another three or four years you will be almost back to your original weight.”

He was not the only president who was on the larger size. Others before him, and after he had some extra pounds. These days so does President Donald Trump. Nor is Taft’s battle with his weight unfamiliar to most dieters, who yo-yo up and down. His hunger was his body fighting to go back to his weight. We now know that his body was producing hormones that told him he was starving. However, he lived in an age when having a few extra pounds was considered a sign of good health. However, in his case, it was too much of a good thing. Corpulence, the word used at the time for obesity, was starting to be considered a disease. There were a few diseases that were more common with the wealthy. Among them was gout which comes, among other things from eating too much red meat. While none looked forward to the pain that came from it, it was a sign of wealth. This social aspect of the disease is one that most people are ignorant of.

Looking at somebody in the street with a few pounds on them, and a large protruding stomach was a symbol of success. Why? Most people in the not too distant past had an issue with getting enough quality calories during the day. A chicken was so expensive that Huey Long two generations later promised to put one in every pot. People also moved a lot more and worked in far more physical jobs. With the rise of robotics and office jobs, people move a lot less on average. We are also in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Yet, we have a self-image of the country that is young, fit and svelte.

If you have paid any attention to social media, there have been a few comparisons between Barack Obama and Donald Trump at Buckingham Palace during the state dinner. Both men wore a tuxedo, with whitetails. Both are also symbolic of two different ways of eating. Trump looks on the heavy set, while Obama looks athletic, and yes, fit.

The way clothes hang on both men is also very different. Trump’s clothes are small, tight, and ill-fitting. Obama looks comfortable. And this is not about liking them or not. It is a factual thing from photos taken by the press pool. Yet, there is something else going on. A lot of people on social media are attacking Trump for being obese. While Trump is nowhere near Taft’s girth, he is not precisely thin. There is a side of the morality play we like to play as part of a national sheet of music, and what we think we should look like. Just watch a few television programs or movies, and you will hardly see the country as is.

I myself made the observation on social media that Trump looks heavier, and in fact, he likely has gained some pounds while in office. For me, it was hardly a moral failing on the part of the president. There are many other things to be critical of Trump, to be honest. His weight is not it. I also understand that Cortisol is not a hormone that helps to lose weight, and the job of the president is not precisely low pressure. But the comments all over social media are not just political. If Trump is your enemy, of course attacking him for anything is par for the course. But this is also another example of our morality play around weight. It blames the individual, without noticing the few major environmental factors around Trump and the rest of us.

The United States is facing an obesity epidemic. In some ways, Trump is a perfect example of why. Let’s dispense with some of his weird ideas about energy and exercise. Suffice it to say, he is not the only one who follows fads. He, like most of us, prefers to eat processed food, move less and rarely cook. But he is representing the country! Yes, yes he is, and in that respect, he is quite the average American.

The Pima Study could not put it in better terms back in 2004.

Recent national surveys show that American adults have experienced a 50% increase in the prevalence of overweight and obesity, while children and adolescents have experienced a 100% increase since the 1970s (rev. in 1). Coincident with this increase in obesity, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes has also reached epidemic proportions. The prevalence of diagnosed diabetes among adults in the U.S. has increased by 40% from 1990 to 1999, and is projected to increase by 165% between the years 2020 and 2050 (2,3). Recent studies have estimated the lifetime risk of diagnosed diabetes to be approximately one in three for males and two in five for females born in the U.S. in the year 2000 (4).

Moreover, an alarming increase in the incidence of type 2 diabetes has now been reported in very young children (5). The escalating rates of both type 2 diabetes and obesity are likely due to changes in the environment, coupled with changes in human behavior and lifestyle. However, in most developed countries, food is now plentiful and lifestyle is generally sedentary, but not all people become obese, and furthermore, most obese people do not develop type 2 diabetes. It is likely that genetic factors underlie a significant portion of the susceptibility to both obesity and type 2 diabetes, and that expression of this susceptibility is dependent on environmental variables.

Now, let’s be clear. Some of how that tux fit the president has to do with his incredibly large ego…and we know this from his physical. Let’s just say he is not taller than Barack Obama, and I will leave it at that. But if you have those rather common issues of self-image, you are not going to order a new (larger) tux that actually fits. He is not alone in those self Image issues among the larger set. Most people who are obese do not realize just how large they are.

It has long been recognized that people tend to think that they are taller than they really are (men especially) and somewhat slimmer than the bathroom scales would tell them. This, of course, is no surprise and world-weary clinicians tend to take a somewhat sceptical view of self-reported smoking habits, alcohol consumption, and in the obese, daily food intake. Moreover, it is predictable that, in general, self-reports tend to be less accurate when the chance of being challenged with compelling evidence to the contrary is low.

Then there are his ideas on what he needs to do to look thinner. That trademark long tie of his is not there because he wants to make a fashion statement. He believes it makes him look thinner. And the same goes for the ill-fitting pants and the rest of his wardrobe. He is not alone in this though. Many Americans are getting larger, and have a need to hide this, even if at times this is a battle that cannot be won. Partly because people will point to them and instead of thinking, this must be a successful person, it is more this must be a lazy person. This is the internal morality play we like to go through. This piece by a tailor in the Washington Post makes this clear. The comments are not just brutal but are a classic of this morality play.

Partly we are well beyond the Taft era when allegedly getting stuck in the White House bathtub could mean success and wealth. These days Obama fit that image far better. Partly because being able to eat well, and organic, means you have money. Michelle, in particular, pushed forwards two policies that are new symbols of success. The first was organic “clean” food. She planted a garden in the White House that she used to emphasize this. She brought children from the wrong side of the tracks to introduce them to home gardens, good food and the joy of that. That was good on the short term, but eating clean is becoming a fad, that many people working two and three jobs cannot afford to do. This is why we need to look at this problem well beyond the White House garden. It is time to start asking, how do we get rid of food deserts? How do we de-emphasize fast food in the neighborhoods where these children live. It would be great to start community gardens where people live, or at schools, for example. The latter would have the added effect of a closer connection to the food we all eat.

Then there was the other campaign that she launched the Let’s Move Campaign. Both were well-intentioned and emphasized these values of the well to do, who can afford a gym membership, or a personal coach and clean food. We live in a culture enamored with the young, well tanned, well-rested, healthy eating, gym going person. This is no longer a culture that appreciates an overstuffed patrician with a bulging gut. This is precisely the image that Trump gave to the world as he walked into the dining hall at Buckingham Palace. The Royals, to a one, were all fit and trim and lacked those bulging guts.

What Michelle did goes well with the many diet fads invading your social media. Partly because we have an epidemic that is stressing your wallet, your health, and the national self-image. Yes, it would be great if all could afford to eat clean, meaning no GMOs and no pesticides. That be great, but can we start with getting rid of food deserts and teaching kids how to cut a fresh tomato? Perhaps it is time to closely examine what we serve children in school lunches? Our obesity epidemic did not start with lack of clean organic food everywhere. It starts with what we teach our kids through school lunches, for example. Our school lunches are mostly filled with frozen pizza, canned pasta, and nachos, instead of fresh salads and fruits with an emphasis on learning to enjoy food and be social. We make the exercise a hurried, eat now, as fast as you can, event. There is no time to enjoy food or talk about healthy eating life long habits.

Michelle Obama started that process. The companies who sell highly processed foods fought that. Those measures were mostly reversed because there is a lot of money to be made in those school lunches, and bad food habits that will last a lifetime. Let’s be honest, Our lunch program is not the best. Yes, it affords children who could not afford a meal otherwise a meal. Though there is quite an effort to shame children whose parents have not paid into the program. However, what we serve our children is not necessarily a nutritious meal. We need to compare our lunch program with those in other countries whose goal is not just pushing food as fast as possible down children’s mouths. Our emphasis is in cheap, highly processed fast food. While for example, in Italy it is cheap nutritious food that celebrates the many cuisines of the country. Fun fact. Italy is also facing the beginnings of an obesity epidemic, for similar reasons we have faced one for at least two generations. Fast food restaurants are cropping up in large cities. And there is a fight to preserve traditional local food traditions.

The Rome School District is doing something that in the United States would be revolutionary. Incidentally, France does something similar. They are teaching children to eat good food and to respect food. They are also having lunch breaks that are longer than in the United States, and children are eating on good dishes, with forks and knives. The meals involve traditional Italian dishes with plenty of salads and fresh fruits. The food could very well come from a restaurant in the United States, and none of this is frozen. All is fresh. The cost, about what it costs in the United States to serve our children highly processed food that at times makes me wonder if it has any good quality calories. For many young people, this is the only time they are exposed to vegetables and fruits because many Italian urban families are currently enjoying far more processed food than they used to.

Compared to what happens overseas, Italian school lunches have to include a starchy dish (alternating rice, pasta and soup), a main course (based on meat, fish, eggs or cheese), two or more vegetable side dishes and plenty of fresh fruit. Nutritional standards regulate dish rotation: at least ten meals in the 4-week cycle must include cooked vegetables, ten meals contain pulse, starchy foods or grains and cereal, eight meals comprise fresh fruit for dessert, with portion size set according to dish and age group. Italian law forbids cafeterias from serving deep-fried food such as potato chips, french fries, and even fried chicken, foods many US schools are still fighting to remove from their menus. Menus are issued to parents on a weekly basis to avoid meal overlap at home. Allergies, intolerances and religious restrictions are taken into account for children requesting special meals.

School nutrition policies approved in the year 2010 ruled that all Italian school meals be sourced locally and certified organic. Thanks to a program stemming from 2006 agreements between the EU and the World Health Organization, Italy is also leading the way in Europe in the overall improvement of school cafeteria standards, far beyond the menus. In Rome, for example, 70% of all food served at school cafeterias is organic, by law. Ingredients hail from hundreds of Italian organic farms, many of which are located in the Lazio region. Tables are set with silverware and come complete with bread baskets, ceramic plates, cloth napkins and clear glasses. Water — the only beverage allowed — is poured from water pitchers.

We could learn some lessons. The cost to our economy in lost productivity and medical costs is very high. We pay it gladly because we are unable to face the facts. We have a public health emergency, and it starts in what we feed our children. It continues with food deserts and making fresh food more expensive than highly processed foods. Apple sauce anyone?

The other problem is that our children are eating the same (in many cases unhealthy) food choices, and lack of exposure to other foods leads to a very narrow palate. For the most part, children and young adults will not try new foods. Trump in that respect is like most American children and many adults. He is obese, he does not exercise, he is sedentary, and has a very narrow palate. He prefers his McDonalds over a healthy meal with good quality foods. It is so bad that this is what he offers Division One Athletes visiting the White House, who usually do not consume those foods.

But, he is representing us! Indeed he is. He is the archetypical American when it comes to the obesity epidemic. So instead of making fun, and for once I will stand up for Trump and defend him from the fat shaming, let’s consider what we all need to do as a nation. Granted, the president will oppose some of the policy prescriptions we need to adopt. Michelle Obama was on the right track with the Let’s Move campaign and healthy lunch prescriptions. But there is so much more we need to do. For starters, we need to take a good look at who we are and why? We are far from the Hollywood image of the good looking young nation. In fact, we are an aging nation, with a deep obesity crisis.

For our collective public health, we need to do this. The costs to our medical and economic system are very high already. And I am sure you know young people who are not very good at eating their veggies, and hate fruit. We have adults who proudly announce that they also hate their veggies and fruit and prefer to eat a donut. There are reasons for that, and some of them involve the adds that they see on YouTube, and the social pressures at school. Notice, I am not mentioning the TV Machine, because most young people consume their media on their tablets and computers any longer.

So yes, Trump is a good image of where we are as a country when it comes to our tastes in food and the battle of the bulge. Don’t be that judgmental of overweight and obese people. Chances are that if you are honest with yourself you do not exercise enough, and you are not precisely thin. Statistically, three-quarters of men and sixty percent of American women are either overweight or obese. That is our truth, and Trump looks like the vast majority of Americans.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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