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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  5/1/2009

The Vast Waistland

I have been clipping items out of the newspaper for awhile now that all seem to have a common thread. Having begun with that clipping and collecting, I have also made note of a few other anecdotal tidbits in the same vein.

The first item, which will tell you where this is going, is very short and the message very simple: a recent study states that, on average, the citizens of the United States of America now constitute the fattest society in the history of the human race. This scientific study was based on some new assessment of statistics and carried some new level of gravitas - and that is very much the apt word in this case - but it didn't strike me as late-breaking news, really. I thought this finding would have been obvious for the last couple of decades at least.

Another item: in an article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a study shows how the portion sizes in recipes in the classic Joy of Cooking cookbook have been increasing over time, as the cookbook has been revised and updated since its first edition in 1936. 18 classic recipes were tracked through all the editions, and the study claims that between 1936 and 2006, changes in ingredients and portion sizes have led to a 63% increase in calories per serving.

Speaking of portion sizes, what about garment sizes? One of my responsibilities in my bike club is to order the club and event jerseys and t-shirts we sell. I'm the graphic artist who creates most of the designs on the apparel, so it's convenient for me to do the ordering. I also have some experience in the apparel field, having been a production manager at Esprit for some years, where one of my jobs was placing orders for garment production. Both at Esprit and now in my club, placing orders means doing a size breakdown. How many Smalls, Mediums, Larges, etc. Sizing is a bell curve, with larger volume in the middle of the range. That's the basic theory anyway. This year, when placing a big order for Wine Country Century jerseys, I went back and looked at past orders from a few years ago. Without making your eyes glaze over with too many numbers, I can tell you that the bell curve is migrating upward. People are ordering larger numbers of larger sizes. We used to begin at Extra-Small and go up to XXL. Now we don't even bother with XS. We start with a small batch of Smalls and go on up through XXXL. Large still occupies the peak of the bell curve, but XL is giving it a run for its money, while Medium is falling far behind. And remember, this is sizing for cyclists, a subset of the general population that one would assume would tend to be leaner, on average, than the general population.

As a strictly semantic question, one could wonder why Medium is not at the center of the bell curve. After all, isn't that what the word Medium means? Not anymore. Medium is the new Small. Large is for "normal" people, and it goes on up from there...one size below Medium and four above. It's akin to the size descriptors for olives: you can't buy a small olive at the store. They begin at Medium and go up through Large and Jumbo and Colossal or something like that. Super-size me!

In my days at Esprit, we targeted a segment of the female apparel market called Junior Sportswear. Junior sizing was aimed at teens or 20 and 30-somethings who still had the body types to fit into those tiny teen outfits. For women of more, let us say, mature dimensions, there were Missy sizes. We didn't make them. The relentlessly, ruthlessly youthful crew at Esprit looked upon the world of Missy sizing with the complacent, patronizing disdain that youth and fitness often display toward those less perfect and cutting-edge. It has been many years since I was in the garment trade and I've lost touch with all of that, so I asked my wife if the Junior and Missy sizing systems are still the standard, and she says no; that all the sizes have been revised and have grown, like our jersey bell curve and like the serving sizes in Joy of Cooking.

So far, with the exception of the mention of bike jerseys, this hasn't been about cycling, at least not directly. But weight is certainly a core topic for cyclists, and that's what we're talking about here: excess weight. We all understand the price we pay for carrying around those extra pounds while chugging up a hill. You don't see too many chubbos in the pro peloton. We spend small fortunes and great amounts of brain power attempting to shave ounces and grams off the weight of our bikes, but we could accomplish the same thing, three or four times over, by shaving a few pounds off our own frames.

This isn't about exactly what you weigh or what I weigh. We all fight this battle on our own ground, dealing with the bodies we've been given and the environment in which we live and work and play. The precise numbers aren't important, but I expect there are very few of us out there who wouldn't like to be at least a little bit leaner than we are right now.

When I first started thinking about this topic, I intended it to be about the Battle of the Boomer Bulge; addressing the inescapable fact of our aging and what that means to our bodies. But the more I thought about it and looked into it, the more I came to see it as only partly a boomer issue and more as a total societal issue. Childhood obesity is now rampant in our country. Almost everyone, at every age, is overweight. It isn't just about Patrick O'Grady's archetypal "Old Guys Who Get Fat in the Winter." It's a fat pandemic affecting all of us.

But addressing the boomer aspect first, yes, that is a big (and I do mean BIG) part of the story for a lot of us who fit that demographic. The youngest of the boomers are now into their 50's and the peak of the boomer bell curve is closer to 60. At this age, our bodies don't do things the way they used to do, back in our lean, green 20's and 30's. Quite a few years ago, I remember reading an item Pete Penseyres wrote about his metabolism slowing down on the far side of 50. Pete's a bit older than I am, and I wasn't there yet when I read that. But I am definitely there now.

I was fortunate as a youth to have the metabolism of a hummingbird. I could eat just about anything and still stay skinny. I didn't always see that as a good thing as a kid. It helps to be big enough to hold your own in the scuffles and scrapes of childhood street life, and I was definitely a lightweight. I looked like the Before picture in one of those Charles Atlas body-building ads, and no amount of working out with barbells seemed to add any bulk to my scrawny frame. But as the years piled up and the pounds piled onto my former classmates, I began to value my body's knack for staying lean. Eventually though, the pilot light inside me got turned down, and that luxury of eating whatever I wanted became more like a liability. All through my 30's and 40's, I never worried about my weight. In my 50's, I would lard on a few pounds over the winter and then, like Jan Ullrich, I would ride the pounds off in the spring. Now, on the high side of 60, those extra ten pounds of winter insulation seem to have settled in, with no plans to leave anytime soon. No matter how many miles I ride—and I'm riding as many miles as I ever have—the numbers staring up at me from the scale remain the same...ten pounds more than I want.

Metabolism. I've always thought of that as the keystone in this aging-bulging scenario. But when it came to writing this piece, I realized I didn't know the first thing about it. I looked it up in Wikipedia to get a quick primer, and I was quickly immersed in far more technical jargon than I could handle, or at least more than I wanted to try to absorb. So I took the lazy way out. I asked my riding buddy Bill Carroll about it. Bill is a doctor. I figured he'd know. We were doing a century at the time. He promised to send me a note about the topic later, and he did, in language that is accessible to the average layman... 

"There are a huge number of factors that go into what one weighs, and the concepts of how people gain and lose weight are very complicated, and getting more so. Yet, on another level, it is remarkably simple: if you consume more calories than you burn, you gain weight. If you burn more than you consume, you lose. 

"Factors which affect weight include genetics, prenatal influences, childhood weight, menopause, medications, food choices, level of activity, and age. There is no doubt that genetics plays an enormous role in what one's weight will be. There are genes which are primary factors in the development of obesity, such as leptin deficiency (leptin is a hormone which signals satiety). And there are susceptibility genes on which environmental factors act to cause obesity. For example, there is a condition known as "insulin resistance", which causes an individual to be more efficient at storing adipose (fat) tissue. Ten thousand years ago, when our predecessors were on the savanna, and when food was something which might come in quantities only every few days (a big kill), this was a very desirable characteristic, because it meant that the calories consumed were stored more efficiently and burned more slowly between meals. Thus, there was a selective advantage to having that set of genes, and they are common in many people today. Unfortunately, when we can eat every twenty minutes if we choose, that ability to slowly utilize stored calories becomes a pretty significant negative and leads to rapid weight gain and eventually obesity.

"Childhood and adolescence used to be periods of life when there was very little obesity. As times of active growth and high metabolic rates, the energy requirements were very high. Even with high caloric intake--we have all witnessed how teenagers, especially boys, can eat--being overweight during this period of life was still rare, because of the high energy expenditure (exercise). As has been thoroughly documented, that is no longer true, primarily as a consequence of a dramatic reduction in exercise in many children and adolescents. So even if kids are building tissue, if they don't get out and get some exercise, they are going to become overweight. A sedentary lifestyle strongly correlates with weight gain. Some studies have shown that an inactive lifestyle is more important in weight gain than increased caloric consumption. (Cyclists appreciate this concept: we ride to eat.) Of all sedentary behaviors, prolonged television watching (the vast wasteland) is the most predictive of obesity risk.

"Diet affects weight gain in two ways: the amount of calories consumed, and the kinds of calories consumed. In general, the more fatty food in the diet, the greater the chance of unwanted weight gain.

"Aging is an important predictor of weight gain. As women go through menopause, levels of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone decline, which alters the fat cell metabolic rate, contributing to increased fat stores. Similarly, men in midlife have declining testosterone and growth hormone levels, which decreases ability to build new muscle mass, and contributes to fat deposition. It is simply true that as we get older, even given the same caloric intake and exercise levels, we (most of us - there will always be exceptions) will gain weight. Our metabolic rate slows with age. We need fewer calories in a day later in life than we do when we are younger.

"Here is the bottom line, and it is an obvious one. The best way to try to maintain a healthy weight is to eat a healthy diet limited in fat, to exercise regularly, to avoid "wasted calories" (the needless calories we take in all the time, when we are not even hungry - the cookies on the counter, the candy in the bowl, etc), and to avoid prolonged sedentary activities. But we can't fight our biology either: as we age, unless we severely curtail our calories, or significantly increase our exercise, we are going to gain weight (hopefully only a few pounds). Literally, the cellular machinery burns a little less intensely. And due to declining hormone levels, our ability to build new muscle tissue is reduced. It's easier to gain a few pounds and harder to lose them."

Aside from the boomer issues of aging and slowing metabolism, Bill touches on two other factors that are central to this whole topic of larding on the extra pounds: sedentary lifestyle and the kinds of food we eat (and of course the volume of food we eat as well).

As for the sedentary lifestyle, I am, I assume, preaching to the converted with an audience of cyclists. We all accept as gospel the notion that pounding out the miles will keep the pounds off our butts, or at least some of the pounds. For me, it's nearly a religious credo: I simply have to keep riding or I'm sure I'll blow up like the Goodyear blimp. I've been cycling for over 40 years, and I can't imagine stopping. If I stopped going forward, I'd be going backward. As the Red Queen said to Alice: "...it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place."

This brings me to another article I snipped out of the paper. Two researchers at the University of Tennessee and Rutgers claim to have found a link between "active transportation" and less obesity in 17 industrialized nations across Europe, North America, and Australia. In countries where people bike and walk more, people are less fat. That probably seems obvious, but it's interesting to see it quantified, country by country. In Holland and Sweden, for instance, 60% of the population bike or walk every day and the obesity rate is around 10%. In contrast, in this country, less than 10% engage in those forms of active transportation and over a third of the people are rated obese. Not just fat. Obese.

The quality and quantity of what we eat is another huge consideration, one that is way too big for this little column. I had considered getting deeply into this part of the story, but have decided to let it go, for now anyway. As an alternative to ranting and fulminating about a healthy diet, let me offer this one recommendation: read Barbara Kinglsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It's about the locavore, slow food movement...the nutritional and culinary and environmental and geo-political implications of shopping locally and seasonally...or better yet, of growing your own food. Why we have become a nation of fatties is made abundantly clear in these pages. But just as clearly, and much more cheerfully, she shows us a path out of the empty-calory maze and toward a better, more personally healthful and globally sustainable alternative.

Anyone who is half awake and paying the least bit of attention to their own nutritional health and the health of our communities will concede that things are way out of whack right now. We eat thousands of calories more than we need every day, and most of those calories are of the wrong sort, in one way or another. And then we support huge industries dealing in diets and indigestion and all the other bandaid solutions to the original problem: too much quantity; too little quality.

I'm not a health food hardliner, and even if I were, I doubt I would preach about it to you. I have very little patience with people who take on the mantle of health food know-it-alls; who assume that anyone who doesn't agree with their vision of correct eating is a dietary backslider. I won't go there. Each of us has our own ideas about what constitutes an appetizing and nutritious diet. I keep trying to think of ways that I can suggest what I think a good diet might be, but it always ends up sounding exactly like the know-it-all, healthier-than-thou baloney I deplore, so I've given up. (I've started and deleted about ten paragraphs here trying to work around this. Enough.)

I love to eat and I love to cook. I do 90% of the shopping and 80% of the cooking in this house. I'm no gourmet chef, but I am a competent and thoughtful cook. Overall, I think I prepare wholesome meals, usually from scratch with good ingredients. Not too much processed and packaged "convenience" food. I have the great good fortune of being married to someone who loves to garden. While I'm out riding, she is out in the garden, spreading compost, planting, pruning, digging. Thanks to all that hard work and to our balmy climate, we can count on produce from the garden almost year 'round. (We ate the last of last year's home-grown tomatoes with dinner on Christmas Eve. They might not have been as good as the prime time tomatoes of August or September, but they still beat anything--at any price--from the supermarket.)

All of that adds up to what I like to think is a reasonably good diet. Decent culinary appeal; fresh and local ingredients (usually), and not too many chemical additives or bad fats. And yet I still see those extra ten pounds staring back at me from the numbers on the bathroom scale. In spite of swearing off Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch; in spite of turning my back on fresh croissants and glazed apple fritters, the pounds just sit there...and I feel them when I climb the hills around here.

I will continue to cook and eat sensibly. I will continue to take a pass on some of those most outrageously decadent taste treats that I used to hoover up with impunity when I was younger. But I doubt I will ever submit to a true diet...nothing too drastic or penitential. I like eating too much. And cooking. It's part of what gives life its texture and color. So that being the case, there is just one thing that I can do to at least fight a holding action that will keep me from outgrowing all the pants in my closet: get on that bike and head for the hills.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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