Fighting obesity: A moral imperative

By Dr. Tarcísio Beal

During my 41 years of teaching at UIW, I have seen quite a number of freshmen arriving in great physical shape. Then, after a couple of years, they have put on 20-30 pounds more on their body frames.
Until the 1980s, the number of overweight students was below 10  percent, but now it is much higher. One might surmise our students are simply reflecting the overall trends of the American population, for obesity has become a serious health problem all over the country — so much so that even President Obama’s wife, Michelle, is leading a nationwide effort to reduce it.

San Antonio has been called the “Fattest City in the United States” and we cannot stand by and act as if “it is no big deal.” In fact, upon realizing the seriousness of the situation, our city is already doing its part, for the numbers are truly shocking: Bexar County’s south, southeast and southwest regions, where most of our low-income population lives, show rates of 85 percent, 80 percent and 78 percent of obesity or overweight individuals, and even in the north, northwest and northeast areas the lowest rate is 53 percent.
Under Mayor Julian Castro, the city created a Fitness Council, which places exercise equipment and increases the number of running tracks in city parks, and  the “Pro Vida” campaign encourages restaurants to serve healthier food to their patrons. A partnership between the San Antonio Housing Authority and Metro Health is providing residents with 1,000 bicycles along with a “Ride to Own” program. More yet, SAHA is following the example of the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte by providing public housing complexes with vegetable gardens that will not only make residents do some exercise but will also give them easy and free access to fresh vegetables for their dinner table. It is worth noting that the city-sponsored vegetable gardens of Belo Horizonte practically put an end to hunger in a city of more than 2 million people.

UIW, as an institution that cares about the future of its students, should do no less. Yes, I know, we have been doing something about it, but is it enough? Have we approached the problem with the seriousness it deserves? We recommend and offer plenty of opportunities for exercise, yet are we alerting our students about the dangers of certain types of food which are easily available on campus, including diet sodas and sugar substitutes that do the opposite they are advertised to do?

Now, before I proceed with my argument, I want to make it clear I am not pointing fingers at any individual and I am totally opposed to demeaning anyone because of his/her looks. Obesity is not a question of looks. It is a question of health. Some people simply cannot help gaining weight for a number of reasons beyond their control, including health conditions such as a faulty thyroid or medicines prescribed by their physician. I know many low-income families follow an unhealthy diet because they don’t know better or are forced to buy the least-expensive foods which might be loaded with fat.

Yet, I argue fighting obesity has become much more than a question of health or of looks. It is now a moral imperative that demands action for the sake of the individuals affected and for the sake of the nation. Health experts have already said the ballooning of the American population is not only a major addition to an already overburdened national health care system, but that it also threatens to shorten the life of dozens of millions of Americans in the near future.

A March 2011 study by John Hopkins University of Baltimore indicates how obesity can be seriously complicated by genetic deficiencies that lead to the growth of more cancer cells (everyone has cancer cells in his/her body), by diabetes, which affects a large portion of our metropolitan area population, and by environmental, nutritional and lifestyle factors. The study especially notes cancer cells feed on sugar substitutes such as Nutrasweet, Equal, Spoonfull, Sweet & Low, Splenda, Truvia, etc., on a red meat-based diet that is always acidic, on livestock antibiotics, growth hormones, and parasites. I was shocked to discover Truvia is made from the same base that produces arsenic. In fact, the study says regular sodas contribute less to obesity than artificial sugar substitutes, although sodas should not be part of our everyday diet.

In terms of environmental and lifestyle factors, we must move to control that which we can control. The culture of our society is essentially hedonistic, that is, “more and more,” “all you can eat,” “go for taste,” no matter how unhealthy, “time is money,” “the easier, the better” and so on. Media commercials advertising tasty but unhealthy foods, canned food loaded with taste enhancers such as MSG, sugar in almost everything, including barbecue sauce, all can lead to obesity and other health complications.

In my visits to Brazil during the past 10 years, I noticed something that struck me as odd, so I sought the reasons: Before 2000, I was always impressed by the healthy look of the population. If I walked down the streets of Rio, São Paulo or Belo Horizonte, I would not see more than five overweight people out of a hundred. Now I see 15, 20 overweight people, some quite young. What is going on? Well, among the culprits are the American-owned fast-food joints such as McDonald’s, Whataburger, Burger King and the like. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the Hollywood culture that influenced urbanites in Brazil; today it is McDonald’s and company.

This brings me to a final point: We need to look at the problem of obesity from a moral viewpoint. If we had done this with smoking and its lethal impact upon smokers and those around them and had seen it as a slow form of suicide, perhaps not as many people would have had their lives shortened by cancer. We also must drive the point across that parents who allow their children to overeat are doing them a disservice. They are endangering their health and shortening their lives. Sometimes true love has to be tough. If I learned anything from my mother, who went to the Lord last December after 108 years of a truly heroic life, it was to have self-control of mind and body, to share, to always think of others, to never waste food or gorge on sweets, to go not for what’s tasty but for what’s healthy. She credited her longevity to eating just enough to satisfy hunger, to eating “like a bird.”

Taking care of our health and of the health of our community is a moral imperative. Unless we take it seriously, individually and collectively, we will be setting ourselves for a major crisis down the road and we will not be heeding Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Loving ourselves means loving also our bodies by keeping them as healthy as possible.

E-mail Beal, a retired University of the Incarnate Word professor who works at the Learning Assistance Center, at glotri@sbcglobal.net

Dr. Tarcisio Beal

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