However, he adds, "not many people are gonna work it off."
In fact, national data makes clear that fewer young children are playing sports or even frolicking outside, and fewer adults are strolling to the corner market or anywhere else.
Meanwhile, the demands of jobs and fewer free hours are enticing the weary to skip the preparation of meals in favor of picking up fast-food or dining out at places where big servings are the norm. It is a ritual now to be greeted this way: "What may I get you for starters?" The emphasis on and expansion of appetizers -- and desserts -- mean that the multi-course experience is no longer regarded as a feast worthy of a bacchanal; it's just an ordinary night out. Go to virtually any chain eatery, and it's hard not to marvel at the huge food portions and jumbo soft drinks.
Even so, Americans' collective affluence means that we eat for less than we once did, actually. You don't become an obese nation unless food is a relative bargain. Meals consume about 10 percent of the average American family's income, about half of what food cost (adjusted for inflation) in the 1950s, according to public and private researchers. At the Wal-Mart where Deke Baskin shops, customers regularly come across a sign reading, "100 Piece Fried Chicken -- 25 Breasts, 25 thighs, 25 legs, 25 wings -- $54.83."
Limitless food and sedentary lives coupled to produce obesity's explosion. From 1960 to 2000, according to the National Institutes of Health, the percentage of obese American adults under age 75 more than doubled, jumping about 8 percent in the 1990s alone. About 15 percent of children from 6-year-olds through teens are overweight, up from 5 percent two decades ago, while the risk that such children will become overweight adults is a dispiriting 80 percent.
In March, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that poor diet and inactivity will likely surpass tobacco as the leading cause of preventable death by mid-decade. Diabetes has risen about 50 percent in 20 years to afflict 4.2 percent of the population, according to the CDC, and researchers see ties between excess fat and high blood sugar levels. Surges in weight have led to heightened risk for stroke, heart disease, hypertension, several cancers, infertility and osteoarthritis.
Not surprisingly, the poor are most vulnerable, particularly impoverished African Americans, according to studies conducted by the Center on Hunger and Poverty. But there are limits to how closely class or race can be associated with obesity. Poverty and plenty each invite risks. William Dietz, the CDC's leading authority on the subject, says that, while a report from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that African American women have the highest rate of obesity at about 50 percent, another highly susceptible group is white men. A larger percentage of white males than African American males are classified as "overweight," but a lesser percentage of white men are categorized as "obese."
Unquestionably, experts agree, the role of food in a regional or ethnic culture plays a major role in obesity's reach.
Deke Baskin knows the subject like the barbecue master knows his sauces. And his candor echoes the assessments of academicians studying diet and American culture. "Down here, in the South, we grew up around cheap and fat food and, if you were lucky, sometimes barbecue," he says. "Didn't matter if you were black or white. We grew up around a lot of that stuff if we had money, and we grew up around a lot of that stuff if we didn't. And it went places with you -- to friend's homes, to churches. You know, it was soul food, besides everything else. And it didn't matter if we were gonna get our hands on some money someday. We weren't gonna give up the food -- not when it tastes that good and there was that much of it."
The consequence of that ravenous appetite ripples across Mississippi, where the diabetes rate is more than double the national average, at 9 percent, according to a state study. "If you want to know about obesity, you got to eat the food in Mississippi," Deke says. "It's powerful stuff. And it's gonna be no easier to get the young off it than the old, because good is good. It's hush-yer-mouth stuff. Throw in our fast-food places, and you got a problem."
DEKE WORRIES ABOUT HIS 35-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER, Marie Pomerlee, who stands 5 feet 5 but weighs more than 300 pounds. She teaches pre-kindergarten at Bramlett Elementary School in Oxford. On a warm May afternoon, after her students have gone home for the day, she slowly escorts a visitor about 150 feet down a hallway to her classroom, softly panting halfway there, out of breath by the time she reaches her desk. She fans herself with index cards.
Her parents split up when she was a little girl. She didn't grow up with Deke, but Marie is, in every way, her father's daughter. She has his entertainer's charm. Has the same robust laugh that makes a listener feel he's in on an intimate joke. Has the same rat-a-tat-tat speech pattern, the words coming so fast a listener has to lean forward to catch them. She does not hang her head or dodge truths; she realizes she has a problem. "I just feel stuck by my urge for it," she says. "It's the most powerful thing there is, food is. I want to lose weight, and I start, but something always comes along, and then I want these foods -- hamburgers, fried catfish. The tasty taste. So I go along with it. I get depressed about it sometimes, I pray about it sometimes, but there's no way to get away from it here, so I go back to eating and work things out for myself and move on. I know how to do it. I know how to live, how to get things for myself so I look presentable. Like this."
She fingers her skirt. It is long and gray and on the elegant side, with a little mesh. "Big, huh?" she casually says. She is a size "24-plus," as she puts it. Her blouse is black and hangs loosely, in a kind of muumuu. She has plans to wear a resplendent pink blouse and pants tomorrow, when she'll lunch with her father and other family members at a favorite Oxford restaurant. "The world sells to the overweight more all the time," she says, "because there're more and more people in the same situation. Maybe it'd be different if I couldn't find clothes, but I can."
Another thing Marie can find easily enough is snacks. She has a little blue Wal-Mart sack in her bedroom closet that she keeps stocked with candy. Hershey almond bars. Peanut M&M's. Mr. Goodbars. Reese's cups. Snickers bars. She developed a taste for sweets early, because sweets were cheap, she says. She weighed 170 pounds before she got out of high school.
When she looks out the back of her house, she can see the Kroger store, no more than a minute away, and she knows the store is loaded with goodies. On evenings when her husband, Gerry, heads there to shop and asks if he can bring her home a treat, she typically answers, "Yeah, get me two of those," those meaning candy bars, whatever he sees; he knows what she likes and how to fill that small sack.
Gerry dotes on her. He is a mechanic and part-time minister who is lean, fit and has loved his wife through all her expansions, during which she has put on about 100 pounds, she imagines. "He doesn't pressure me about anything, and he always tries to make me happy," Marie explains, shrugging. "Gets me presents. He got me a treadmill. No pressure with it. Just got it if I wanted to use it."
She hasn't used the treadmill much. She lost 30 pounds once in high school, around the same time doctors diagnosed her high blood pressure. And, a couple of years ago, she lost a little by walking in a local park for three months. But her knees hurt so much that she became discouraged, and the weight came back with a vengeance after she stopped.
The demands of her four children -- 2-year-old triplets and a 9-year-old son, Kenny -- generally leave her exhausted and sometimes stressed by the end of a workday that begins at about 7 a.m., when she arrives at school to prepare for her class. "Sometimes I think, 'I should go . . . and buy something really healthy for my babies, and fix it,' " she says. "But you would need to park, and somehow get all the kids in the store, and keep them together and keep them from screaming, and you're tired and breathing hard and getting more tired. I know I shouldn't say it, but it's easier sometimes to just give them a broken-off bit of Butterfingers. Or some cakes, chips, a lollypop, a cheap fruit juice."
Sometimes she'll look out her back window, past the Kroger store, and realize that McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell are right there on the horizon, only two minutes away. "And McDonald's is a lot easier than anything," she says. "You get it, you're done. And it's tasty; it's got that tasty taste. You have stress in life, and food is the one thing they can't take from you."
She has spasms of guilt about her diet. One night, she and Gerry were sitting in one of her favorite restaurants in town, the Huddle House, and she was trying to be so good, vowing to start anew on a diet. She told Gerry that she was going to order only a salad, maybe with some chicken in it. She heard her own words as they left her mouth, heard her tone, which sounded grudging and mournful.
I need your encouragement, she said to her husband.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
At 5 feet 9 and 296 pounds, 52-year-old Deke Baskins accepts that he has to lose weight to stay alive.
(Photograph by Silvia Otte)