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Tuesday, July 20, 1 p.m. ET

Post Magazine: The Food Trap

Post Magazine Story

Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2004; 1:00 PM

Twenty-six percent of the people in Mississippi are obese, a higher proportion than in any other state. And, at 5 feet 9 and 296 pounds, Deke Baskin personifies the problem facing Mississippi -- and the nation as a whole.

Michael Leahy, whose article about Baskin and other overeating, underexercising Mississippians appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Tuesday, July 20 at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about the article.

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Leahy is a Magazine staff writer.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Michael Leahy: Hi, everybody. I just arrived back from Sacramento, where I had the privilege of seeing Alan Webb win the 1,500 meters and make the U.S. Olympic team. I mention Sacramento because, amid all the healthy athletes and fitness-conscious fans, there was a sizable contingent of people clearing struggling with weight and temptation. You get to see the problem anew at a sporting event concession stand. People in line talk about their workouts and morning run, only to get to the front and order two Tri Tip sandwiches and an ice cream bar and nachos -- which they devour back in the stands while mourning over their fitness struggle. So no group or area of the country is exempt from this problem.
Having said that, I'll take a bite of a Cheeto here and we'll begin.

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. Leahy: This was a great article. As someone who went semi-crazy just trying to get down from 200 to 180 pounds, I sympathize with the people you profiled. Is part of the problem due to the standard diet being only "semi-unhealthy" for people who did hard labor for much of their lives to almost deadly when many of the laboring jobs disappear? I remember from my youth many older farmers who gained a lot of weight as soon as they weren't working in the fields nearly every day.

Michael Leahy: Thanks for your comment. Your observation gets at part of the problem. Aside from our gyms, we don't have the same everyday opportunities for working off the weight in many instances. As Deke Baskin and others in Mississippi observed, we aren't out "plowing the back 40 any more." More of us than ever before are behind desks or computers, or working with a telephone pressed to our ear, so the challenge becomes in part to will ourselves to do what we don't need to do as part of our work.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Your story was masterfully done. Congratulations on the grace and sensitivity with which you depicted the impulses behind your subjects' eating habits. It was a wonderful read. How have Marie and Deke and the others been doing since you wrote the story? And do you think Hollis (I'm rooting for him - he sounds like a very dedicated guy) can avoid temptation over the long run? There seems to be temptation everywhere a person turns. At least the temptation is there for me. Thanks for a fabulous piece of writing.

Michael Leahy: Thanks for the kind words, and the questions about everyone in the story. Marie and I spoke the other day, during which she reported to me that she has begun to workout on her treadmill twice a day and actually passed up on fried catfish in favor of grilled fish at one of her favorite restaurants. She tells me she has already lost a few pounds, as has Deke in recent weeks. Re Hollis: I believe Hollis will make it -- if we mean, by making it, that he will continue to lose weight gradually. I've never met anyone more determined than Hollis, a quality which is indispensable in such an effort.

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Mclean, Va.: Would you say that some of the people you interviewed were addicted to food, in the same way as people are addicted to cigarettes?
They know their actions are bad for them, and will probably send them to an early grave, but they continue on the same course.

Michael Leahy: Usually, as in the case of Hollis and Deke, word from a doctor to an obese person that he will die in the next few years unless he radically changes his diet and lifestyle is enough to trigger the resolve to change. But this medical alarm doesn't work for everyone, and, as Deke admits, sometimes people fall off the wagon no matter how often a doctor warns them.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Michael,

As someone who's been obese but has gotten it under control, I wanted to say thanks for such a heart-breaking, well-written article. For some people, it's not as easy as "Eat healthy and exercise." While eating too much of the wrong thing and not exercising are personal choices, there are other issues at work as witnessed with Deke's daughter. That tasty taste, that need for something you know isn't good for you but you want it anyway, it's a psychological issue that warrants serious attention. I only hope that the people featured in the article make that decision to do so for themselves.

Thank you.

Michael Leahy: Just thought I would post this comment.

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Oxford, Mo.: Mr. Leahy,
I really enjoyed reading your insightful, well-written article. I can connect with so many of the comments made with those interviewed. Food is so closely intertwined with culture here in the South. Our food and culture are like Siamese twins that become difficult to seperate. Eating and the appreciation of a well cooked meal is symbolic with nurturing and love. Coupled with rampant poverty, food and the southern cuisine are the one thing that we can have in abundance and can be proud of here. Unfortunately the offspring all too often is obesity and poor health in general.
In your research, did you find stats linking obesity with poverty or with socio-economic/educational status?

Michael Leahy: Ah, a comment from Oxford, MS, where people were wonderfully giving of their time. My thanks, while I'm at it, to Oxford Elementary School principal Larry Christman for his graciousness during my stay in MS. Along with the Oxford School District's innovative childhood nutrition director Amy Murphy, Christman helps to oversee the school's "healthy fruit and vegetable" pilot program, funded by federal government and designed to better acquaint Oxford Elementary's children with healthy diets. My thanks to Kathy Herbert and Cindy Howle as well.
A short answer to your question: Yes, there is a conclusive link between poverty and obesity, as the particularly high obesity rates in the Mississippi Delta reflect. Culture plays a part: In the South particularly, fried foods have been a common staple of diets since childhood.

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Chicago, Ill.: I'm a fan. I loved your Jordan and alzheimer's pieces, and your story about Sarah getting her job at Walmart. So I'm not surprised that your story here was so compelling. It broke my heart to read of the frustration experienced at different points by all your characters. I also liked it that neither you nor the people you were writing about ducked the fact that personal responsibility played some role in their problem. It does seem that no matter how much we preach to people that when it's all said and done, they have to take the problem by the horns and do it. We can have all the advertising in the world about how fatty food is bad, but if they don't stop eating it, their situation will never improve. Care to comment?

Michael Leahy: Well, your view was reflected in part by a representative from the Grocery Manufacturers of America, who argued that "to a large degree it is an individual's responsibility," and certainly it is impossible to argue that the individual doesn't need to exercise restraint.
But someone like Marion Nestle, the nutrition professor cited in the story, argues that the American public must first fully understand just how disastrous fatty foods can be upon health. She believes the playing field isn't level; that while the food industry has enornous dollars for advertising, the other side of the argument isn't being heard. Many critics of the food industry draw an analogy to cigarettes and the late '60s, when, slowly, TV viewers began seeing a mushrooming of ads about the dangers of nicotine. What some critics would like to see is a small "fat tax" that would not be enough to discourage consumption of fatty foods but that would raise enough money to fund an anti-fat TV ad campaign, along the lines of the anti-cigarette campaigns.
But doubtless, you ultimately need people to find some willpower and get off the fat.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Mr. Leahy, what is your opinion on what, if anything, the government should do? Would you like to see more programs in public schools introducing children to healthy eating? Would you like to the government step down subsidies for corn in favor of subsidies for fresh vegetables and fruits? Other suggestions?

Michael Leahy: These are good questions. There will certainly be more healthy eating pilots in schools (Oxford Elementary is just the start). There is a fierce debate within the food manufacturers-nutritionists community about subsidies, with Marion Nestle and others aruging that fatty snack foods, for instance, could not be so nearly cheap and accessible without federal subsidies. The fresh vegetables and fruits group has joined the debate, calling attention to the disparity in subsidies.

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Arlington, Va.: Great article! When I finished reading your accounts of these people, my first thought was if I were that big I'd get gastric bypass surgery. Did this subject come up at all when you interviewed these people?

Michael Leahy: Yes, the subject came up. It's certainly something that people consider. But any surgery raises questions of complications. I think it's fair to say that all the subjects in this piece prefer to pursue another route.

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Washington DC: I have to admit, when I first glanced at the article I was dubious how you would handle this topic and how the people featured would be portrayed. It was wonderful and I wanted it to go on longer. My family is from the South, too, and you really got the cultural influences right, this idea that even if parents aren't well-off, they can provide food for their children if nothing else.

And I wanted to add a comment to an earlier poster, about food being an addiction for some people like cigarettes are. I think the big difference is that whem people quit smoking, they give up cigarettes. You can't give up food.

Thanks for the article.

Michael Leahy: Thanks for your kind words. I wanted to post your comment about the South and the distinction between food and cigarettes, a comment you often hear from overweight people battling the problem.

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Boulder, Colo.: I have more of a comment than I question, but would welcome your response. First off, thanks for the great article. I have become very interested in this issue and consider myself very well read on the subject. Anyway, on to my comment. I am very interested in how the road to obesity begins. I consider myself to be a well-educated individual, with a family that loves me and no financial stress, and I know how to make healthy eating and living decisions, but oftentimes I don't. I see young children who eat when they are hungry and know how to push the plate away despite having eaten less than half of what was served. I find it very difficult to do that and wonder at what point people learn to eat when they're not hungry and eat past physiological need. "Controlling" this desire is really no easy task. I am not a mother (am closer to childhood than parenthood, really), so I cannot speak from experience, but I wonder how we can raise our children to make good eating choices from the get-go and learn to use food for physical purposes, rather than emotional. Instead of baking cookies as a treat surprise, why not take a family walk to the park? I don't know though, this is quite a complicated issue. I was raised by health-conscious individuals, and, as a result, I never developed much of a taste for junk food. It was only upon entering college two years ago, that the plethora of food has changed my habits. Is it too much "food stimulation?" Anxiety? Stress? I don't know.

Michael Leahy: Thanks for your sharp observations. I think you hit on something vital: At some point, food became a substitute for other pleasures. We see it even reflected in literature, which a century ago would have put, say, lovers by a lake, talking, reading, dreaming. Today, they're in a restaurant, eating three courses and downing a bottle of wine.
I was reminded in Sacramento of what Marie Pomerlee said in the story: that everywhere you turn somebody is telling you, in so many words, that if you don't try that hamburger/taco/pizza, you're depriving yourself. That you're not LIVING LARGE. That you won't have a chance of being FLOORED BY FLAVOR. We need to do something about that mindset. We need to make restraint something noble and cool. That might take a considerable while, and does argue for a national educational campaign of sorts, probably.

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Alexandria, VA: I've had a life-long weight problem, and grew up lower middle class. While some points in your article rang true, others did not. For instance, we never had sweets or fatty foods in the house when I was growing up. We never ate at fast food or any other type of restaurant, except maybe once a year. However, my parents both worked and I was home alone alot. Our neighborhood was too dangerous for me to play outside. I do recall spending hours listening to music and dancing in the basement, but I also recall overeating whatever was around (bowls of non-sugar sweetened cornflakes and fruit, for instance). I'd get mercilessly teased at school, and began a relentless cycle of starving myself to shed at least some weight, followed by easier and easier gains.

Anyway, I agree with the statement made by one of the interviewees that food is something that anyone can have, rich or poor. However, while exercise is important, I think the overeating--and moreover, the motivations for the overeating--are most important factors in the obesity discussion. For example, when a child is playing with other kids, yes, they are burning some calories, but more importantly, they are not sitting inside binging out of loneliness or boredom. When the child becomes an adult and exercises in a gym or even just engages in fun activities with others, they are not overeating. However, excess weight, at least in the culture I came from, is isolating. Men don't want to date overweight women, for instance. People drift into married lives and family lifestyles, and it becomes more and more difficult to not be alone.

People need to understand that not feeling full all the time, in fact, leaving the table a little bit hungry, isn't going to kill them. If people are active and engaged in life outside of food--which necessitates that they learn to deal with depression, loneliness, and stress without running to the fridge--they won't even notice. That is how I've lost 50 pounds and counting, and gained some hope that this problem can be solved.

Michael Leahy: Alexandria: Simply wanted to post your comment. Thanks for writing in.

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Tallahassee, Fla.: Mr. Leahy, this week, the NIH announced that obesity was a desease. This report will likely lead to government subsidation of healthcare for fat people. In my opinion, this is not the responsibility of the government--to help those who have eaten too much food without exercise. In fact, what angers me more is not the choice of food, but the unwillingness to exercise. Exercise can provide so much value for physical as well as mental health. My question is do you see the government mandating choices of food and attaching warning labels to cans of Cisco?

Michael Leahy: Again, I just wanted to post this comment -- and to add that Medicare now has opened the possibility that obesity treatments might be funded.
Re your question: No, I don't think anyone involved in the debate, on either side, currently envisions either a mandating of food choices or warning labels along the lines you raise. Thanks for your note.

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Hartford, Conn.: Great story. I also read your stories about Alzheimer's and the young people with mental disabilities who are working, and I compliment you on your great gift for vividly capturing people in all their complexity. I've read a lot in science and health journals in recent years about the subject of obesity, but your story brought a human face to the dilemma, it really illuminated the psychological forces that drive people to keep eating, and I include myself in that group. I'm pretty overweight (not obese, not yet). I sympathized with Marie Pomerlee. I identified with her even if I'm a guy. She's such a hard-working parent, and she's right that it's hard, there really isn't much time. I guess I see the world that way, too. I see these fast-food outlets close to my house and I think I'm going to regret if I don't grab a bite of whatever new thing is being sold. Good luck to Marie. I was intrigued by Marion Nestle's ideas in your story for going after the problem of fatty foods and obesity. What are the chances you think that her view will prevail? Thanks again. You're terrific.

Michael Leahy: Thanks for your nice words. Re Nestle and her allies: I think they would be the first to say that, at this point, they are outgunned on the political front. Nestle points to the huge campaign contributions of the food industry, arguing that the political money means that reform of the subsidy issue is unlikely immediately.

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Bethesda, Md.: Comment: The obesity crisis also has another unpleasant development which most people do not realize. Obesity is related to chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. These chronic diseases, left unmanaged, often lead to end stage organ failure and necessitate the need for dialysis and or kidney, heart and liver transplants. Currently, approximately 40 percent of those waiting for a transplant have lost organs through a chronic disease.

Michael Leahy: I wanted to post Bethesda's comment here.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: I have read that our lives have become so sedentary (and extremely so in the past few decades) which is causing a great bit of our obesity problems. People are so strapped for time as it is and our daily lives don't incorporate exercise anymore. What can be done?

Michael Leahy: People on both sides of the debate would like to see physical education programs restored or enhanced in school systems (it's not mandatory in most high schools, for instance -- and fewer than one-half of all non-athletes in American high schools take it as a class).
Another idea that has drawn increasing interest is that of using already existing public facilities for adults. For instance, why not take the local middle school gym and turn it into a workout facility for local adults in the evening.

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Washington, DC: Fabulous article!;

I grew up in a home that promoted healthy living, but I was still obese- partially genetics, partially lack of exercise and partially early bad habits (going to the candy store every day).

I'm still struggling...and I live in an urban, health-conscious area. And it's not just the tasty taste of an inexpensive rib joint- a meal at Citronelle or Olives can be two days of calories!;!;

How do you think we should start working with kids so that this epidemic stops being an epidemic?

Michael Leahy: Thanks. Oxford's and Amy Murphy's efforts make clear that you need to reach children as young as possible -- from pre-K on.

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Springfield, Va: I particularly enjoyed the discussion on school lunches and trying to revamp that system. My children eat healthy food because that is all that is offered to them. I define "healthy food" as food that is not commercially processed, e.g., butter contains fat but is "healthy" because the end state (butter) required little processing from the source (milk/cream). Did your research include the hazards of processed foods vice just fatty foods?

Michael Leahy: There are so many questions here that I'll make this quick. The best nutritionists at schools yearn (to the extent their budgets permit)to introduce "fresh" and "fruit." A sharp, reform-minded administrator like Amy Murphy wants to revamp the Oxford School District diet in the coming years, to make fresh the norm.

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Dumfries, Va.: Great article. I would like to give some hope to those facing these enormous challenges. I at a 5' 8" woman who at one time weighed 380. I now weigh 260. I still have a long way to go but am confident I will get there. So, to my sister and brother chubbies, try to keep these thoughts in mind:

--The heavier you are, the faster weight will come off. I lost 13 lbs. my first week. Sure, most of it was water, but it was still 13 lbs.

--You are going to feel hungry at first, but that goes away in a few days. I ate so much celery, I should have turned green. I also drank gallons of water. Anything to keep you feeling full.

--You can in time learn to like healthy foods. It took me forever to learn to drink skim rather than whole milk, and diet rather than regular soda. Now I find even 1% milk so rich that I have trouble swallowing it, and sugary soda is too sweet.

--Even after a modest weight loss, you will start to see benefits. You won't get tired as fast, your clothes will be looser, your thighs don't chafe, you can cross your legs. Every little triumph makes it that much easier to go on to the next one.

--Try to get friends not to sabotage your efforts. Some may be jealous of your success. I never, ever let myself be smug of judgmental. I say, the time was right for me; if it's not for you, or if it will never be right for you, that's fine. But please don't work to undercut my efforts. If you have to stay away from family feasts, do so. Or at least skip the meals. It's hard to eat a spinach salad at a barbeque feast.

--Blame your doctor for making you do this.

Good luck!

Michael Leahy: Here is a comment from Dumfries, VA. Thanks for writing in.

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Anonymous, please: Thanks so much for presenting my side of the story. I'm a fat person in a thin family. I try really hard and eat right most of the time, but am still 40 pounds overweight. My family treats me like an outcast and makes continuous derogative comments about my weight, which they feel is tied to my low-paying job, my inability to snare a husband -- and they may be right. I have no idea why I engage in such self destructive conduct (no background of abuse that I can recall), just that i can't seem to help it. Thanks for letting me know that I'm not alone.

Michael Leahy: A posting from "anonymous."

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Arlington, Va.: My family does not have a weight problem, nor do I, because we all were taught from childhood how to eat healthily, and we now have the means do so. (Fresh fruit and vegetables cost much more in dollars and time than nutritionally poorer alternatives.) What gets me is that my son will enter kindergarten soon, and what I see on the school lunch menu in a wealthy school district like Arlington angers me to no end. Every day, there is a fried alternative. You could go through an entire week eating high-fat. His daycare has better menus than this: they get nuggets once a month, fish sticks once a month, etc. We're fine with that, but we don't think fried stuff should be a food group! Yes, we will send him to school with bagged lunches, but I know that at some point, we will have to let go and hope we have educated him enough to make the right choices and withstand the peer pressure for unhealthy choices.

When are school districts going to realize that they are partially responsible for the fattening of America?

Michael Leahy: A posting from Arlington...
I do think, as the Oxford example, makes clear that school districts have begun facing up to the challenge. Oxford is not without its fried foods either, and as Amy Murphy acknowledges, the marketing of her product has something to do with these menu choices. It seems to me that many of these school districts have a difficult balancing act: trying to introduce healthier foods while still making the menus appealing to their young customers. Murphy is committed to change, but even she expresses occasional frustration with other school districts where such a goal does not yet seem to be on the table.

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Michael Leahy: Unfortuately, we've run out of time. Thanks for all the great questions and comments. I'm sorry that we couldn't get to all the questions today, but I'll look forward to chatting with everyone down the line.

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