Food for Thought: Tis the Season to Watch Our Weight

Joe Nangle Features

This is the fourth in a series of articles from HNP’s Wellness Committee. Further information about the group and about health concerns is available through chair J. Patrick Kelly at 201-280-7644 or member Sr. Vicki Masterpaul at 716-373-0200 ext. 3304.

An article in Newsweek magazine some 30 years ago got me moving on long-term weight control. “Consider the typical American middle-aged body,” it began. That line caught my eye because middle age was not that far off for me at that time.

I read on as the article’s author described 40ish and 50ish men and women who wheezed as they climbed a flight of stairs, who spent hours in front of TV sets munching on unhealthy snack food, who hadn’t exercised in months, whose knees and hips were rapidly nearing time for replacement, all of whom were candidates for heart attacks, diabetes, strokes, and who exhibited symptoms of low grade depression.

At that time, I carried around about 210 pounds on my 5’11” frame. Even though my enabling “friends” assured me that I was “big-boned” and could sustain that poundage without looking like the ad for Michelin tires, it was clear that I was well overweight and on the way to obesity.

The Newsweek piece held a mirror in front of me, one that showed what I looked like then and what I would be dealing with in the not-too-distant future. In 12-step terms it was my bottom. I knew that the 40 pounds I had gained over the 10 years since leaving Holy Name College came from a love for food and resistance to exercise.  It was as simple as that. My name was Joe and I overate.

In the next several months, I gradually dropped 15 pounds by eating less and doing consistent moderate exercise, then ten more and finally I got back to my optimum 170, where I’ve been ever since.

Holiday Prescription
Now we’re in another holiday season with Thanksgiving literally and figuratively under our belts. Christmastime looms, then New Year’s with all of their tempting foodstuffs and drinks sitting there, waiting for us to indulge ourselves. Style and health sections of our newspapers have begun to give us tips about keeping off pounds during this six-week romp through overfed, supersized American holiday culture. They all come down to just a couple of simple prescriptions: eat less and exercise more.

What might be a “bottom” for friars who are well above their desired weight as they face another holiday season and realize that the “inevitable” gain of five to ten pounds awaits them once again?  I have already said what mine was – a hard look at where I would be shortly, if I didn’t change my eating and exercise patterns. That picture was enough for a conversion which has endured for three decades.

Another “bottom” that could spur the overweight and obese among us is an article in the summer 2003 issue of Human Development, titled “Eating Disorders in Religious Life.” Written by clinical psychologist Luisa Saffotti, the essay raises fundamental questions about why so many religious men and women are overweight, even grossly so.

Saffiotti acknowleges that this entire subject is enormously personal, embarrassing and difficult to broach – much more so now than alcoholism. She goes on to say that it has to be faced because the physical appearance of religious brings up questions about deeper realities of our life. These include intimacy, friendship, joy, shared laughter, closeness, support and a sense of being on a shared journey, overwork, lack of or even disregard for self-awareness and self-respect.

Still another “bottom” the overweight friar might hit comes from the experience of a religious whom I knew years ago. He had a noticeable weight problem when I first met him. Some years later when we reconnected, he looked so much better that I had to remark about the change. He told me that the realization that millions of people in the United States and perhaps billions more around the world had insufficient food drove him to eat “as if” this were the case – in other words, he began to eat responsibly in a world of hunger, malnutrition and starvation.

Startling Statistics
Maybe the sheer statistics of overweight and obesity in the U.S. culture might push one not to continue as part of those numbers, because they are absolutely startling: 61% of adults in this country are either overweight or obese – that is nearly two-thirds of us; 30% of Americans come under the category of obese; 300,000 deaths each year are related to this problem, the equivalent of 100 World Trade Center disasters every year.

Let me suggest that the title of this essay can have a real message. With so much attention and activity centered on food during the holidays (a friend of mine recently described Thanksgiving as “all about eating”), isn’t this really a “Season to Watch Your Weight”? Couldn’t this be the moment when all of us say aloud “no” to the overemphasis on stuffing ourselves as the principal way to celebrate the Lord’s birth and a New Year of Salvation History?

“Happy Holidays” can mean a turn from that fairly pagan way of marking Christmas and January 1st to the real happiness of living an examined life, beginning with respect for these God-given bodies by which we present ourselves to the world.