obesity, oh wait a minute

I have something to get off my chest. Well, really off my dresser. I’ve had this scrap of newspaper lying there for two months. It’s an article headlined, “Town renamed for sandwich”. I hope I don’t embarrass myself here because this is about Arby’s and Reuben sandwiches, two things I know hardly anything about. Apparently, the Town Board of the somewhat nearby town of Coeymans, rechristened itself Reubenville as part of an Arby’s Reubenville Challenge. By tacking a red and white banner that said “Welcome to Reubenville” over the regular town sign, the town received 5,000 free coupons redeemable for a Reuben sandwich at an Arby’s in another town fifteen miles away.

The Three Graces

The Three Graces by Peter Paul Rubens   (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is Arby’s famous for Reubens? Last I knew I thought they made roast beef sandwiches. I suppose they could make Reubens as well–doesn’t seem that far a stretch–but I am pretty sure they didn’t invent them. Though I have been rather ignorant of meaty matters for about forty years now, I once did know my way around a good corned beef sandwich–and was vaguely aware of its non-kosher cousin.

A perfunctory visit to the “Welcome to Arby’s” website has just revealed to me a picture of the Reuben, embedded in what is supposedly a marble rye. It doesn’t look like a New York marble rye to me, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I am now hip to the 640 calories, 30 grams of fat and 1,610 milligrams of sodium that this town name changing sandwich contains–as well as its plethora of both real and hard to even imagine ingredients. I must commend Arby’s for listing the nutritional information for its complete menu in a very clear and accessible way. If you would like a quick lesson in fast food gastronomy I suggest you take a peek yourself. I only wish the town council members would have bothered to do the same before getting that banner made.

I am still pretty bewildered. Does Coeymans have anything to do with Reuben sandwiches or with Arby’s for that matter? Named after its early settler, Barent Pieteres Koijeman, Coeymans’ roots are strongly Dutch. Is there some confusion in the town between the possible German origins of the sandwich and the German-Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, known for his beautiful paintings of voluptuous Rubenesque women? Rubens apparently died from heart failure related to chronic gout. Is that what this is all about? My bigger question is, why would any municipality waste its time and efforts responding to such a bogus challenge which serves only to promote the purposes of a corporate food giant and does nothing to protect or promote the lives of its citizens?

Interestingly, physician David Katz, Director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and a prolific writer on many things of nutritional interest just happened to speak to my burning questions and larger perpetual conundrum about personal health in the context of culture in a piece he posted this week titled “Culture, Power and Responsibility“. This piece is part of his Personal Responsibility for Health (PRH) Chronicles.

Katz writes, “I think we know what it is, and it’s all about power-and culture. Culture is a powerful influence on us all. When personal responsibility involves defiance of the prevailing forces of one’s culture, it becomes a very tall order indeed. Unfortunately, that is just the order associated with personal responsibility for health.

In a commentary published in the Lancet in February of this year, a group of scholars made the very point that the power of culture, and profit, is all too often oriented in opposition to health rather than in support of it. We might ask people to take responsibility in spite of it all, but that’s a bit like pitching someone off our boat and assigning them responsibility for keeping afloat- whether or not they’ve ever learned how to swim. Relevant power is prerequisite to responsibility.”

If you know it’s important to control your weight and attend to your health, but almost everything in your environment and your culture conspires against such efforts- how responsible are you, personally? Are you truly personally irresponsible if you go with the prevailing flow?

How can the whole of our collective responsibility for health be so much less than the sum of what we expect from its parts? Do we truly expect every individual- adult and child alike- to compensate with personal responsibility for the collective abdications at the level of culture, and corporation?

Oh, blessed be. I could not agree more. Yes, I believe that it is the cultural, corporate and governmental abdication of responsibility that displaces much of the onus on an unwitting and poorly equipped populace. And, this is why the actions of both the Coeymans Town Board and the Arby’s Corporation drive me insane. This is also why I feel the ubiquitous conversation about obesity must be redirected.

The collective chatter about obesity is still amplifying. Travelling widely around this nutritional universe as I do, I am bombarded with meteoric messages about fighting, fixing, flagellating, and fracking obesity. The mandate is to leave no obesity behind–neither its grown-up or childhood varieties–adorable pudgy babies and grandmas included. Millions are being spent on the ammunition to obliterate this planetary scourge. The aims appear community-based, but individuals are the intended targets. The drones attack both bodies and psyches alike, unable to discern the difference. For my own safety I have taken to wearing a helmet–well, at least when I am biking.

The increased prevalence of obesity is a physically evident symptom of a culture whose motives ignored or overrode its responsibility to protect the  birthright of health for its citizenry. However, generalizing obesity as a health crisis is complicated by the fact that its definition is too broadly applied, its prevalence poorly defined, its detriment still debatable and its cure misunderstood. There are many other equally important markers of compromised health and well-being. However, by focusing only on the obvious, the approach has been to throw massive resources at obesity programs with uncertain outcomes while abiding the cultural insults.

Rebuilding or restoring our country’s health will necessitate more than these bombastic approaches that seem similar to our political mindset of problem solving. It will require some deep introspection regarding the constructs upon which we structure personal and public life. It will beg that our corporate and political leaders as well as our policy makers take a serious and sensitive look in attending to the environments that either foster or hinder health. There is much to be undone and redone. I have a few ideas of my own.

But while we continue to work toward meaningful change, I will think about the dear people down there in Coeymans in the aftermath of their brief moment of irrelevant fame. I wonder how many of the 7418 citizens even cared if they were one of the 5000 somehow chosen to drive thirty miles for a sandwich. My sincere wish is that those folks may have either a large dose of relevant power or access to good affordable health coverage, because neither their council members nor Arby’s is going to pick up the real bill for that Reuben.

Do you know what I mean? I would love to hear from you.

In health, Elyn 

erin's plate

erin’s plate

My Plate Haiku

Lagoon watercress

Peppers my tongue

With spring joy.

by Roxanne

(Gratitude to Roxanne, who provided a beautiful dinner of field greens with a maple vinaigrette dressing, and brown rice with wild mushrooms and tofu during my Memorial Day weekend bike trip to Martha’s Vineyard.)

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6 thoughts on “obesity, oh wait a minute

  1. My friend Stuart once said, “I was upset that I couldn’t find a restaurant that served a good Reuben. Then I realized I just don’t like Reubens.”

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  2. I feel like there are so many contradictions and unexplored (maybe even taboo) topics when it comes to our nation’s relationship with obesity. The government has these huge programs to bring awareness to healthy eating and activity, but huge food corporations that produce overly processed, sugary, nutritionally empty and financially inexpensive food appear to be untouchable. It seems that there is very limited discussion around the link between obesity and socioeconomic resources. The reality is that organic food is often expensive, it takes a certain amount of education and time (both of which are luxuries) to prepare a lot of healthy meals. Obesity rates are much higher among the poor. And then there is the psychological component that sugar can light up the reward centers in our brain, and if you work long hours (another American cultural value) and are stressed out food is a highly accessible means of coping with that stress. I think the example you bring up about Arbys and a town renaming itself Reubensville is a great example of the complex relationship between culture, corporate power, and obesity in the US, it is so much more complicated than just deciding not to eat certain things. Sorry this was sort of a long comment, thanks for opening up the discussion!

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    • Hi Kate, thanks for getting and essentially summarizing my point. So many complex aspects to this story that are oversimplified and under appreciated. Thanks for reading. My friend Julie just gave me a great Haiku on this that I will soon post.

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