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Why is Cleveland fatter than L.A.?

By Bob Harris

THIS WEEK, the papers are aflutter with a new study from something called the Coalition for Excess Weight Risk Education (now, do they mean the weight's excessive, or the education?), which ranks 33 U.S. cities by the general heftiness of their populace.

Their findings? New Orleans should change its nickname to the Big Greasy, with a whopping 38 percent of its adult population clinically huge. Other burpin' burgs include Norfolk, San Antonio, Kansas City, Cleveland, Detroit, Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Houston.

At the tapered end of the tallow are Denver, Minneapolis, San Diego, Phoenix, St. Louis, and Tampa. The bad news here, as noted by coalition spokesman Dr. Roland Weinsier (whose name anagrams into "Inner lard, so weird"), is that even Denver, at 22 percent, is still gloopier than it should be.

Obviously, we've got a problem here. Obesity afflicts about a third of U.S. adults. Every year, about 300,000 of us kick from stuff like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and stroke. And like smoking-related deaths, most of this carnage is preventable.

Self-importantly, the coalition brags about bringing "new attention to this important public health issue, by providing insight into some of the factors that contribute to excess weight." So says chairman Dr. Xavier Pi-Sunyer (anagram: "Sex? I pay driver, run"). Evidently, knowing the relative poundage of your hometown might actually mean something.

Don't get your heart rate up just yet.

The report's data come from about 20,000 people who self-reported their height and weight. Which means this whole deal probably measures vanity as much as health. There's no way to tell if the numbers are true.

Moreover, the study was funded in part by pharmaceutical companies developing anti-obesity drugs. So there's an agenda here: The fatter you feel, the more likely you are to take a pill.

That's dangerous, too. For example, in California, shady clinics are handing out Fen-Phen weight control pills like candy, often without so much as a physical exam. Most patients seem to be losing weight OK; too bad about the 4 percent developing irreversible, fatal heart damage.

To make the report seem meaningful, the coalition's researchers did what they term "in-depth anthropological research," interviewing residents, reading the local papers, and watching people on the street. Just as you and I do every day.

Roll over, Louis Leakey. Here are some of their brilliant insights:

The weight level in Cleveland may be related to high-fat ethnic foods. Obesity in Dallas may result from the local preference for Texas-sized portions. Atlanta residents eat a lot of fatty Southern foods.

And so on. Major screaming, duh.

The adiposeurs also claim that obesity correlates with high unemployment, low income, and a lot of rain. Maybe so: Poor folks usually have to eat the cheap crap, and comfort munching can get you through a gloomy day.

However, since the data are fairly meaningless anyhow, we can also explain it a lot of other ways. For example: Five of the sludgiest cities are within 200 miles of my sister's house in Akron. And she makes amazing pasta. The other five nosh pits have extremely active chapters of the Christian Coalition. So of course they're fat--those people will swallow anything. (For the record, "Pat Robertson" anagrams into "Robot Parents." Make of that what you will.)

On the other hand, the list of skinny cities indicates that thinness correlates to (a) losing the Super Bowl, or (b) having a team too lousy to make the NFL playoffs in the first place. Which makes sense--a weekly routine of cursing, throwing things, and kicking the dog involves every major muscle group.

What should be all over the news is this: Good health doesn't come in a pill, good research doesn't try to sell you something, and good newspeople check to see if a study is actually legit before duck-speaking its enormities.

If you're fat and you want not to be, there's one good way out. A while back, I lost 50 pounds by not eating garbage and by jogging every day for a year. It ain't tasty, and it's certainly not "in-depth anthropological research," but that's the recipe.

The best thing to do with extra padding? Burn it. Especially if it's in your morning newspaper.

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From the March 13-19, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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