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A poet, a nurse, a way to avoid obesity

Published January 25. 2020 12:29AM

Before he became widely known for his lyrical poetry and penchant for writing his name in the lower case, e.e. cummings wrote The Enormous Room, a non-fiction account of the time he spent as a prisoner of war during WWI.

Yet my favorite assertion of his does not come from a poem or the aforementioned prose. In fact, it’s so obscure that it isn’t even included in the 16th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

“To be nobody but yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight and never stop fighting.” And I know one thing this world foists upon you “night and day.”

Fast food.

I use that term for more than just restaurants where you can order your meal, eat it, and exit in about the same amount of time I steam Brussels sprouts. I include all those foods found in grocery and convenience stores that are highly processed, require little to no prep time — and provide little to no nutritional value.

So are you going to “never stop fighting” against the ubiquitous bounty of fast food available at your beck and call? Or are you going to fall in line, follow “everybody else,” and get fat?

Now you may argue that there’s a middle ground, a way to eat less than properly from time to time and still not pack on those extra, health-harming pounds. In good conscience, however, I cannot offer that as an alternative — especially after the New England Journal of Medicine published a study led by scientists at Harvard and George Washington universities last December.

By using a lengthy federal study where subjects were actually weighed rather than asked their weight, the scientists estimate that by 2030, 49 percent of U.S. adults will be obese.

To put that in perspective, in 1962, the year of e.e. cummings’ death, the first National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found 13.4 percent of those in the U.S. 20 years of age and older to be obese. By 1994 and the third publication of NHANES, that percentage had spiked to 23.2 percent.

Yet the estimate for 2030 is that 24 percent of the 49 percent who will be obese will be “severely” so, a designation now given to the obese who have a BMI above 35. (A BMI between 25 to 30 is considered overweight; between 30 to 35, “moderately” obese.)

To further illustrate just how fast the U.S. has become fat, consider that a CIGNA Healthy Heart Survey copyrighted in 2005 that contains a chart to translate height and weight into BMI does not go beyond 35. Yet 24 percent of U.S. adults will have a number above that by the end of the decade.

At this point in the article, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see my use of the e.e. cummings quotation as a bit of a stretch, a misguided attempt to link an insightful statement with sobering statistics about obesity. But I made the connection after a discussion I had with a nurse during my four-day stay in a hospital in late December to fix the femur I fractured in a bizarre bicycle crash.

On day four, the nurse noticed I had ordered the same dinner every night — an egg-white omelet, mashed sweet potatoes, stewed tomatoes, and a chef’s salad with no dressing — and asked why. I briefly explained my dietary beliefs and concluded by saying, “there’s no good reason why so many people are fat.”

As soon as I uttered those words, I felt like a pompous ass, but the nurse agreed, and validated my words with a story she shared.

The nurse works 12-hour shifts, has three children, suffers from a respiratory condition that keeps her from doing even moderate aerobic exercise, yet she looks as young and fit as if she just graduated from college and works full-time as a fitness instructor.

How in the world is that possible? How can someone who’s 35 and unable to breath deeply enough to break a sweat working out able to look like that?

“I’ve found my own way to eat,” she explained. “My family hates it, but it keeps the weight off. My way’s so weird though, it probably wouldn’t work for anybody else.”

I wanted to be the judge of that, but the nurse was called out of the room. I was discharged before we could talk again.

But the details of the diet aren’t nearly as important as the other things she said about it. She’s found her own way to keep the weight off. She’s being, to borrow e.e. cummings’ idea, nobody but herself.

The world has tried to make her “everybody else,” like the current 70 percent of U.S. adults either overweight or obese, and failed.

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