Ground Zero

Houston's been the No. 1 city in America in the obesity crisis. But hype doesn't mean help.

Beth Haraway is eyeing the two slices of raisin toast on the plate in front of her. When she ordered them 15 minutes ago, the waitress cocked her head to the side, as if to say, Is that all you're going to eat, honey?

Still, Haraway feels guilty. "I'm supposed to weigh 160 pounds," she admits. "This morning, I weighed 166." She sighs, looking at the toast. "That shouldn't be sitting there."

At five feet ten, Haraway fits precisely in the government's range of normal weight, with or without those extra six pounds. She exudes soccer-mom sunniness: big blue eyes, stylish short hair, a wide smile. At first glance, she's not a woman who can cringe over such a small breakfast without sounding self-absorbed, even vaguely anorexic.

Haraway's descent from 314 pounds required 
surgeries and major lifestyle changes.
Daniel Kramer
Haraway's descent from 314 pounds required surgeries and major lifestyle changes.
Buying a deli was the undoing of Davis, who has finally 
shed nearly half of his 60-inch waist.
Daniel Kramer
Buying a deli was the undoing of Davis, who has finally shed nearly half of his 60-inch waist.

But she wasn't always this size, and that's what makes Haraway so careful -- and so different from the average skinny woman complaining about her weight.

Four years ago, Haraway weighed 314 pounds. She's lost half of herself.

The ignorant might say she's one of the lucky ones: She's made it. She's thinner, healthier and happier.

But luck played only a small part. Weight loss meant two surgeries, exercise, a major lifestyle overhaul and constant vigilance. She can no longer eat what the average American would consider a full meal, much less add dessert.

She knows what it's like to be fat. She knows she could be there again.

"I think about it every day," she says. "I think about it, and it scares the hell out of me."

Now that smoking has been thoroughly vilified and Big Tobacco properly squeezed, obesity has become the consensus choice for the country's next major public health crisis.

The topic has generated the sort of media hype usually reserved for miracle drugs or beautiful white murder victims: cover stories in Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. Reports on a dramatic increase in child obesity. Breathless accounts of the cost of medical care ($117 billion a year now, they say, and rising). Again and again, a recitation of the statistics: 300,000 deaths a year due to obesity. The number of obese Americans has increased by more than 50 percent in the last decade. The percentage of overweight kids has doubled.

Men's Fitness even pegged Houston as the epicenter of the "obesity epidemic." Houston topped the magazine's Fattest Cities list from 2001 to 2003, the first three-peat in survey history.

CNN, ABC News and two dozen major newspapers reported on the award. The attention spawned the documentary Fat City, which gave viewers of cable's Trio endless shots of Houstonians waddling through strip malls and chowing down at taquerias. The film reported that two-thirds of Texans are overweight, while one-third are obese. "Wide-eyed, slack-jawed visitors are often awed by the presence of so much weight," noted narrator Larry Hagman, but Houstonians "just don't care."

The crisis has sent all the usual suspects scrambling for a solution. Surgeon General Richard Carmona made obesity the focus of a "Call to Action" in 2001, warning that it could soon surpass smoking as a leading cause of preventable death. The National Institutes of Health announced a "strategic plan" for obesity research.

In Houston, then-mayor Lee Brown appointed a fitness czar. Even City Council got into the spirit: Members dropped a collective 102 pounds in a six-week shape-up.

In some quarters, concern turned to hysteria.

Kelly Brownell, a psychologist who runs the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, has called for a "sin tax" on junk food, with the proceeds subsidizing healthy foods. The Public Health Advocacy Institute hosted conferences to discuss "legal approaches to the obesity epidemic" -- mainly, how to sue the food industry for making people fat.

The ideas may seem laughable. But the idea that this country is in the throes of an obesity epidemic now seems widely accepted, despite the fact that there are problems with both the epidemic and its proposed cures.

The diagnosis is based partly on junk science pushed by the diet industry, which has an obvious financial stake in hyping it.

Supermarkets are full of magazines promising quick fixes, diet shakes, low-fat foods, low-carb everything. Everyone has a plan to hawk: Hit the gym. Try these pills. Eat no fat. Eat only fat.

Nothing seems to work in the long run.

And so the people who are the focus of the "obesity epidemic" remain mostly untouched by its frenzy. They've always known that they're fat. They just don't know how to change it.

When they discuss their battle, they don't talk about what the surgeon general is doing or even what they read in U.S. News. They know firsthand how silly most of the hype is.

Instead, they talk about the diets they've tried. Every day is a struggle for them. Not against the food industry, but against themselves.

And each day comes with a choice: What price will they pay to be thin?

Beth Haraway was a fat kid who grew up to be a fat adult. She was acutely aware of it. "People on the street would drive by and yell things. 'Fat pig,' or 'You're disgusting' or 'You cow,' " she says. "Those were mostly teenagers or men in their twenties." With women it was more subdued, she says, imitating a catty whisper: "Would you look at her?"

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