I could just as easily call this blog post ‘The Case Against Auto Pilot,” because that’s basically what this is. This article, titled “Overweight Is The New Norm,” has a couple of things I want to highlight:

Americans are living large. Extra large. As in XXXXL large. As in baby-powdered-thighs large. As in wheezing, heaving, bust-the-car-suspension large.

Overweight has become the new normal, and society is straining to accommodate our ever-expanding waistlines. We plant plush bottoms on wider seats in theaters and toilet stalls, drape ourselves in plus-sized clothing, even go to our eternal rest in broader coffins.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and a third, some 72 million people, are considered obese. From 1980 to 2008, obesity rates doubled for adults and tripled for children, with 17 percent, or 9 million children over 6, classified as obese.

The average American is 23 pounds heavier than the ideal body weight. Experts blame the usual bugaboos: lack of exercise and side-splitting food consumption.

“There’s definitely a new norm,” said Dr. Robert Kushner, clinical director of the Northwestern Comprehensive Center on Obesity at Northwestern University in Illinois. “It’s a norm that, ‘My entire family and my community is overweight, and that’s what I am.’ “

Businesses, eyes on the bottom line, are adapting to the physical requirements of the heftier among us.

Revolving doors, for example, have widened from 10 feet to 12 feet in recent years. Scales, which seldom went over 300 pounds, now go up to 400 or 500 pounds.

Here are a few other areas in which the super-sized generation is changing our culture.

Feeding frenzy

Food portions, ever bigger, continue to grow to meet yawning appetites. New York nutritionist Lisa R. Young estimates fast-food servings are two to five times what they were in the 1950s. When it debuted 40 years ago, the Big Mac was but a wee patty of 3-ounce meat. Today, fast-food chains serve up 12-ounce burgers loaded with 1,000 calories.

When it first opened, a McDonald’s soda was 7 ounces. Now a small soft drink is 16 ounces, and convenience stores pitch a 64-ounce bucket of soda — a full half-gallon. The result: In the 1970s, an American gulped down an average of 27 gallons of soda a year. Today that figure is 44 gallons.

And sweets? Cookies today, Young says, are 700 percent larger than USDA standards. A brownie recipe from the 1960s called for 30 servings. The same recipe today calls for 16.

Garbing the girth

Clothing outlets have expanded plus-sized inventories. Bulky clothes are available for children as young as 3, and Target and Forever 21 offer plus-sized fashions for teens. Quadruple-extra-large shirts are on the rack for men with 60-inch waists.

“Vanity sizing,” in which manufacturers adjust apparel size downward so it’s more palatable for women, is spreading. A size 4 today was, 20 years ago, a size 8. Some 62 percent of American women wear a size 14 or larger.

But full-size fashion has its price: Plus-sized clothing, which uses more material, costs 10 to 15 percent more than regular apparel.

High-volume cargo

Federal officials have increased the average passenger weight for buses and commercial boats, from 150 pounds to 175 pounds for bus passengers and from 160 pounds to 185 pounds for boat passengers. Buses must be stronger and bigger to handle folks of amplitude, and boats must trim their passenger lists.

Government regulations for car seat belts, set in the 1960s, require them to fit a 215-pound man with a hip circumference of 47 inches. In 2003, however, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that more than 38 million people, or 19 percent of Americans, were too large for their seat belts. To accommodate heftier drivers, some car manufacturers include seat belts that are 18 to 20 inches longer, or offer seat belt extenders.

Most airlines, where economy-class seat widths range from 17 to 18 inches, make portly passengers buy an extra seat if they can’t sit with both armrests down, or can’t fasten their seat belts.

Ample seating

Many theme-park rides are featuring larger seats, with sample seats situated so heavier riders can test their capacity. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure near Orlando recently added larger seats to its Forbidden Journey ride.

Also in Orlando, a new downtown arena has installed seats 19 to 24 inches wide, as compared to the 18-inch spread in an older facility. The New York City Center is replacing seats of 17-to-20-inch width with 19 to 22 inches.

The Olive Garden is among restaurants that now provide sturdier, armless chairs for pudgy diners. Movie theater seats have broadened along with their patrons’ bottoms. In the 1980s they were around 20 inches wide. Now many movie chains have seats as large as 26 inches wide. More buttered popcorn, anyone?

Hefty health care

Hospitals, committed to treating folks of all sizes, have adjusted to a porkier population with larger, reinforced beds, walkers, examining tables and special lifts to move overweight patients. New magnetic-resonance-imaging machines hold patients of up to 500 pounds. Surgical instruments are extra long to reach into deeper body cavities. Even blood pressure cuffs are larger, to fit around chubby arms.

Wheelchairs, too, are wider. The average wheelchair was designed to hold people of 200 to 300 pounds, but new ones are capable of bearing the approximately 4 million Americans who are heavier than the old weight standard.

Toilets can handle bigger bottoms. Manufacturer Big John is marketing a toilet that is 19 inches wide and 2 inches taller than the average 14-inch-wide seat. They have a weight capacity of 1,200 pounds.

Some manufacturers are shipping 54-inch-wide coffins, broader than the standard 24 inch, which can hold 700 pounds.

Not enough

But such adjustments don’t go far enough, said Peggy Howell, public relations director for the Oakland, Calif.-based National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, an advocacy group with “fattitude.”

“We are, of course, always happy to see when a company tries to make a product that will accommodate people of size,” she said. “But we don’t feel that this is giving us a place at the table.”

Attitudes, not products, need to change, Howell said. “Stopping the discrimination and the bias and the prejudice would make life a lot better for fat people.” [source]

I really don’t care for the snark in the article – porkier, chubbier and the like – but there’s something really interesting happening, here.

For starters, I love how this has such a cyclical effect. Places like McDonalds are offering larger portions in their value meals to feed increasingly larger customers, and increasingly larger customers are  becoming increasingly larger because all they know is “they’ve always ordered the same thing,” all while every other cue around them is increasing in size, too.

A while back, I read a long book about how our environments and habits make it easy for our minds to operate on auto-pilot, and that auto-pilot is what makes it so hard for us to change our lifestyles. Basically, it’s the things we rarely think about that make the largest difference.

If you never think about how driving in front of Fast Food Avenue on the way home from work plays a huge part in the fact that you even eat fast food at all, then you’ll never consider driving a different route. If you never think about the role that the size of your cereal bowl plays in how much milk and cereal you put in it, then you’ll never consider whether or not you could be satisfied by a smaller amount.

If clothing manufacturers are vanity sizing – moving sizes up so that a size 10 can happily purchase a size 8 and fit it well – and you never think about that, you’ll never stop to think about whether or not you’re gaining weight. If you’ve always ordered the same burger, and never been aware of the fact that your favorite burger has tripled in size since you first start ordering it, you’ll never think about whether or not that burger is contributing more to your weight gain than you thought.

If society is pressuring companies and service providers to accommodate larger patrons – which, don’t get me wrong, they should – then it changes the cues we use to live our lives. That is, if we’re operating on auto-pilot.

One of the most difficult things i’ve had to learn – and keep re-learning, as a matter of fact – is the fact that its not simply the habits that I obviously take notice of while I’m going on about my day. It’s the things that I’ve taken for granted that have always been the greatest contributors… the stuff I deal with while mentally on auto-pilot. In the beginning of my conversion away from processed food, I was going nuts – I was eating whatever I wanted because, as I had so much weight to lose, even in eating “as much as I wanted,” I still had a stopping point that still allowed me to have “calories to spare” and resulted in my losing anyhow. That became my new auto-pilot. Being able to eat whatever clean foods I wanted, and still lose. However, the smaller I became, the less my new “auto-pilot” helped… and, actually, became a hindrance. I had to re-learn all over again – not just new calorie counts or new exercises, but new habits.

I don’t know if that’s an argument for constant awareness, or simply reminding myself that it’s time to assess my “auto-pilot,” but I’m rooting for the auto-pilot.

I wanted to write about this article because I feel, strongly, that as our society becomes more accommodating of those of us who choose different sizes (which it should), it’s going to require a much more vigilant push on our own parts to not let these altered cues interfere with how we look at ourselves. A willingness to assess the fine details is important – because you can’t avoid going on auto-pilot, and nothing’s worse than having to battle what you can’t even identify.


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