The Tale of the Fat Man

There once was a man who, by every possible measure, had reached a girth that was too great to be compatible with a long and flourishing life. One could have considered any number of indicators if one had wished—percentage of body fat, body mass index, blood pressure—and they all pointed in the same direction and carried the same dire consequences. Although the man usually shrugged them off (“My mother always told me I was a husky boy with big bones,” he would tell himself), in his heart he knew the truth and understood the consequences of continuing the habits that had left him in this awful state. Indeed, he did not have to look too far to see others with similar weights suffering from sclerosis and, in some cases, facing a premature death. He decided to seek out advice from some of his most trusted friends.

One day a friend dropped in for tea to discuss the situation.  The fat man sighed and said: “Perhaps after years of eating too much and exercising too little, it is time again to get on the scale and face up to my situation.” The friend put down his cup of tea and scolded: “We have been down this path before. Every few years you get on the scale and each time you weigh more. This time will be no different.  Do not get on the scale until you are fully committed to a new fitness regimen. To do so, would simply make you fatter.” The fat man didn’t quite understand the logic. “The scale does not make you fat, no more than any other indicator I have read about.” The friend looked sternly across the table and replied: “This is the very thinking that you into this situation. Follow my advice and refuse to get on the scale. Make it a pledge.”

The logic seemed to escape the fat man. Fortunately, another friend dropped in and offered a glass of chardonnay and some competing advice. “Three things, my friend. First, don’t even use words like ‘fat’ since they are often a hallmark of intolerance. There are many large people—far larger than you—who are very happy. Who ever heard of a jolly thin man anyway? Second, throw the scale away altogether. Eat, drink and be merry! As long as you have credit, you can enjoy a wealth of world pleasures. In the long run, we are all dead! Finally, think about how your decisions will affect others—the most vulnerable among us. The minute you stop eating dessert, the poor people who cook your pastries and scoop your ice cream will find themselves with less demand for their services. Do you really want to pursue health on the backs of the food service industry?”

The conflicting counsel confused the fat man. Fortunately, a third friend came to the door and offered a quick critique of the earlier pieces of advice. “You must get on the scale. It only tells you what you already know and however much you want, you can’t change your past decisions about eating and exercise. Just jump on and jump off. If you don’t like what you see, you can always start planning your New Year’s resolutions.”  The fat man frowned: “I have tried the resolution route before. It never ends well.” The third friend winked and lit a cigarette. “Well then, get on the scale. But do so with a commitment to stop ordering cheesecake after dinner. In a few months, you can commit to getting on the scale again but only if you combine that with a further decision to stop drinking milkshakes.” Fatman looked a bit puzzled. “I don’t like cheesecake and rarely drink milkshakes.” His friend smiled once again: “Even better. Those things are high in calories—they have been scored as such by the nonpartisan USDA—even if you don’t normally consume them, even if you gave them up years ago, there is no reason why you shouldn’t view these commitments as important steps toward a new healthy lifestyle. There is an additional advantage: if you frame your commitments with care, you might even bring your other two friends aboard. We have found consensus in the past.”

Regardless of which advice he followed, the fat man finally concluded, he would still be fat, and most likely fatter as the years progressed. He had read the reports on the long-term consequences of morbid obesity; the projections of the health problems he would face in future years were sobering. That day he made an important decision. The first step to good health was clear: get a new set of friends.

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