The Daily Beet

28 Aug Being Fat in America: John Robbins

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*This article was written by John Robbins – he talks about Engine 2 team member, Natala (and her husband, Matt)

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We can, as a society, be astoundingly cruel to people who are obese. They might be creative, caring and hopeful people, but we don’t see that. Far too often, we see only their weight.

What does it say about us that we act as though you can take the measure of a person by the size bathing suit they wear?

Maybe this partially explains why obese people are flocking to a restaurant outside Phoenix, Arizona, whose name, and I am not making this up, is the Heart Attack Grill. The restaurant, which seats 100, is often packed. It offers what owner Jon Basso calls, “an environment of acceptance to overweight customers who are typically demonized by society.”

But at this restaurant, it’s a little more than acceptance. The Heart Attack Grill literally celebrates obesity. Customers who are over 350 pounds eat for free. A scale is strategically placed at the center of the restaurant, so other diners can watch the weigh-ins. When customers exceed 350 pounds, says the restaurant’s owner, “Everybody applauds and cheers for them. A big smile comes over their face, and for once they are finally accepted. They are not picked on here.”

It’s all made to seem sexy, too. Waitresses, all of them young and slender, are dressed as scantily clad nurses, wearing high heels, thigh-high stockings, and skimpy outfits revealing lots of cleavage.

It sounds like fun.

Except when it isn’t.

Several months ago, the 575-pound spokesman for the Heart Attack Grill, a 29-year-old man named Blair River, died. It wasn’t a heart attack, it was pneumonia. He had been the public face of the restaurant and the star of its advertising. He was also the single father for a five-year-old girl.

At nearly 600 pounds. Blair River ate all his meals free at the restaurant.

Heart Attack Grill owner Jon Basso did not deny the link between the young man’s excessive weight and his tragically premature death. “I hired him to promote my food,” said Basso, “[but his] life was cut short because he carried extra weight.” Ironically, the restaurant’s motto is “Food Worth Dying For.”

Of course, no one is forcing anyone to eat at the Heart Attack Grill or to stuff themselves full of unhealthy food. It’s a free country, in theory anyway, and we’re free to eat ourselves to death if we want to do so.

Some would say that the Heart Attack Grill steps over a line, to the point of enabling dangerous food addictions. There is certainly nothing remotely resembling healthy on the menu. Customers can purchase cigarettes, but only the non-filtered type. On the wall are prominent displays advertising menu items such as “Quadruple Bypass Burgers” that carry 8,000 calories, and “Flatliner Fries” that are deep-fried in pure lard. Perhaps joking, owner Basso says, “We’re in the front lines of the battle against anorexia.”

But Blair River’s death is no joke. And it would be a mistake to make light of the medical consequences of obesity. The Centers for Disease Control tells us that obese people have a substantially higher risk not only for heart attacks, but also for Type 2 diabetes, most cancers, and many other types of cardiovascular disease.

Heart Attack Grill owner Basso doesn’t plan any changes on account of the young man’s death. Scantily-clad waitresses will still regularly exhort customers to eat all they can. He’s making money, and thinks the restaurant is great fun.

But is it funny that we have become the most obese society in the history of the world? Two-thirds of the residents of the United States are now either overweight or obese. So many children are developing the most common type of diabetes that medical authorities have had to change the name of the disease. What was formerly called “adult-onset diabetes” is now called “type 2 diabetes.” It accounts for 90 percent of the diabetes in the country, and the incidence in children is skyrocketing.

It’s easy to point our fingers and pass judgment. We can blame fast food companies that aggressively market unhealthy foods to children, we can blame people who overeat for their lack of will power, and we can blame parents for feeding their kids poorly. We can blame harmful ingredients such as trans-fats and high-fructose corn syrup, and we can blame the pressures of modern life that turn people into addicts of one kind or another.

We can play the blame game ad infinitum, but who does that help? Does it help those with weight problems that leave them vulnerable to disease and prone to feelings of shame?

What if we were instead to learn from those people who have taken the arduous, difficult, and ultimately joyful journey from obesity to health?

I have had the wonderfully good fortune recently to become friends with a young woman named Natala Constantine and her husband Matt. They’ve been married for 9 years. At their wedding, Natala was morbidly obese.

She knew something about the abuse endured by obese people in our society. By then, she had lost track of the number of times she had been humiliated in public, called ugly names by strangers, and been physically hurt by people who felt entitled to treat her as less than human because of her weight.

People constantly told Natala she was lucky Matt had fallen in love with her, and that he must be amazing to be able to look past her weight.

A week after the wedding, she was diagnosed with severe Type 2 diabetes. Her blood had become so acidic that her organs were shutting down, and doctors seriously doubted whether she would survive. She was 25-years-old.

Five years later, Natala was taking up to 13 different medications and as much as 200 units of insulin a day. She ate what many people would call a healthy diet — lots of animal protein, and almost no carbohydrates. She had been told that a diet high in animal protein was the only way she could control her T2 diabetes, but it wasn’t working. She was working out at a gym for two to three hours a day, but at 5’2 tall, she weighed well over 400 pounds.

When Natala developed an infection in her right calf, doctors told her that part of her lower right leg might need to be amputated. But then a friend, who Natala described to me as “a hippie and into yoga,” suggested that she consider a natural approach to her Type 2 diabetes, and that she start to think of food as medicine. “I wanted to smash her,” Natala admits. “How dare she suggest something so simple! Didn’t she know that I had been to the best doctors, that I was on the best diet, that I was working out?”

But Natala did take her friend’s advice to heart, and decided to go on what she calls a “100-percent healthy plant-strong diet.”

“For the first three weeks,” she says, “I felt as though I was ridding myself of much more than animal products. Food had a hold on me that I could not even conceptualize prior to those three weeks. I would sit in my car and cry outside of sub shops, just wanting a tuna melt.”

It was very rough, but Natala stayed with it and the results were nothing short of miraculous. In 30 days, she was off all insulin.

The physicians she was seeing for her Type 2 diabetes took a look at her numbers, were amazed, and wanted to know how she did it. “I told them I had adopted a completely plant-based diet. They didn’t seem surprised at all, and told me that plant-based diets were helping to reverse t2 diabetes. When I asked why they had not suggested it, they told me because it isn’t practical.”

Aghast, she asked her doctor, “Do you think it’s practical to be 30 years old and lose a leg?”

She walked out of that doctor’s office and never went back. “Everything changed from that moment,” she recalls. “I slowly decreased all the other T2 diabetes medicines I was on. I lowered my blood cholesterol without drugs. I lowered my blood pressure without drugs. I corrected my hormonal problems without drugs. Many diabetics go blind, but I reversed the nerve damage in my eyes. And that infection in my leg? It completely healed. The arthritis in my feet? It went away.”

Today, Natala Constantine has lost over 200 pounds, is medicine-free, and continues to make great strides toward her ideal weight. Her T2 diabetes is in almost in complete remission. I’ve met her and I can attest that she is one of the happiest and most radiant people you could hope to meet. A concert violinist, she exudes joy.

And her husband, Matt? While Natala was dealing with T2 diabetes, he was not only obese but also suffered from severe food allergies. Eating a few tomatoes would send him to the emergency room. His food allergies dominated his life. And now? His improvement, on a 100-percent healthy plant-strong diet, is almost as miraculous as his wife’s. A concert pianist, he has lost 100 pounds, is now a healthy weight, and his food allergies are entirely behind him.

It’s quite a world we live in it, isn’t it? On the one hand, we have the Heart Attack Grill, whose 570-pound spokesman died at the age of 29. On the other, we have people like Natala and Matt Constantine, who have taken a different path.

We live in a society that tends to cruelly stigmatize the obese. The Heart Attack Grill represents one form of response. It can feel empowering to turn shame into defiance. When society points its finger at you, blaming you and denying its own illness, there is a natural urge to send a message back to society with your middle finger.

But is there a healthier alternative? What about turning shame into a commitment to greater wellbeing and happiness? What about refusing to internalize society’s negative messages, and instead building a healthy life of joy, confidence, and beauty?

Cutting back on heavily sweetened beverages like sodas and juice-like drinks is a good place to start. Eating less processed foods and more whole foods is another good step. Getting exercise helps a lot. And the more of your nutrients you can get from plant sources, the better.

Eat a healthy plant-strong diet, and your body will thank you for the rest of your life.

For more tools, resources and inspiration, visit http://www.johnrobbins.info/.

This article was originally published at HuffingtonPost.com.

-John Robbins

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John Robbins
John Robbins

John serves on the Boards of many non-profit groups working toward a thriving, just, and sustainable way of life. He is the Founder and Board Chair Emeritus of EarthSave International (earthsave.org), an organization dedicated to healthy food choices, preservation of the environment, and a more compassionate world. John is also the Board Chair of YES! (yesworld.org), which educates, inspires and empowers young leaders to take positive action for all life on Earth. John’s life is dedicated to creating an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on this planet. He lives with his wife Deo, their son Ocean and his wife Michele, and their grandsons River and Bodhi in the hills outside Santa Cruz, California. The Robbins’ offices and home run on solar electricity.

  • Ginger

    Thank you for this wonderful article.

  • Lisa

    Eloquently written. I am going to share this on FB in hopes it breaks through to a few people!

  • JenO

    This is indeed very powerful. Thanks for putting into words what we all feel needs to be said!

  • http://twitter.com/JoynessSparkles Joyness Sparkles

    OH my goodness. I can’t even imagine eating like that…let alone everyday! Yikes! This is a great post, very informative, thank you. :)

  • healthygirlskitchen

    Great article! When I see morbidly obese people, my heart literally feels like it is breaking in half. I know there is a way that they can turn their world around but who am I to start a conversation with them that is so personal? Would anyone introduce themselves to another person and say, “Hey, I’m on a whole foods, no-oil, plant based diet. It’s working for me, can I tell you about it?” Probably not.

    • http://proofpositivity.blogspot.com proofpositivity

      I’ve been down this road. You simply, don’t whisper behind their back. Don’t shoot dirty looks. All of that leads to eating junk food because obesity is more about depression than food as well as addiction. Then, you say “Hi, how are you doing?” and become friends. After a friendship is established, shooting ideas like that works. If you say it before friendship, it will be acknowledge as “I’m so fat. Now I’m bummed, let’s eat.” You have no idea how many diets overweight people go on only to gain double the weight lost. Overweight people do look for solutions but there’s usually no support system and for a lot of people, they can’t even afford to pay for a support system doctors, trainers, nutritionists. Overweight people generally go it alone.

      • healthygirlskitchen

        thank you for sharing that proofpositivity. you are 100% dead on.

        • http://www.facebook.com/cory.judge.14 Cory Judge

          I like this thread. I was 286lbs at one point and I did have some sensitivity about it, but I was proactive as well, so if someone had some ideas that could help, I was all ears. Now, I compare that with some of my friends who are overweight/obese, and I don’t know that they have the same attitude. I lost 90lbs and became a coach with Beachbody (makers of P90X and Insanity) and another friend of mine became a health coach. I don’t know that either of us knows how to approach our larger friends. We both try to set an example, and make health and fitness as light of topic as possible, but it is still a tough topic to approach. For those that have lost a lot of weight and are now helping people do the same, I thing it can be easier. I heard one coach who lost 240lbs say that he was making a shirt that said ” I lost 240lbs, ask me how.” Maybe a little cheesy to have on a shirt, but I think very effective.

  • Kirsten

    Awesome article…thank you!

  • bob

    forks over knives – it can change your life! Now off Lipitor for chloresteral – blood pressure now normal – feel great – more energy. Eat all I want of the right stuff. – food heals.

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