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Silver Threads: Recalling an era when weight wasn’t an issue

My friend the late Billy Rainey, one-time sports editor on The States-Item, had a big beach towel that he pulled out every year for sitting on the ground at Jazz Fest. It was emblazoned with colorful letters: “Mississippi, the most lied about state in the union.”

I coveted it, having lived in that great state from age 12 to 22, and I thought about it the other day, after reading in last Wednesday’s Times-Picayune that the nation’s obesity rate is climbing and that the 35 percent of the Mississippi population that’s too fat — largest in the nation — is going to rise to 67 percent by 2030. Can you believe it? Apparently not, according to Billy’s towel.

Louisiana’s own proliferation of fat people — number nine in the ranking — will increase from 33 percent to 62 percent in the same period.

When I was a child 70 or so years ago, not that many people worried about being much overweight, at least while they were young. To begin with, I walked about three miles a day five days a week: to school from home, back home for lunch, back to school, and then back home again at 3 p.m. This went on for 12 years; my mother wasn’t inclined to back her car out of the garage unless one of us kids got sick and rated a pick-up. If we complained about all the walking, Daddy weighed in with his tales of having to slog to his school in the snow, which was pretty hard to believe given the climate of east Texas.

With no television to watch, kids were on the go from dawn ‘til dusk in the summers. Those who were good at them played sports and the others lived on their bicycles or made playhouses in the woods in big trees that had fallen over with age and lay there invitingly with their roots still on the ends of them. On Saturday nights, we’d spend three or four hours circling our big gym on roller skates that were outfitted with rubber wheels so the floor wouldn’t get too damaged.

In New Orleans, my husband rode his bike from Uptown and Carrollton across the old wooden bridge clear to Slidell and Camp Salmen. He and his buddies traversed roads and lanes across the empty land that’s now River Ridge.

We didn’t have fast food, unless you counted a meal at a weenie roast, but I can’t really see how the burger, chicken and taco joints are responsible for the bulging of the American body. I’d put one of my grandmother’s hamburgers up against a 550-calorie Big Mac any day.

But the Wall Street Journal has reported that McDonald’s will begin posting calorie counts on its menus nationwide. Sixty-six percent of people polled by the WSJ think that’s a good idea. Twenty-two per cent say it isn’t: “Whatever happened to ignorance is bliss?” “Oh my God! Just leave us alone!” The remaining 12 percent say it won’t help, or make jokes about the plan: “McDonald’s has plenty of low-calorie options. Straws, napkins, ice, etc.” “An idea: Change the double doors at McDonald’s to single doors.”

Then came news in last Saturday’s Times-Picayune of a study linking soft drinks, obesity and genes. Well, duh! Ever see whole families of tall skinny folks and others whose members tend to be short and rather stout?

Still, I know that as a nation we’re fatter than we’ve ever been, and it’s mostly us Southerners and Midwesterners. Delaware is the only New England state in the list of top-ten fatties, and sightings of obese Californians are infrequent. Colorado is the thinnest state, with only about a fifth of its residents too big for their breeches. How do they manage to keep their figures? You know they aren’t climbing any mountains on their way to work. Must be something in the water.

I manage to stay hefty strictly on home-cooked meals; the only fast food I regularly consume are those breakfast burritos — egg and sausage wrapped in a tortilla. I’ve no idea how many calories they contain, but it seems I’m about to find out.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at


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