Monday, January 01, 2001

Cincinnati is Fat City

Tristate tips scales with alarming obesity rates

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Blame our love of Skyline chili, Graeter's mint chocolate chip ice cream, Montgomery Inn ribs. Fault our cold winters, hot summers and hilly terrain. Blame, even, our German-American or Southern heritage. But if you do, you already know the bottom line is, well, still spreading.

        Greater Cincinnatians are among the fattest in the nation, a fact fueling thousands of resolutions on New Year's Day today to diet — once again.

        How fat are we?

        • Three in 10 Cincinnatians are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

        • Nearly two in 10 risk ill health because they are obese.

        • More people here fail to exercise regularly — or at all - compared to the rest of the country.

        Cincinnati had the eighth-highest level of overweight residents per capita in the country, according to the National Weight Report of 1997, the last time the city was included in the report. Despite studies like this one that label Cincinnati a fat city and Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana fat states, Tristate health, nutrition and fitness experts say we just don't get it. The bottom line really is: We eat too much fattening food and don't exercise enough.

        “Are we just going to eat ourselves to death? It's like in Willie Wonka, that little blueberry boy. He just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” says Lauren Niemes, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Nutrition Council.

Changing habits key

        To really be healthier, experts say, people need to dig deeper into their Queen City souls to discover why they overeat. And then they need to change their habits.

        Florine Mark has heard every excuse in the book.

        So when the president and chief executive officer of Weight Watchers says Ohioans don't exercise enough, don't eat enough fruits and vegetables but eat too much of everything else, you can't question her credibility.

        “You have great restaurants” she says, but “portion sizes to me are amazing.”

        Like most American cities, Cincinnati has its unique restaurants and specialty foods that give it a sense of community. You think Cincinnati, you think chili, chili three ways, chili four ways, chili five ways. Skyline has 59 locations.

Fat and what it does to your body
        A Skyline five-way has 790 calories and 42 grams of fat. That's almost half the recommended daily calories for an adult and nearly all the fat, Ms. Niemes says.

        “I usually say to shoot for 50 grams of fat a day for adults,” she says. To maintain their weight, most adults need about 1,600 calories a day.

        Many people would say the quintessential Cincinnati restaurant is Montgomery Inn or its riverfront sister, the Boathouse. So popular are the two restaurants that together they ranked among the top 50 highest-grossing independent restaurants in the country in 1999.

        Also that year, the Boathouse was sixth in number of meals served (800,000); Montgomery Inn was 17th (575,000 meals).

        But when you order a slab of ribs with Saratoga chips and house beer, how much are you eating? The typical reference point for a serving of meat is a pack of cards. That's what 3 or 4 ounces looks like. A single 16-ounce slab of ribs is enough meat for four or five meals. Calories in that slab add up to 290 calories, and it has 23 grams of fat.

        A typical restaurant steak can be 20-30 ounces. Do Ms. Niemes' math: That's enough meat for five to 10 dinners.

        “We've totally lost any perspective of how many calories we're actually consuming,” she says.

        “I used to say get an entree and split it between two people. Now I would say split it between four people,” she says.

Culture adding pounds

        The city's ethnic heritage has added more than pride over the decades: It's also packed on pounds. Cincinnatians have grown accustomed to eating fattening food prepared in fattening ways.

        About 45 percent of the city's population can claim German heritage, and more feel a certain Teutonic glow during Oktoberfest Zinzinnati when it's time to chug all that beer and chow down on all those brats and metts.

        “In the area of food, many German words just migrated directly into the English language,” says Don Heinrich Tolzmann, director of the University of Cincinnati's German-American Studies program and president of the German-American Citizens League. “Hamburger, frankfurter, wiener, noodle, strudel.”

        All those wieners and noodles have lots of calories, especially when a few ladels of gravy are added. And strudel is not generally known as a low-fat all-star.

        Culture, whether you're raised on bratwurst or borscht, has “a big impact” on how people eat every day, says Pat Streicher, a registered dietitian and manager of the Cholesterol Center at Jewish Hospital.

        And it's contagious. Cincinnatians expect to see lots of meat and potatoes on their plates, Ms. Streicher says. Start serving them chicken breasts the size of decks of playing cards and heaping helpings of broccoli and they're liable to revolt.

        “It's going against the culture here,” Ms. Streicher says. The area's German heritage is one influence. The other is Southern, she says. “There is a lot of Southern influence in the fried foods we love and the seasonings with salt pork and fatback,” she says.

        Kerry Brown, 44, of Avondale has fond memories of the meals her mother made. “We just had normal food. Normal to me was chicken and pork chops, mostly fried foods,” she says.

        It's taken some practice, but Ms. Brown has learned to like non-fried foods. After several attempts, she's reached her goal weight and is a group leader for Weight Watchers.

        “I love Frisch's,” she says, especially when she can dip her French fries in Frish's special tartar sauce. What she's learned, however, is to control portions.

Exercise not a priority

        Despite a growing number of fitness clubs, sweat is not high on Cincinnatians' lists of things to do. In Ohio, eight out of 10 residents are at risk for health problems because of a lack of exercise.

        The weather is a problem. It's hot and muggy in the summer and cold in the winter. Falls and springs are rainy, and there's all that pollen and mold.

        The hills are a problem, especially going up them. But not moving at all is sending Tristaters' health downhill in a hurry, experts say. Lack of exercise is a big contributor to heart disease, hypertension and diabetes, all among the region's top causes of death.

        Joyce Mulroy, 53, of West Chester didn't exercise for years. It was just too hard, she says. “I just wasn't into it. I tried and I just found it boring. It hurt. I just didn't like it,” she says.

        That all changed in August when she and a friend started walking. Now she logs 2.5 miles a day and competes regularly in 5K walks.

        “Now I wouldn't miss a day. I haven't missed a day,” she says.

        She also signed up for the Optifast diet - the one Oprah Winfrey tried several years ago - and her calorie consumption consists of five chocolate “shakes” totaling 800 calories and more than 80 ounces of water a day.

        The shakes, the water and the exercise are doing the trick. When she started the program, Mrs. Mulroy weighed 216 pounds. She's lost more than 77 on her way to her goal weight of 115.

Infographic: Fat and what it does to your body
Fat City Statistics
Inside the body mass index
Balance of diet, exercise, attitude shape foundation for healthy body
Scientists search for obesity's causes and cures
The Cincinnati Diet
Week 1 diet plan
Weight-loss programs need three components

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