The land of the well and the home of the huge

A ranch near Chama, New Mexico, has this chilling sign at its entrance.

On Sunday morning my husband and I stood in line outside the Centre Street Café in Jamaica Plain waiting to have brunch. Ahead of us in line were two young men and a young woman, talking enthusiastically about everything, including the food they were about to eat. They looked like college seniors, but they were all doctors, residents in emergency pediatrics.

The young woman recommended the Huevos Mexicanos, made with organic eggs and organic vegetables (of course, at organic prices). Organic is great, if you can afford it.

Visit America and stumble on the greatest paradox of all: The country seems obsessed with health yet one in three adults is obese.

It’s not just health that obsesses Americans. It’s wellness. The word has been around since 1653, but the concept appears in so many different contexts it seems to have no bounds. Yet Merriam-Webster Online does not hesitate to offer a definition: “the quality or state of being in good health especially as an actively sought goal.”

And boy are they actively seeking it. Search Google and you’ll find 67,600,000 hits for wellness. Wellness for children, wellness for adults, wellness for seniors. But above all, wellness for pets. Two of the top three wellness sites are for pet food. Yes, pet wellness is right up there with godliness.

But wellness for people (though not for everyone—God forbid there should be medical coverage for all) is growing in popularity too. It’s no accident that Whole Foods Markets has been climbing steadily up the ranks of the Fortune 500 companies, from 479 in 2005 to 284 in 2010, and that it doubled its revenues between 2005 and 2009 (going from $3.86 billion $7.95 billion), and this despite the recession. With enough money, it seems, you can buy wellness in this country.

So why are so many Americans obese? Why are so many Americans sick with all the illnesses—cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and Type 2 diabetes—that come with obesity? Why are nearly 17 percent of children ages 2 to 19 obese?

They’re the people who are not shopping at Whole Foods. The highest obesity rates in the US are among blacks, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Next are Hispanics. A study showed that between 2006 and 2008 blacks had 51 percent higher prevalence of obesity, and Hispanics had 21 percent higher prevalence, than non-Hispanic whites.

Geographically, too, obesity is highest in a cluster of states: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia. In 2009, only Colorado and the District of Columbia had obesity rates lower than 20 percent.

As I sat in Jamaica Plain eating my organic eggs (my pesticide-and-hormone-and-antibiotic-filled eggs in Jerusalem taste about the same) I pondered the great American paradox, in the land where wellness is first of all for pets and very definitely not free.

Text and photo copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

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