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.
On March 4, 2011 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.
But 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 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? Are we to laugh at the fact that 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 tempting 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.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, 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. 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 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 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 still weighed close to 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 vegan and into yoga,” suggested that she consider a natural approach to her 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 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 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 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 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 almost 200 pounds, is medicine-free, and continues to make strides toward her ideal weight. Her diabetes is 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 diabetes, he was obese and 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 90 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 if we could rid ourselves of shame, and mobilize a commitment to greater wellbeing and happiness? What if we could refuse to internalize society’s negative messages, and instead build 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.