Isn’t the Answer…Vegetable Garden?


The Atlantic
has been a tonic for me lately, running a bunch of really sharp contrarian pieces, some of which I love, some of which enrage me, and all of which wake me up.  Mark Ambinder's cover story "Beating Obesity" in the latest issue is not one of those of those sharply contrarian pieces.  It is a dully contrarian piece.  Ambinder, political editor of the magazine, is most definitely not a writer, and his description of his own struggles with obesity manages to be both self-pitying and flat.

His thesis is, however, guaranteed to raise the gardener's blood pressure: that there is only one real cure for obesity, bariatric surgery.  Ambinder argues that America therefore needs to focus on preventing obesity.  And that means focusing on kids and the food manufacturers that target them.

Clearly America is currently not very good at preventing obesity, since a third of all adults are now obese, a statistic that makes me reel.

My feeling is, great, by all means, focus on the kids, for what it's worth while their parents are still doing the grocery shopping!  But maybe the adults, too, before getting surgery to correct for the effects of a horrendously awful diet, could try eating a few vegetables, maybe even growing them for the exercise and the extreme deliciousness of anything fresh from the garden.  Let's see…a bag of chips or pasta with fresh roasted tomatoes and rosemary?  I'm sorry, once you've tasted the latter, I fail to see how you could find anything whatsoever interesting in the former.

This week my favorite Times blogger Olivia Judson shows how much is at stake in a post that also deals with obesity, and the connection between a fat body and an atrophying brain. 


  1. Just gotta say – my husband and I are both obese, and we garden like mad. We grow and eat piles of veggies weekly in the growing season, and I cook almost everything we eat. Obesity just ain’t that simple.

    I grow our food because it is delicious, healthy, and miraculous. It hasn’t, alas, made me thin.

  2. It really bugs me when Garden Rant falls back on these facile “gardening fixes everything” arguments. I love gardening too. I’m all for it. I have not, however, found that it solves every problem in my life. If only!

  3. Obesity also isn’t nearly the problem many think it is–the growth in obesity is mostly a threshold effect. A lot of people gained a relatively small amount of weight (the average U.S. resident has gained 12 pounds in the past 30 years) and therefore went up past the arbitrarily set BMI standard for obesity.

    On the health problems related to obesity, there is a serious correlation/causation problem. There is evidence that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and exercising regularly is much more important to long-term health than how much a person weighs, which is good news since so far not a single long-term study has found that more than 10% of dieters keep the weight off long term.

    So gardening is good, for the fruits and vegetables and the exercise, regardless of whether it leads to weight loss.

  4. It’s not so much the lack of fruit and vegetables as it is the overabundance of sugars and fat in my opinion.
    You can eat your tomatoes, romaine lettuce, peas, and eggplant fresh from your garden until the cows come in, but if you’re also eating a huge plate of pasta or mounds of mashed potatoes, or sucking down a coke with the meal, those calories have to go somewhere.
    Now, I think that gardening has many health benefits. Understanding how food grows and the biology of nutrition and fertilization is important. Then there is the appreciation of the production of food, so one is less wasteful and theoretically enjoys it more. An attraction or focus on vegetables can occur, since you are obsessed with growing and learning about them, and therefore you are more interested in cooking and eating them (What exactly do I do with the 18 zucchini I suddenly find myself with?)
    While gardening may not exactly be a panacea for obesity, I think it can definitely lead the foundation towards slimming down perhaps.

  5. Here in the high Rocky Mountains we are frost free only about 3 months per year. Therefore, several local non profits including the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute have teamed up with our local Roaring Fork High School to put up in the next few weeks a 42 foot diameter dome greenhouse. This weekend we have high school, university and adult volunteers working together to lay the pipes for a climate battery that will keep passively sun warmed air circulating through the soil all winter. This green house will allow the agricultural biology class to grow food and other plants all winter long.
    Our next big job is fencing the farm field at the school to keep the deer from eating all we grow outside. Our intention is to get the food into the school lunch, but first we have to negotiate our way through the federal school lunch program rules determining who call sell to a school lunch program…
    If anyone has advice for us, please let me know.
    We woke up here to snow today but we are all excited about putting in our climate battery tomorrow.

  6. All these comments raise a good point; Obesity is a disease the roots of which are as complex as the crab grass roots in my garden. I offer ONE humble gardening solution: walk around your block 10 times before you tackle your gardening. Oh, and layoff the cupcakes.

  7. obsessing about obesity is futile. Even if we all lost all our extra weight, some new problem would show up to ruin our day. There isn’t one clear cause nor one clear solution.

    My father recently passed away. He was in perfect health, low body fat, no bad habits, big time gardener, world traveler, marathon runner etc. He died from a staph infection he caught in the hospital. I will go to my grave convinced that if he just had a few extra pounds on him he might of been able to fight it better and I will go not worrying about how I good I look or whether anyone finds me fat or obese.

  8. I have gardened all my life, either with my grandparents & parents, or on my own. From those gardens have poured tons of fruits & veggies which were turned into either healthful meals or healthful preserves. I have also been overweight, if not full on ‘obese’, a good deal of my life, except for the time surrounding my battle with anorexia.

    Gardening is separate from weight. It just is. If it wasn’t, you’d be able to tell the gardeners from non by the size of their clothes.

  9. Many, many, many obese people do eat fresh veggies in every meal. Many of them (like in my family) are even avid gardeners.
    There are as many paths to obesity as there are fish in the sea — genetics, portion control, emotional eaters, impulse control, eating disorders, disabilities, inactivity, culture. Not to mention the socioeconomic factors like access to fresh foods and nutritional education.

    This is the garden rant, so you go on ranting. But let’s not be as ignorant as the people we’re ranting about.

  10. I’m curious as to what credentials “Michele” has to be commenting on obesity. Medical degree? Extensive obesity research? Personal experience losing and keeping off a large amount of weight? Or perhaps she’s just another prejudiced person that makes assumptions based on other people’s appearance. I find it hard to believe that anyone with any real knowledge of this issue could believe it’s as simple as “try eating a few vegetables, maybe even growing them for the exercise”. Wow, how could we all have missed that simple solution! How incredibly arrogant of Michele.

  11. Your comment:”I’m sorry, once you’ve tasted the latter, I fail to see how you could find anything whatsoever interesting in the former.” shows that you lack the ability to truely understand the way other people experience food. Frankly, I’d take a bag of Chips over Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes and Rosemary anyday. Where’s the caloric saving there? certainly not in the pasta. If I am going to eat Pasta, it’s going to have to be garnished with something better than that! Obesity is a very complex situation to deal with. You haven’t got a clue…

  12. Wow, hot button topic here. I’m just going to say that comparing a bag of chips and pasta with fresh roasted tomatoes and rosemary is impossible because they’re both completely different food experiences. Now mass-produced potato chips vs. fingerling potatoes parboiled, then sliced, covered in olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh rosemary, and grilled, that’s a comparison I can make and the potato chips lose decisively.

  13. Interesting discussion here. I am 3 months post-gastric bypass. I am also an avid gardener. In recent years, I have been unable to garden to the extent that I wanted due to my poor health. My back hurt too much to bend. My knees were to sore to squat and kneel in the garden. It wasn’t that I didnt like lean meats and vegetables, it was just that I couldn’t seem to stop the excess carbs, sweets, and fried foods. My surgery has given me my life and my garden back, and I will be thankful forever more for it. Also, as for the “horrendously awful diet” for post-ops, my dinner tonight was 4 oz of garlic and herb seasoned pork tenderloin and swiss chard sauteed with onion, portabella mushrooms, and garlic in a small bit of olive oil. I have never eaten as well in my life as I do post-op.
    Obesity is a difficult and complex issue. I wish something as simple as being a gardener had fixed it for me.

  14. I agree that bariatric surgery is not the answer. We didn’t need it 50, 40, 30 or 20 years ago, so why do we need it today? What has changed in our society that we need radical surgery to save our lives and change our eating habits? It’s scary.

    On the other hand, I’m young, a lifetime gardener, a vegetarian for almost 10 years now, a slow-carb and no processed foods health nut, and I’m overweight (according to the AMA). The only explanation I can think of is that my genes are programed to retain fat.

  15. I think vegetable gardening has helped with my weight gain. Why? Because I love to cook. I love to eat. My lovely raspberries get eaten out of hand (healthy), made into pies and jam (not healthy). My rhubarb gets stewed, with sugar. My green onions, almost ready, are an excuse to buy some really tasty Italian bread and slather it with butter and top with the green onions sprinkled with a little salt. Bad bad bad. And the Asparagus, lets see, grilled, good. Steamed, good. Quiche and cream soup, bad. Our whole society is focused on food. Food is tied up with entertainmen. Gardening is about food. Family get togethers, food. It is alwasy available because it makes lots of money for lots of people and we do have to eat.

  16. Hit a huge trigger point on this one i would have to say and ME TOO. I love to grow and eat veggies. The elimination of animal proteins or not has made no significant decrease in my weight. So I must state that your presumptive reasoning is in error. Sorry Girls, but please don’t stop thinking or writing! Maybe its the creative thinking that keeps your figure slim?

  17. I guess the question here is what caused obesity. Everything we consumed is related to mother nature, and the truth is everything is related these days. eg. Global warming, earthquake in China & the volcanic acid in Europe.

    Sometimes I feel is safer to grow your own organic items at your yard like everyone else suggested.


  18. I’m a primary care physician and vegetable gardener. You’ve waded into a mine field. Unfortunately obesity is a multi-factorial and emotionally laden problem. The subject of food itself is an emotional one. Just try discussing low fat vs. low carb and watch the fire fight that ensues. Food is nurture, comfort, culture, celebration and if you really want to see people lose it, bring up the subject of pet nutrition.

    Our animal brains drive us to seek calories because we don’t know where our next meal is coming from (Hint: the problem is that it’s actually right around the corner) and our human cortex is subject to an enormous amount of tempting stimuli (Hint: the main source of stimuli is plugged into your cable box).

    The few patients of mine who have managed to lose significant amounts of weight without surgery have all evolved roughly the same plan: no choice. They’ve settled on a monotonous, no-choice diet that prevents bad decisions and reduces the stimulus to overeat. Being too busy to watch the idiot box, helps too.

    Now, however, I believe that I’ve identified a tiny area in my mostly shady yard into which I can wedge yet another bed of food, so I am going to skip tra-la with a BMI of 24.7 off to Home Depot for supplies….

  19. Very interesting comments in reaction to Michele’s post — who I strongly suspect doesn’t really believe half of what she posts, she just knows how to provoke a good conversation. I thought J. Bean’s observations were right on target, and so were Tibbs’ (“our whole society is focused on food”). Ever since I read David Kessler’s book “The End of Overeating” I have an entirely new take on weight, or as the writer of the Atlantic article puts it:
    “Food companies like to keep us happy, and they’ve figured out which molecular combinations make our mouths water. Cheaply manufactured, energy-dense, sugary and salty snacks now crowd our refrigerators and pantries. David Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, … accuses the food industry of manipulating the levels of sugar, salt, and fats in food in order to create a neurochemical addiction. Over time, these “hyperpalatable” foods change our brain chemistry in ways that make us overeat.”

    So it’s a complicated, multifaceted issue, obesity and overeating. But there’s one simple truth that I think we can all agree on. Your weight is all about calories. Eat more than about 2,100 calories a day and you’ll be overweight. Eat 2,100 calories or less daily and you won’t be.

  20. No Choice – for a menu plan that absolutely works. If you know what you are going to eat (with portions measured out) for breakfast lunch supper and snacks you will lose weight. Since I added choices back into my life I added the weight too. Even training for a half marathon doesn’t take the weight off, and believe me I’m running a lot. Althought I wonder how big I would be if I wasn’t running, ugh.

  21. Pam J., you understand me very well! And I LOVE our readership at the Rant. They are always smart, even when they chide me for insensitivity or a failure to take the natives-only movement seriously.

    But I’m writing a blog post, not an epitaph. If you can’t ask a bratty question here, then where?

    Food manufacturers know how to manipulate our tastebuds, which are really the blunter part of our flavor detection system. We have just 5 different kinds of taste buds, but over 300 different kinds of odor sensors, which can detect something like 10,000 different fragrances, some of them (including one of the most important flavor volatiles in tomatoes) at the level of mere parts per trillion!

    So, I think we need to concentrate on fragrant food in order to resist the siren song of factory food! That means vegetables and fruits! They are satisfying because they light up our noses and brains as well as mouths.

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