Feature: The fattest city

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, July 26 (UPI) -- "Fat City" is an old-time expression suggesting the best of all possible worlds, but it's also the name of a new documentary on the Trio cable channel that examines what's been called a fat epidemic in Houston -- which has in turn been called "America's fattest city."

The one-hour documentary, narrated by Emmy-nominated actor Larry Hagman, concludes that Houston is experiencing a fat epidemic. For three years running, the Texas oil center has been named by Men's Fitness magazine as the fattest city in the United States.


The program examines Houston's fat content with a mix of statistics and up-close-and-personal accounts of a handful of Houstonians who are overweight, obese or morbidly obese.

They include: Diane, a woman who weighs 625 pounds; Bud, a champion eater -- literally -- who goes 265 pounds; Tiffany, the 305-pound mother of an 11-year-old boy who is pushing 170 pounds; and Richard, a self-described "good old boy" who weighs 270 pounds and loves barbecue.


"You're not a Texan unless you love barbecue," says Diane during the documentary. "You must be a beef eater."

Hagman is particularly suited to the job of narrating the documentary. Besides his association with Texas -- as the star of the long-running prime-time soap opera "Dallas" -- he has also become something of a champion for issues of bodily health.

After his liver transplant in 1995 Hagman became involved as a spokesman for the National Kidney Foundation. He has also been an active participant each year in the organization's U.S. Transplant Games -- a four-day athletic competition among recipients of organ transplants.

"Most of these people, I have found, honor their bodies by exercising," Hagman said in an interview with United Press International. "Most transplant people are aware of how important exercise is."

Part of Houston's problem, it seems, is a fundamental design flaw in the city itself. According to "Fat City," Houston's oil economy gave rise to an automobile culture built around freeways and urban sprawl -- resulting in more driving, less walking and more fat.

Hagman said the city's climate also contributes to the bottom line on the bathroom scale.

"In the winter it's cold as hell, and in the summer it's just like the Belgian Congo -- 100-percent humidity and temperatures of 105," he said. "I know people who have their garages air conditioned so they never have to get in a hot car."


Of the individuals who come in for close examination in "Fat City," only one shows an inclination to change her life. The film follows Tiffany as she undergoes a surgical procedure to have her stomach stapled.

Diane, on the other hand, is defiantly proud of her size and shape. Showing off glamour photos of herself in lingerie, she calls herself "sensual" and complains of a double standard in society's attitudes toward overweight people, based on gender stereotypes.

"Men, it's accepted to be fat," she said. "Women, it's not."

Almost as if to provide ammunition for Diane's claim, Bud shows off his array of eating-contest trophies. He boasts that he has been banned from two all-you-can-eat restaurants, and one scene in "Fat City" -- in which he devours a 32-ounce steak with all the trimmings -- provides further proof of his prowess with a fork and a knife.

"I am an eating machine," he crows.

The United States' recent embrace of this kind of personal growth has recently gotten the attention of U.S. health officials. The Department of Health and Human Services has determined that obesity may qualify a person for federal Medicare aid.

Speaking on National Public Radio, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said he expected some surgical procedures -- such as stomach stapling -- might soon be covered by Medicare. Thompson said a new, aggressive emphasis on treating obesity would be an investment in the country's well being.


"If we don't do it, we're going to spend a lot more money in the future," he said. "We've always waited until people become so sick that they have to be covered by Medicare, and then we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get them well."

Federal officials report that obesity is already costing the nation $118 billion each year in lost productivity and healthcare costs. Obesity claimed 400,000 lives in the United States in 2003, and Thompson said obesity is about to overtake tobacco use as "the leading indicator of people dying in America."

Hagman -- who said he was "two weeks from dying" when he received a new liver in 1995 -- said he works out every day. At 72, he is in good enough shape to enjoy powered paragliding -- hang-gliding with a motor strapped on his back.

He has had to deal with an infection in his liver in each of the past three years, and last December he said he needed to have part of the organ removed.

"Everything's been super duper since then," he said.

Hagman said some part of his success at maintaining his health can be credited to a feature on his cardio-vascular workout machine that causes the TV in his home gym to turn off if he goes below 5 mph during his workout.


"It's a pain in the ass to go over and turn the TV back on," he said.


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