Thanksgiving is not a holiday characterized by restraint. The prep time is long, the food abundant, the fights passionate, and the next-day shopping insane. And, of course, there’s the eating. Overeating is practically a part of the holiday.
That wouldn’t be cause for concern if eating to excess were limited to one late-November day a year. But it’s not—and it’s no secret that the nation’s eating and exercise habits have been getting a lot worse over the decades, as vividly displayed in the animation above. Waistlines have been slower to expand in some states than in others, but there is no state where fewer than one in five people is obese as measured by a body mass index greater than 30.
In 2012, Colorado had the lowest obesity rate of any state at 20.5 percent of the population qualifying, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Louisiana had the highest rate, at 34.7 percent. Obesity was highest in the Midwest, where the regional rate was 29.5 percent. The South was close behind at 29.4 percent. Some 25.3 percent of the Northeast was obese last year, with the West right behind with 25.1 percent obesity. In 2000, there wasn’t a single state with an obesity rate above 30 percent. By 2012, there were 13.
High obesity is about more than looks, of course. Those extra pounds can shave years off one’s life and high rates are associated with increased risk of numerous preventable health issues. And obesity, as with nearly all societal ills, has a disproportionate effect across genders and races.
All told, more than one in three Americans is obese, a fact that as of five years ago was estimated to cost $147 billion annually in medical costs. Rates are highest for non-Hispanic blacks (49 percent), followed by Mexican Americans (40 percent) and all Hispanics (39 percent).
While high incomes were correlated with higher obesity among non-Hispanic black and Mexican-American men, the opposite trend holds for women.
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Thanksgiving created by ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ author — not the Pilgrims
What Americans think they know about the history of Thanksgiving doesn’t always square with the truth.
For example, it is generally believed that in 1621, the Pilgrims invited Wampanoag Indians to a feast in Plymouth Colony to celebrate their first harvest, and a good time, with turkey and pumpkin pie, was had by all. Well, maybe, and maybe not.
Historians, including those at Plimoth Plantation, a living museum in Plymouth, Mass., say that they do know there was a feast that year shared by the colonists and Wampanoag Indians, and Squanto, who had learned English, served as translator. But the one historical account of the actual dinner says venison was served and some sort of fowl, but it doesn’t specifically mention turkey. Pumpkin was available, but it is not likely the colonists whipped up a pie. Furthermore, sweet potatoes were unknown to the colonists, and cranberries may have been served but not as a relish.
There’s a lot of misinformation about the Pilgrims, too. American kids learn that the Pilgrims came to the New World in search of religious freedom, and they dressed only in black and white, and wore buckles on their shoes. No, no, and no.
The Pilgrims left Britain in search of religious freedom, but found it in Holland in the early 1600s, where they found a high degree of religious tolerance. The reason they wanted to come to the New World and establish a colony was to preserve their English identity and for economic reasons. Also, they didn’t wear buckles on their shoes, and Pilgrim women dressed in colors, including red, green, blue and violet, while men wore a variety of colors, too.
If you think Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving annually since 1621, guess again. Nobody at the time thought of it as the start of a new tradition, and there had been similar gatherings elsewhere earlier. Historians know there was another feast in the colony in 1623 — but it was held earlier in the year. Different colonies celebrated their own days of thanksgiving during the year.
In 1789, George Washington declared Thursday, Nov. 26, a Thanksgiving holiday, but only for that year, and it wasn’t connected to the Pilgrim feast but rather intended as a “public thanksgiving and prayer” devoted to “the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”
Enter a 19th-century author, poet and magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale. She was editor of the influential Godey’s Lady’s Book for 40 years, from 1837 to 1877, when she was nearly 90 years old. She and her husband David Hale had five children, and when he died in 1822, she wore black for the rest of her life. Hale was an education advocate and, through the magazine she edited, became a famous figure in the country who set fashion, reading and cooking trends. Washington Irving Jr., Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes were among the authors who published work in her magazine. She was also a prolific author, writing dozens of novels and books of poetry, and penned (or co-penned, according to one account) the famous “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which was published in 1830.
Hale, who was highly patriotic, read about the 1621 feast of the Pilgrims and became captivated with the idea of turning it into a national holiday. She published in the Godey’s Lady’s Book recipes for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie and started traditions that had nothing to do with the colonists. She began a lobbying campaign to persuade President Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving an official annual holiday, using her magazine to build public support by writing an editorial every year starting in 1846. She also sent letters to all governors in the United States and territories. In 1863, Lincoln did set Thanksgiving as an official holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November every year.
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to move the annual Thanksgiving holiday to the third Thursday of November. Why? To help the economy by making the Christmas shopping season a little bit longer. There was so much opposition to the move that two years later he changed it to the fourth Thursday in November.
Then there’s the myth of how the presidential pardon of a turkey started with Abraham Lincoln when his son begged his dad to save the animal. Actually, it didn’t. The tradition goes all the way back in history to … 1989, when President George H.W. Bush officially pardoned the first one. According to a perhaps apocryphal story, in 1863, Lincoln’s 10-year-old son, Tad, supposedly became fond of a turkey given to the family for a holiday feast. Tad named the turkey Jack and begged his father to save the animal. Lincoln did. The only problem with that as a Thanksgiving story is that Tad’s plea was to save the Christmas turkey!
And, finally, you may hear people say that turkey makes them tired. No, it doesn’t. Turkey contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is thought to have a sedative effect. As it turns out, turkey doesn’t have any more tryptophan than other foods, including chicken, and even if tryptophan did induce tiredness, there isn’t enough in turkey to do so. So if you are tired after eating Thanksgiving dinner, don’t blame the turkey.