I felt like a B-movie actress on the casting couch as I unbuttoned my shirt under the penetrating gaze of Pat Croce, a Philadelphia-area fitness guru.
"Well, yes, I see what you mean," he said. "I'd say you have one." Perhaps I'm paranoid, but Croce seemed to grimace as he said it, and I quickly buttoned back up.
Yes, I do have one, and I didn't need Croce to confirm it. What I wanted him to say was, "Hmmm, doesn't look too bad to me." But he didn't. He said: "I'd say you have one."
Potbelly. Paunch. Spare tire. Gut. Call it what you will. I've had one for quite a while now, probably a decade, but today, at the age of 40, I'm still struggling to come to grips with it—easily grippable as it might be.
July 29, 1990
Fortunately, my potbelly is not as prodigious as, say, that loading dock carried around by actor Charles Durning. In fact, some people still consider me skinny, which I definitely was during my first 20 years on the planet. I was the one at whom kids hollered, "Hey, turn sideways so you disappear." And for reasons I cannot comprehend, I am still asked dozens of times a year whether I've lost weight. My mother-in-law, bless her heart, asks once a week. I'm at a loss to explain this, but my wife says it's because my face has a way of "changing shape" with each haircut or shave.
The truth is, I've neither lost nor gained much weight over the past 15 years, carrying between 175 and 180 pounds on a six-foot frame. My arms and wrists are still thin, my shoulders narrow, my legs average-sized, and my face, evidently, changeable. Even my waist measurement, 34, has remained constant since the early '70s. Those are the things people see when they call me skinny.
But, alas, I know the real me, the me with the soft, round stomach and the love handles, odious first cousins to the paunch. Inches may not have been added to my waist, but flaccidity has arrived with a vengeance. Like the Reverend Dimmesdale, I'm living a lie, and I'm probably destined to wake up one day with a scarlet letter—P for paunch—emblazoned on my abdomen.
You don't have any idea how this bothers me. (But you will soon.) See, I believe I should not have a potbelly. I don't deserve one. I have my history of skinniness, and though my job is sedentary—tapping on a keyboard and scribbling on a notepad—I've stayed active by exercising, playing basketball and jogging.
And then there are the unfavorable social implications of the beer belly. I like a brew now and then, but I don't spend my evenings sprawled in front of the tube with a mug in each hand, cursing joggers and the dearth of Archie Bunker reruns.
Worse still are the medical reports on potbellydom. (You knew this was coming, didn't you?) Recent studies have shown that people with beefy hips but trim waists are much less prone to heart disease and other serious medical problems than people with paunches and small behinds. The people in the former group are generally known as women. The people in the latter group are generally known as men. One of them is me.
Is one of them you, too? There is the possibility, however remote, that you don't know whether or not you're potbellied. (After all, Adrian Dantley swears he doesn't shoot too much.) If that's the case, stand naked in front of a mirror, take a side view of yourself, relax your stomach muscles instead of sucking them in, and let your critical faculties go to work. (Note: Do not do this if you've been looking longingly at the open windows in your 20th-floor apartment and reading Sylvia Plath.) If you're still not sure, do the "inch pinch," celebrated in girdle commercials. The test is unscientific but not necessarily unreliable.
Finished? You've got a potbelly, right?
Croce, 36, is a man of many words and little (10%) body fat. He does not have a potbelly, and he ascribes that to eternal vigilance. "I could very easily develop one," he says. "Certainly see enough of them. It's the Number One problem for the average American male."
Yes, it is simply irrefutable that males tend to develop excess fat around the waist, in the area of the abdomen, while women tend to collect it in the hips, thighs and buttocks. (Women also collect fat in the triceps area, though that is of little medical consequence.) Men, then, acquire the classic apple shape, while women become pears.
Researchers aren't sure why this is so, but it is related to hormones. (Then again, what isn't?) Women with paunches, for example, generally have higher levels of testosterone, a male hormone, than the average female. It's possible that pear-shaped men possess higher levels of estrogen, the female hormone, but this has not been proved in studies.
Now, why is peardom healthier? Let us count the ways.
For one thing, the movement of fat in the body's fat cells is controlled by enzymes, and the enzymes in fat cells found above the waist tend to permit more of what Kelly Brownell, an obesity researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, calls "mobilization."
"When fat is allowed to come in and out of the cells, it makes a person prone to diabetes and hypertension," says Brownell. "And those, in turn, relate to heart disease."
Cholesterol, as you might suspect, plays a part in all this, too. The liver produces the protective form of cholesterol called HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which in today's ongoing medical morality play is called "good cholesterol." The more HDL you have in your blood, the less your risk of heart attack.
Intra-abdominal fat—the kind to which men are susceptible—surrounds the intestines, and its blood supply drains into the liver. "The liver is sensitive to things that fat cells put out," says Dr. Richard E. Ostlund Jr. of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who published the results of an apple-pear study in the Jan. 25, 1990, issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. "The metabolism of the liver may be changed because of the intra-abdominal fat." And that may inhibit production of HDL.
The fat that collects around women's hips, on the other hand, tends to be subcutaneous, or just underneath the skin. It does not drain directly into the liver and so has less impact on the way that organ functions. "It's not how fat you are, it's where the fat is located," says Ostlund.
Perfect. I'm not fat, except in the wrong place. And then Brownell lobs this one at me: "Researchers found that a surprisingly high risk of heart disease exists in men who have excess fat around their middles and are otherwise thin." Why do I feel like my photo is attached to this study?
Smoking, evidently, also factors into the potbelly equation. (I'm off the hook here.) A study published in the Nov. 15, 1989, issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine reported that men and women who smoke tend to carry more weight in their abdomens. This is true despite the fact that smokers usually weigh less, on the average, than nonsmokers. And, for both sexes, the tendency to gain weight in the abdomen appears to increase with the number of cigarettes smoked, says Dr. Elizabeth Barrett-Connor of the University of California School of Medicine in San Diego, who led the study. The likely reason for this, she says, is that smoking affects the hormones that affect body shape. "It's just one more piece of information about the notion that smoking is bad for you," Barrett-Connor says.
Now, we all know guys who get no exercise, keep the local doughnut shop on a 24-hour production schedule, get Christmas cards from 12 breweries and smoke three packs a day, yet still have stomachs that look like washboards. Those people are called, unofficially, The Kind of People You'd Like to Strangle. But don't blame them, blame their parents. The most important factor in determining whether or not a man (or woman) will develop a potbelly is genes. "If your father doesn't have a potbelly, there's a greater likelihood that you won't either," says Croce.
And vice versa, right, Dad? Yes, at the age of 76, John McCallum Sr. has nearly perfect eyesight, all his hair, a deadly short game of golf...and a potbelly.
"I was always pretty skinny. Then one day, all of a sudden, I had a gut," says McCallum père, shrugging his shoulders. How old was he then? When did it start to get, you know, real big?
"Don't remember," says my father. "But I know one thing—I never worried about it as much as you do."
I suppose that potbellydom never worried my dad because, until fairly recently, there was nothing wrong with it—just as there was nothing wrong with smoking, eating beef seven nights a week and not helping your significant other with the dishes. There were potbellied quarterbacks like Sonny Jurgensen, potbellied pitchers like Mickey Lolich, potbellied comedians like Jackie Gleason. Oh, the occasional potbellied hero still appears, nay, absorbs the contemporary sports landscape, like that lovable heavyweight with all the sons named George. (Let's face it—even Mr. Foreman didn't look that whale-bellied when he KO'd Adilson Rodrigues in June.) But, by and large, potbellied athletes are not socially accepted role models these days.
It all starts at the top. Consider recent images of the U.S. presidency: the wan but game Jimmy Carter competing in a 6.2-mile race near Camp David, Md., mouth hanging open, fatigued, straining, sacrificing and, finally, collapsing before the finish line; the eerily well-preserved, horse-riding Ronald Reagan, a Teddy Roosevelt in search of a metaphorical San Juan Hill; and the preppy, lean-bellied George Bush leading reporters and cameramen on a two-mile morning jog. It's doubtful that in today's body-conscious America, where you can get two solid hours of midday exercise programs on ESPN, even a veritable Winston Churchill—statesmanlike and brilliant but round-bellied—would make it past the Iowa caucuses.
Potbellies on athletes like Jurgensen and Lolich used to be winked at as long as their owners got the job done. We need, in fact, look no further than one George Herman Ruth—and, indeed, standing behind Ruth, one would not be able to look any farther—for the finest hour in the history of potbellydom.
Actually, it's simplistic to call Ruth potbellied. He had a complex consociation with his waistline, rather like the course of a stormy soap-opera marriage. At the age of 16, Ruth was "tall and rangy, a smooth-muscled, broad-shouldered youth with long arms and long legs," wrote Robert Creamer in his classic biography Babe. But almost as soon as Ruth hit the big time he started living like a big-timer—lots of food and booze and little physical conditioning. It was largely because of Ruth's bulk, Creamer reported, that Colonel Jacob Ruppert, the Yankees' natty owner, decided to dress his team in the now traditional pinstripes and dark-blue stockings; Ruppert thought the uniform would make Ruth look trimmer. (Years later, the Orioles would scrap their orange uniforms partly because they made Boog Powell, the team's paunchy, 250-pound first baseman, look like the Great Pumpkin.)
Ruth weighed about 260 pounds when, just before the 1925 season, he collapsed in Asheville, N.C., with the famous "bellyache heard 'round the world." During the winter of 1925-26, Ruth's waist measured 49¾ inches and his chest only 43 inches, an anatomical combination that would not seem to add up to a .372 batting average, 47 home runs and 145 RBIs, Ruth's numbers in 1926. After a showdown with manager Miller Huggins over his lack of discipline, Ruth compromised a bit, and over the next few seasons his waistline gradually inched down to 38. But he has remained an inspiration to potbellied men through the years.
There has been no paucity of paunchy pitchers through the years, for obvious reasons: Pitchers don't play every day, and they're not expected to do all those athletic things other players do, like run bases and beat out bunts. The first stout pitcher may have been Cy Young, well conditioned for most of his record 511 wins but, near the end of his career, decidedly out of shape around the middle. In fact, his inability to bend over and pick up bunts was the reason his career ended in 1911. If Young were playing now, he could pitch until he was 65, because nobody knows how to bunt—and, on artificial turf, nobody can, anyway.
Lolich, who pitched in the majors for 16 years, mostly with the Tigers, owned the most famous modern-day paunch. "Lots of guys have a good belly and a bad arm," he was fond of saying, "but I've got a bad belly and a good arm." With a career record of 217-191, Lolich could back up, or front up, what he said. Now the proprietor of Mickey Lolich's Donut & Pastry Shop in Lake Orion, Mich.—call that caloric justice—Mickey shows up at old-timers' games and sees a lot of guys who look like, well, Mickey Lolich.
"All the guys who used to look trim and nice now have potbellies," Lolich told Ira Berkow of The New York Times. "They look at me and say: 'You haven't changed. You could still go out there and pitch.' It's true. I was just ahead of my time."
What Lolich was to the potbelly in baseball, surely Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer, the paunchy pigskin pitchers for the Washington Redskins, were in football. Around the nation's capital in the '60s and early '70s, Jurgensen's paunch was defended as stoutly as federal junkets were. Elsewhere, it was a source of amusement. Former New York Giants coach Alex Webster remembers that during the average season, Jurgensen's belly would get bigger with each succeeding reel of game film, and the film session before a Giants-Redskins game invariably ended with the Giants breaking into laughter. Of course, the Redskins beat the Giants four out of five times while Jurgie was quarterbacking and Webster was coaching, so Jurgensen's belly couldn't have been too hilarious on Sunday afternoon.
Jurgensen's weight usually drifted into the 215-to-220-pound range, but he could always offer a Lolichian defense: It didn't affect the arm. Kilmer, for his part, always denied that he carried excess baggage, and once explained that it appeared so only "because I liked to wear bigger jerseys and not those form-fitting things."
While Jurgie and Kilmer were singled out, as quarterbacks tend to be, thousands of pounds of soft midsection went unnoticed in the middle of the offensive and defensive lines. Paunches are not as easily identifiable on linemen, and in many cases, they are not really paunches at all. In men of great strength, what is sometimes mistaken for a paunch is lordosis, a curvature of the spine caused by poor posture and excess weight. Lordosis produces a hollow in the back and a bulge in front. One of the most famous cases of lordosis in sports belonged to a very strong man, the U.S.S.R.'s two-time Olympic gold medalist in weightlifting, Vasily Alexeyev.
Recently retired Cowboy defensive tackle Randy White was another swaybacked athlete. For linemen like White, a few extra pounds and pronounced lordosis mean more leverage and strength. Besides, who wants to tell White he's paunchy? Heck, I would even be afraid to tell him he has pronounced lordosis.
Basketball, for obvious reasons, has produced few fat men, particularly since the advent of the fast break. A pitcher can compensate for his paunch with his screwball, a quarterback with his smarts and arm, and a lineman with his strength, but a whale simply cannot get up and down a basketball floor quickly enough to be successful. Billy Paultz, a.k.a. the Whopper, had a bit of a potbelly when he played for five teams in the ABA and the NBA from 1970 to 1985. But with a 6'11", 245-pound frame, he didn't carry the weight all that badly.
The obvious lesson is that potbellies decrease as aerobic activity increases. There have been more potbellied hockey goalies—Gump Worsley and Harry Lumley, for example, are in the Hockey Hall of Fame—than paunchy forwards and defensemen, because the latter, like basketball players, simply must be in excellent all-around condition. There have been more paunchy bowlers than paunchy tennis players—another candidate for understatement of the year.
But we're getting fewer and fewer Worsleys, Jurgensens and Loliches. Take golf, for example. There seems to be no compelling physical reason for potbellied golfers not to be as successful as lean-bellied golfers (particularly at the 19th hole), but the Porky Olivers just aren't around anymore, or they're on diets. Today's most renowned big man, 305-pound U.S. Amateur champion Chris Patton, is more or less—no, more—big all over, rather than singularly round-bellied.
This trend may have begun, as golf trends are wont to do, with Jack Nicklaus. Back in his Fat Jack days, Nicklaus sported a crew cut, baggy pants and a soft middle. But somewhere along the line he discovered that endorsement opportunities tend to go to the paunchless, like Arnold Palmer. So Nicklaus lost his gut without losing his power. Today, at 50, he marches off to immortality with a fairly flat belly and his own line of clothing.
For the best measure of these unpaunchy times, however, we must return to baseball, specifically to the bench. In the past, we could always find a paunchy manager there, oversized belly crammed into undersized uniform, holding forth on how many helpings of pasta he ate with how many helpings of Hollywood stars sitting at his table the night before. A manager like, say, Thomas Charles Lasorda of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But not anymore. These days Lasorda is a lean, mean fightin' machine—well, by comparison with the old days, anyway—and is more likely to be proclaiming the benefits of his high-fiber diet supplement than his consumption of spaghetti carbonara. During a three-month period last year, Lasorda lost 36 pounds (from 218 to 182), and he has kept them off. Of more significance is the fact that Lasorda considerably deflated his middle. Today, his paunch is no longer the first part of him to reach an umpire during a rhubarb.
"When I first went to my doctor about losing the weight, he looked at me and said, 'Your weight is in your gut,' " says Lasorda. (Not exactly a marvel of clinical observation, that.) "So when the weight came off, naturally it came off around my gut. I went from a 40 waist down to a 35. It feels great."
Lasorda did no situps or other agonizing abdominal exercises, but he did combine a workout program with his dieting. These days, he usually drinks one slimming shake ("for energy"), eats more carefully than he used to and does most of his working out in a pool. As long as the pounds do not return, his paunch should not, at least not to its old Ralph Kramdenesque proportions.
Now, there is one way to take off the paunch without dieting or going on a Marine-style exercise regimen: liposuction, the surgical procedure that literally vacuums fat from a specific area. Says Dr. Charles Pappas of the Institute for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery near Philadelphia: "Liposuction dates back eight years in this country, and in the beginning, it was almost all women who had the procedure. Now, I'd say the number of men coming to see us doubles or even triples every year. And, primarily, men are looking to remove their paunches or love handles."
Exercise ninjas like Croce, and many others in the obesity field, take a dim view of liposuction as a means of reducing the paunch. "What you're doing is letting vanity get in the way of good health," says Croce. Asks my father: "Lipo-what?"
Pappas is used to resistance. "But let's not kid ourselves," he says. "The kind of fat deposits that liposuction is geared to remove are very, very difficult for the average person to get off without surgical assistance. Liposuction is not for the obese. It's not a way to lose weight." A surgeon will suction off between 2,000 and 3,000 cc's of fat during a typical procedure; 2,500 cc's of fat equals about three pounds. "It is a way to eliminate regional fat deposits, like those that collect on the thighs of women and the abdomens of men," says Pappas.
I described myself to Pappas: 40, good general health, not obese, but concerned about the paunch. "Well, I'd say you sound like a perfect candidate," he said.
I've got to admit that the doctor made it sound more reasonable than I had previously thought. But, no, like most of you, I know I'll never take him up on it. Too much like cheating on a final exam. Besides, liposuction is major surgery and carries the concomitant risks and unpredictable recovery period.
Which leaves only two alternatives: to grin and bear the paunch, as my father and countless millions of males have done; or to take arms against this curse of testosterone and resist it, like the plucky little cottage on the shore that resists the roaring sea.
O.K., you've chosen the latter. As I have. (Sort of.) A few things you should think about:
•Ripping off a couple sets of situps three times a week—or even seven times a week—won't get the job done. I've tried that, possibly contributing to my back woes. "The greatest misconception in the world is that you can eliminate a potbelly with situps," says Croce. "Not possible. Besides, most people do situps incorrectly. They use too much of the back or legs, instead of the abdomen."
You can, however, tone the abdominal muscles. Croce gave me two simple exercises. First, lie on the floor with your arms locked behind your head, as in the classic situp position, but raise your torso only a couple of inches, and make sure the abdomen is doing all the work. One trick is to keep your elbows pointed back, toward the floor, for maximum "pull." The other exercise is a sadistic little combination of the situp and the bicycle pump. Lie down with your legs lifted slightly off the floor. Touch each elbow to the outside of the opposite knee while pumping your legs up to your chest and back out. Do 25 of these babies and, as Jane would say, feel the burn. Do 40 and get ready to vomit.
•To lose the paunch, you've got to lose weight. It's that simple. "Don't let the scale tell you whether or not you should lose weight," says Croce. "The scale lies." Those extra inches around your middle are, and always will be, fat. And the only way to get rid of fat is to burn it off by exercise and diet and then keep it off the same way. Just maintaining the status quo of caloric intake versus caloric expenditure isn't going to work either. As people age, their metabolic rates usually drop, so they might need more exercise to burn off fat than they needed a decade earlier.
•Vastly overweight people can lose fat faster because they have more fat to lose. Once an obese person starts to diet, the pounds may well, as they say in the commercials, "literally melt away." And they will disappear, as they did in the case of Lasorda, from the abdomen. But for men like me, who have never been particularly overweight, it's more difficult to lose the paunch. "You have control of if you lose weight," says Brownell, "but you don't have much control over where you lose weight."
•The final thing you must do is accept the reality of the situation. Unless you're committed to an all-out, Olympic-style exercise regimen combined with a carefully monitored low-fat diet—or unless you're thinking about liposuction—there is a very good chance that you will not dramatically reduce your paunch.
Since I lifted my shirt in Croce's office in March, I've changed a couple of things. I'm a little more sensible about my diet, particularly my fat intake. And I'm doing Croce's abdominal exercises three or four times a week, combined with my regular jogging. But I still weigh about the same, and I see no difference in my gut. It looks and feels the same as always—no smaller, no firmer.
Not long ago I ran into Croce in the locker room of the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom he consults on conditioning.
"You look great!" he said with typical Crocean enthusiasm. "Hey, did you lose weight?"
"Well, maybe a little," I told him, repressing the urge to lift my shirt. "But just in my face."