Allison in St. Louis emailed me some questions about diet and exercise among the Old Order Amish. Her thoughts and questions:
I have visited many Amish settlements across the country and in thinking back on it - I don't seem to recall many overweight Amish. The few I can think of are more what I would term "pleasantly plump grandmas" - older women that are not quite as fit and trim. Having read Lovina's column as well as your cookbooks, there is never a shortage of delicious food consumed at all meals. Is their "secret" the amount of physical activity that they do? To my knowledge the Amish aren't spending money on gym memberships or "running for the cure" yet they seem to be in better physical shape than the average American. Of course they suffer illnesses but are they obsessed with their cholesterol count, blood pressure or BMI? Do you have any idea of how their health is on a diet that regularly includes foods that the media tells us is bad for us and should just be consumed on special occasions?
These are good questions and ones I have thought about a lot and observed. Over my 20 year span of visiting Amish settlements I can say that obese Amish are still the exception rather than the rule. But their luck may be running out. First of all, historically the Amish have had two favorable factors in their corner: 1) they have traditionally lived a very active lifestyle of sun-up to sun-down work and that takes a LOT of calories. So, yes, an Amish person can generally get away with scarfing down a lard-loaded cinnamon roll, piece (or all of those!) in a single sitting for breakfast because they will work it off all day long. Historically, those calories have been needed for their lifestyle. So comparing the Amish diet with the diet of someone sitting in an office cubicle tapping away at a keyboard isn't an apples to apples (or Twinkie to Twinkie) comparison. And even when the Amish are consuming copious amounts of calories they, historically, have been "clean label" calories. If they are eating biscuits and gravy or cookies or pie, the food is made from scratch using home-grown, non-processed ingredients.
I generally see Amish young men who are trim and Amish young ladies who are rarely overweight. Some increase in pounds begins to occur for women once childbirth years begin. The obese Amish that I have seen - and I have seen some - tend to be older. I'm not sure I've ever seen an obese Amish teenager. But I think I have, over the past 10 years, begun to see an increase in overweight younger adult Amish (late 30s and 40s). Why would this be? The factors are variable. As the Amish move away from agrarianism and into more diverse occupations like carpentry, cabinetry, factory work, and other entrepreneurialism the caloric-burn rate may go down while the consumption rate holds steady. And as the Amish slowly drift away from a farm-centered lifestyle, they have gradually begun partaking in more "convenience foods" which equals "inconvenient calories." I've seen Amish families drink Mountain Dew by the case, visiting fast-food restaurants, and going to the grocery store to load up with chips and candy. These are eating habits that are relatively new (probably wouldn't have seen much of this in 1980). A hard work ethic will continue to act as a bulwark against rampant obesity among the Amish, but I think waistlines will continue to expand among the Amish.
Take a look at this newspaper ad that appeared in a Tuscrawas County, Ohio newspaper last summer. This type of culinary convenience is very tempting and since it appeared in a local edition of The Budget it was clearly aimed at Amish eaters. Why make homemade biscuits and gravy from scratch when you can eat for a buck? I am sure this gravy-from-a-can has a much messier label than some sausage, milk, and flour back home. All of this takes a slow toll. I think even the mainstream media is coming around to the idea that homemade biscuits and gravy - while not the healthiest meal - is still better if made from scratch (ingredients one can pronounce) than processed, loaded with preservatives food.
And, finally, while the Amish are not obsessed with the vanity aspects of weight, BMI, etc, there is a general awareness of about healthier choices. I am noticing a lot more olive oil and canola oil being sold on the shelf in Amish-owned bulk food stores. These "healthier" (I use it in ""s, because it seems like studies are always shifting) oils are finding their way into Amish recipes. And the Amish who are more comfortable with modern medicine do have awareness about some general health indicators like blood pressure. I know of an Amish man who keeps a portable blood-pressure cuff in his house so his wife can monitor his condition.
In conclusion, I'd say again that obesity is still a rarity among the Amish but that if trends continue I think you'll see more and more of it. The Amish are a society in transition, moving away from agrarianism but towards what? The long-term answer to that question may have a lot of influence on Amish obesity over the long-term.