Friday, September 6, 2013

The war on obesity



This “obesity epidemic” thing makes me angrier every day. Not because people are fatter than ever, but because our culture has turned fat people into pariahs and made them objects of ridicule and public shame. In a time when bullying results in increasing numbers of suicides among children and teens, America has made chubbiness the most unforgivable of sins, and blaming fat people for bankrupting the medical industry is all the rage.

Now, I’m not saying that we should all stuff our collective faces and flip the bird to our cholesterol levels, but I’m tired of everyone acting like weight gain is nothing more than simple mathematics (calories in minus calories out = total weight). It’s just not true.

I’ve been reading more and more articles about how the chemicals we touch, eat, drink, and breathe every single day are associated with obesity:  BPA in plastics (and almost everything else); BADGE in canned foods; Teflon in everything from cookware to clothing; pesticides; herbicides; antihistamines; steroids; flame retardants in your furniture/clothing/carpeting; Triclosan in anti-bacterial soap; phthalates in shampoo, children's toys, and nail polish; Tributyltin in household paint and wood stain; Carbamates (used to slow the metabolism in greenhouse vegetables); even the paper used in cash register receipts are ALL associated with obesity, high cholesterol, and even cancer.  You can’t escape them.  They’re literally everywhere...in clothes, water, food, toys, plastics, your sofa, and even in the dust bunnies under your sofa.

Hormones also contribute HUGELY to one’s weight. Cortisol, leptin, thyroid hormone, testosterone, estrogen, insulin, prolactin, DHEA, progesterone…the list goes on and on. I myself have polycystic ovarian syndrome, which causes abnormal testosterone levels and insulin resistance, both of which cause weight gain.  Researchers have also recently discovered that something like 80% of obese people have a bacteria/virus in their digestive tract that blocks chemical messages to the brain that signal when they’re full.  Obese people also lack certain strains of GOOD bacteria in their digestive system.  Bottled water causes weight gain. So does tap water. So do both diet and regular sodas.  Drinking too much milk--or not enough.  Too much sleep. Not enough sleep.  Stress.  SCORES of medications.  Inflammation.  Illness.  Allergies.  Pollution.  Preservatives.  Skipping breakfast.  Not eating often enough.

Yet our society still look downs its nose at the larger folk. People behave as though one's weight is exclusively the result of simple math, and that all fat people are just lazy gluttons who don’t care about anything but satisfying his or her sweet tooth.  Children are publicly weighed, shamed, ostracized, and sent home with “fat letters” to alert parents that their children are overweight.  Which studies have shown over and over again DOES NOT WORK. You CANNOT shame someone into losing weight; all it does is cause depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and sometimes even suicide.

And don’t get me started on the BMI chart, which was invented in the 1830s by a mathematician who was trying to find an association between poverty and weight. Check out this list by NPR about the top 10 reasons why the use of a 200-year-old non-scientific weight measurement chart is nonsense.

And that’s not even touching on genetic or metabolic reasons for being overweight.  There was a time where I was consuming less than 1200 calories and walking more than 3 hours per day, yet I was GAINING both weight and inches.  I watched skinny friends eat whole pizzas by themselves and get winded walking up one flight of stairs, yet they were considered healthier than me.  When I tell people that, they smile and shake their head condescendingly, certain that I’m exaggerating, if not outright lying. I assure you I am not. Everyone knows a few people who can scarf down an entire half-gallon of ice cream in one sitting, never exercise, and haven’t gained an ounce collectively since they were 16 years old.  You know who you are.

Education about food today is as inescapable as BPA and Teflon.  People are more health-conscious than ever before. Everything in every food is printed clearly on the label. Calories, fat, salt, etc. are all right there in front of us, even on your french fries packaging at McDonald's. Trans fats are all but illegal.  Organic food sales are on the rise.  Whole grain, low-fat, low-calorie, and sugar-free items abound.  Dietary/health supplements take up an entire aisle at Wal-Mart.  Health food and diet items are everywhere. Lean Cuisine takes up half the frozen food dinner section.

So what's the deal?  Are people just eating more?  I don't think so; the other day I saw an episode of I Love Lucy where they went out to eat and everyone ordered steak AND spaghetti, plus appetizers before and dessert afterward.  People never used to think about what they ate; it was bacon and eggs every morning for breakfast, not bran flakes with soy milk.  There was no such thing as an egg white omelet.  They stuffed their food with butter and cheese, deep fried it, and smothered it with gravy and had no idea what trans fats were.  Now it's grilled skinless salt-free chicken breast, quinoa salad, veggie burgers on whole grain flatbread, and fat-free/low calorie/organic/sugar-free everything else.  So why is obesity getting worse?  Because maybe it's NOT just what we're eating, after all.

I’m not saying that we have zero control over our waistlines. Obviously if someone weighs 800 pounds and eats 5 buckets of fried chicken a day, there’s more than Teflon or a slow metabolism at work.  I know I have a sweet tooth and I eat fast food more often than I'd like because it's cheap and fast, but I don't believe that a few candy bars and a $10/week fast food habit are all it takes to make someone obese.

I see so many people, myself included, who honestly don’t eat much more than the thinner people around them, and yet are disproportionately larger.  It’s confusing and frustrating. When you’re doing the same things as your thinner friends but you’re 100 lbs heavier, why kill yourself trying to lose weight that just won’t come off?  Why spend 6 hours a day exercising and starving yourself if it’s only going to make 20 lbs difference after a year of misery?

If society is truly concerned about obesity, then maybe we should take a closer, more intellectual and well-rounded look at all the factors before we start teaching our children that it’s Johnny’s fault he’s fat and maybe if we tease him about it a little more he’ll stop eating so much.  There wouldn't be this imbecilic talk of legislating diets or banning foods because some people THINK that making sugar, vegetable oil, or bacon illegal is all it'll take to get America trim and fit again.  Trying to force feed schoolchildren wheat germ and denying them protein won't fix this problem.  Weight is not just calories in minus calories out.  It’s just NOT.  If it were, then diets would work better. 

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