Caveat: I chose not to cite any data sources in support of this essay. There is much conflicting data on the topic of obesity and health. The opinions expressed here are based solely on my experience in health & fitness, my observations, as well as books, data sources, and websites which, it turns out, all agree with me.
We are all familiar with the term, obesity epidemic. We see reports, studies, and media programming that remind us how dangerous yet widespread the obesity epidemic has become. We are led increasingly to believe that being overweight is unhealthy, avoidable, and wrong.
I’m not going to argue in favor of, or against obesity. I’m going step back and share my big picture perspective that obesity is less an epidemic and more the unavoidable result of our increasingly complex food system and shifting cultural values, and that fighting obesity on an individual basis will not slow or stop the expansion of the expansion.
While it is true that obesity, as defined by the CDC, has increased steadily over the last 6 decades, I believe that any large scale reversal of that pattern will not be the result of the individual mechanisms we use to fight obesity on a personal level, such as gastric related surgeries, liposuction, excessive dieting, excessive exercise, nutritional supplementation, and pharmaceutical support. With these means being more available and more used than ever, and obesity still being on the rise, that math does not add up. It simply demonstrates that, collectively, fighting individual obesity is not working to reduce obesity overall.
Though some individuals find success with using exercise, diet, and medical/pharmaceutical technologies to reverse or to avoid obesity, a majority of people who use these resources will not find success in the long-term. I believe any permanent change to the cultural obesity trend will be the result of both large and small changes in our food system, over time, which are organized and called for by society as a collective, similar to the changes in civil rights, animal rights, and global ecology that we have seen in recent decades.
Those efforts to change the food system are already forming and gaining traction, but the arc of their results is a slow turning. Examples of this are laws requiring calories to be included on menus, local food movements, transparency in food manufacturing & marketing, and social awareness created by the propagation of literature; books and documentary movies on the subject.
As It Relates To Health…
We have been fed the ideal over time that obesity is intertwined with heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and the probability of early death – a lesser quality of life notwithstanding. Increasingly though, there is data that suggests that obese people who exercise regularly, and include reasonable amounts of fruits and vegetables in their diets are no more likely to suffer from these ailments than people of average body weight. Some call this fat but fit. I call it, doing one’s best within a failing system.
Still, many people who fall into this category of larger, but healthy, attempt to fight their obesity by the means mentioned above, because they feel a social pressure which suggests they are unhealthy and undesirable. Whether or not they are unhealthy is coming into question, and that fruitless debate continues. Being socially or personally undesirable is simply a matter of bigotry.
As It Relates To Vanity…
Yesterday I visited a friend in the hospital who, for the last 13 months, has been dealing with the severely debilitating consequences of a lap-band surgery gone bad. I am removed from the internal thinking which led to her to the decision to have lap-band surgery, but from the outside looking in, though she might have been overweight at the time of the surgery, she was attractive and seemed to be in good health.
That is, her surgery was as much about vanity and/or social pressure as it was about health. My friend will remain in the hospital for at least several weeks. Her life has been in jeopardy as a result of this failed surgery on at least two occasions, though it appears now she will ultimately be okay.
Wide And Prejudice…
The epidemic which scares me more than the so-called epidemic of obesity, is the epidemic of prejudice toward heavier people. If a person wakes up in the morning and fails to eat fruit and Greek yogurt for breakfast, fails to remove the pile of clothes from the treadmill and put in a hard 30 minutes, or if they fail to stop at the gym on their way to work, they are not a bad person. And doing any or all of these will not make them a good person.
Being a good person is more related to mindfulness, kindness, and noble effort. Being a bad person, I suspect, is more related to disrespecting people, institutions, and animals – period. Body weight and body size have nothing to do with one’s character. Judging somebody for their shape size or weight does – period.
The Slow Turn Of A failed System…
When I look at our social values as it relates to body image, male or female, young or old, and when I observe what it is that we revere and what we are willing to do in the name of looking better or being leaner, I often shudder.
I don’t fault anyone for wanting to pursue or maintain an attractive appearance, and I have certainly put effort into that ideal through the years. I’ll suggest though, for those who strive to improve their physical appearance, that before they begin, they closely examine the potential for cascading consequences which may result from the means they choose.
The quest for a smaller stature, and the emphasis we place on it is as old as culture itself, and I’m not arguing we abandon that pursuit. I’ll suggest though, similarly to civil rights, animal rights, ecology, and government, that the system we have allowed to place us here, and that we are all caught up in, is more in need of repair than any of us as individuals. I believe the arc of this system improving is on the rise, though obesity may still be a social issue for a few more decades.
That obesity is a contributory factor to poor health is, in my opinion, still just a theory. That we treat obese people with a greater guard, is simply a shame. Be well… rc
Please check back in a few weeks to see what happens when I push the STOP button on the blender in my head. Oh, and there’s this from the Dharma Violets. Enjoy!