Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Nobody Wants You to Lose (Weight)

My smiling eighth grade face
I fear fat. For much of my life, my body and I happily tipped the scales towards ever more rolls without much awareness of the trap we were sinking into. I ate happily, unhealthily, and excessively to the point where I touched the boundary of obesity as a freshman in high school. The short, sharp shock of type 1 diabetes--which I’ve been told by my doctor wasn’t caused by my diet, that’s type 2--slashed away two thirds of my body fat and ripped a hole in the tunnel where I’d lost the hope of recovery. With that light in sight--and the constraints of my disease--I began to learn new rules for how I should treat my body.

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine captures the essence of and some of the newest research on the struggle to maintain a healthy weight one that I share with millions of Americans. In particular, it’s author, Tara Parker-Pope, follows the Bridges, a couple who work extremely hard to maintain their overweight, and struggle against a slide back into extreme obesity. My diabetes diagnosis caught me short before I got to their state, but I still fear that same inexorable drift towards heft.

A wok full of joy from fall 2011
Veganism and my extremely low-sugar diet--carrots are my largest source of sugar today--mean that I’m eating about the healthiest calories out there, but I still struggle to stop eating once I’ve started, to ignore the nonsense I concoct to justify one more bite, and to ignore the peanut butter jar sitting on the shelf. For years I maintained a pin-point log of my eating and exercise as part of my diabetes that grew into a weight-control strategy. After walking away from that at a happy 180 pounds, I returned this fall at an unwelcome 207. All this happened without eating a candy bar, burger, or pies, so I can’t imagine how hard it is for people who succumb to donuts at work, fast food for the road, and all the other eatables that litter our lives.

Like the Bridges, I exercise religiously--always travelling under my own power when possible and sprinting off on my bike for long excursions, I scrutinize everything that approaches my mouth, and I worry that despite this vigilance I’m still gaining something that gravity can hold against me. The research cited in Pope’s article, of hereditary traits and genetic predispositions, fills in some of the blanks of America’s losing struggle against fat. At the same time, I don’t ignore the role played by personal choices and the obesogenic environment in which they are made.

I don’t take genetic predispositions and family traits as a sentence of or adequate justification for obesity in the one third of American adults and 17 percent of children and adolescents who already crossed that line. Those factors--the wars our bodies wage against us to keep unwanted weight on--are but one more reason to take our food environment and the choices we make within it more seriously. Obesity already costs us more that $147 billion. We need all the help we can get, and the surge of products and promotions that pushes us remorselessly towards early ends as “heavy users” make good health harder.

The struggles spoken of in Pope’s article, the obvious economic burdens born by an overweight nation, and the uncountable instances when a person’s dreams die slowly from fat asphyxiation give us more than enough reasons to attack the problem created by our ignorant appetites and the companies that prey on our imperfect humanity. I don’t want to live in a blubbery cage, and I’m willing to work at it for the rest of my life. But I also would like to live in a world that doesn’t stand in my way with fries and a shake poking at my face.

Big food, from Coke to the Quarter Pounder, is operated on the same principals as big tobacco, to maximize consumption of their product without concern for the casualties it creates at every stage of production and consumption. America’s battle against its fat is tied to the Immokalee tomato picker’s struggle for a living wage; the conveyor-belt employment of burger flippers who arrive raw, are processed fast, and in the end get burned--and fired; and the feed-lot, drugged-up misery endured by the billions of animals we render into food each year.

It’s noble to struggle for your own health, and the government sworn to protect the general welfare and your pursuit of happiness should help. Unfortunately, from the FTC’s failure to regulate and restrict unhealthy food advertising aimed at children to the farm policies that produce our abundance of cheap corn, soy, and flesh, that’s not the case as often as it should be. I won’t claim that government is the whole solution to this problem, but having the biggest monkey in the cage fighting for you comes in handy. Pope’s article reminded me why it’s important to push for a change to our sagging status quo in 2012 and beyond.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Sam. I am a person with extraordinary metabolism, and my body has been in a great state of health despite my recent lack of exercise. I realize that this is not a lifestyle I want to get comfortable with, so I am starting my running and yoga again this week (not a New Year's resolution thing). Despite this, I realize that my diet could also use an adjustment, and I agree with you that the "big food" companies try to create obstacles by pushing their products in every medium allowed.

    Thanks for the excellent post!