Part 2: How Did We Get Here?

Chad is doing extremely well on his 40 by 40 effort. He is incredibly dedicated and focused, and has changed a lot about how he lives, for example, what he wants to do after a busy, stressful day. Ask anyone who has lost a significant amount of weight, and they will tell you there has to be a lifestyle change…yes, you will have to face change.

But as we look back on how far we’ve come, I can’t help but think of all the people still struggling to find their way to a healthy lifestyle. And then I can’t help but think, “How can we stop this, how did we let our culture and society go down such a dangerous path?”

Obesity is a complex issue. Every person who struggles with it has a lifetime of particular events and circumstances that have helped shape who they are…and for those who are not obese, you most likely have a different set of challenges, so really, are we all that different?

The main difference that I see is that people who struggle with their weight have to wear what can be the most difficult part of themselves on the outside for all to see; we can usually hide our other insecurities and struggles, but people are able to notice if you are overweight before they hear you speak a word. And like I hope I made known in my last post, I think its inappropriate to blame a country-wide epidemic on the individuals. If you haven’t seen the development of this crisis, or for some reason still choose not to believe there is one, here are the changes in obesity rates from 1995 to 2010:

Map showing Percent of Obese (BMI > 30) in U.S. Adults in 1995 by state

Map showing Percent of Obese (BMI > 30) in U.S. Adults in 2010 by state

You don’t have to be a scientist to conclude that blue is better, reds are bad! And this change occurred in just 15 years! (In reality, it is believed the obesity crisis has been going longer than that, and is suspected to have begun around the 1980’s, but data is limited, so we don’t have the whole picture.)

WHY did this happen? No, there has been no spike in endocrine disease or the destruction of all fruits and vegetable crops in America, but something must have happened to cause this drastic turn, which has caused our health care costs to soar and is causing earlier chronic (as in long-lasting, worsening and often incurable) disease onset in adults…and now in children!

As with any complex issue, there are many players involved. Here are some of the influences that may have had some degree of impact on our current state of obesity:

  • Interstate + Car Culture=Drive-Through Culture. The books “Fast Food Nation” and “Omnivores Dilemma,” which I believe should both be required high school reading, each give histories of the evolution of our fast food culture, and tie it to the car craze, which does seem logical in a “We are busy, fast-driving American’s with the whole world to see. Why pack coolers and picnic baskets, or even stop at a mom and pop restaurant or diner when we can just go through the drive-thru” kind of way?
  • Working Families. Don’t attack me on this one, I’m NOT saying women should stay home so they can cook 3 large meals from scratch everyday. But, I do feel like our home-cooking culture never reconciled with this new arrangement that has every adult in the household working.
    • Have we worked out new systems for who cooks dinner when?
    • Are we planning our menu ahead of time to be sure we aren’t stuck calling the delivery person at 7 PM each night?
    • Do we have restaurants or even delis or groceries that have picked up on this opportunity to provide healthy meals instead of quick-service being the only option?
    • Do we even know how to cook for ourselves anymore?

    Though a few families might have some of these issues worked out, the general answer is no.

    These are the ones I ate off of at my Grandmas and Grandpas...he was a Ford dealer!

    These are the ones I ate off of at my Grandmas and Grandpas…he was a Ford dealer!

  • Screen time vs Family time. This is an offshoot of the above item. Because we are busy, (and if we aren’t we are catching up on Facebook or our DVR,) we no longer have the traditional family meals. This has us gobbling down our suppers, perhaps after skipping lunch. As the “Mindless Eating” (also a great book by Brian Wansink) movement has shown us, if we are not focused on our food, we eat more of it without noticing how much we’ve eaten, but at the same time, enjoy it less. The old-fashioned TV trays, have spawned a generation of actual coach potatoes!
  • Emotional Eating. I doubt that anyone has never experienced this at one time or another, but many of us have emotional connections to food that are VERY strong, and with everything our modern-day food culture provides, such as quick access to cheap, salty, fatty and sweet foods, it is easier than ever to go on a “binge” whenever we have the urge.

While these changes were perhaps organic, personal choice changes, there are also some changes to how and what we eat that were not completely our own choice:

  • Portion sizes and buffets. I remember Western Sizzlin, a restaurant in town that had an all you can eat buffet, and in the 1970’s it was the only place I was aware of that had this fabulous style of dining…all the pudding, garlic bread and bananas in
    National Cancer Institute

    National Cancer Institute

    strawberry sauce you could possibly eat! But it didn’t stop there. Americans, living in the land of prosperity that we dreamed of, were comforted/rewarded with large portions and the dawn of another luxury, free refills on soda! Over the last 20+ years, almost every portion has gotten larger, which has added hundreds of calories to our diet each day; and since we only drive these days we are burning even fewer calories than generations ago!  Just do a search for “portion distortion” and you will see many more examples like the graphic shown here. (Although, have you ever noticed that if you get a side of vegetables, THAT portion is always small!?)

  • Super-size on the cheap. Many have become dependent on “Dollar Menus” and cheap food. It seems that we feel it is throwing money away, or a waste of money, to spend any more of our income on food than absolutely necessary. However, I believe we have things backward, and in more ways than one. First, we spend less of each dollar earned on food than ANY other country, as shown by a UC Berkley research group, who has a fabulous map and a very interesting website. (I do acknowledge there are several factors that go into these figures, but its still quite telling.) Imagine living in a country where 15 to 40 cents of every dollar, instead of 7 cents, goes to your food bill! Second, people often cite that eating fast food is cheaper. This is debatable, as you can buy many things in the grocery store that can be cooked to serve the same number of people for less. At the same time, certain produce and meats can be more expensive, but smart shopping and planning can defer those extra costs…if we have any shopping or cooking skills to call on. Third, the foods that are super sized are beverages, burgers and fries…have you ever seen an entree salad for a price of a side salad? While this satisfies our short-term goal of cheap food, if it compromises our health we pay the price later–but more on that to come.
  • Addicted to food? More and more research is being done on the addictive properties of foods; mainly sugar, fat, caffeine and salt. This could be double trouble; not only have we spent the last couple generations treating ourselves to these items, but now, if they cause us to crave more of the same, it will be that much harder to change our ways! To make matters a bit worse, the new book, “Sugar, Salt, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” by Michael Moss, is indicating that the food companies knew of some of these properties and fostered that dependence in their “heavy users.” It seems to come down to some common investigative questions, “What did the food industry know, and when did they know it?”

Its hard to know how much influence each of these have had on any one person, but I can see that many of these have impacted my own life in some way, as my younger years were when many of these changes were actually happening. Would I be a different person health-wise if I had been born in 1953 instead of 1973? (Obviously a LOT of things would be different, but it is an interesting little mind game.)

For those who are solidly in the personal responsibility camp, and continue to look at obesity as the fault of the obese and therefore think we DON’T need to change our culture and make sweeping changes, I would propose that you are NOT unaffected. You may be fit and trim and, but for the grace of God, without disease, but this is a healthcare, Medicaid and Medicare issue as well, and these issues DO affect you, no matter who you are. I was glad to see some coverage of this complex topic on Morning Joe (watch it!), because of the Partnership for a Healthier America’s annual summit. While Joe likes to joke about eating junk, he always makes the point that this is an American issue of consequence.

So I give Chad all the credit in the world for changing his life, especially in the face of all of the above points (and this is NOT even an exhaustive list!) But what about the other millions who still need help, education and support as they try to live a healthy and long lives? There are many issues that are “sexy” in the food and nutrition world today; “fat taxes,” limits on soda sizes, nutrition information in restaurants and even changing labels in the grocery store, food marketing and marketing to children, the high-fructose corn syrup debate and the issues of additive and preservatives. I hope that some of these issues create some positive change, and help give some a small bit of the help they need.

2 thoughts on “Part 2: How Did We Get Here?

  1. You obviously put a lot of thought into your posts and I always love the added graphics…so interesting. I was born in 1952, and had a stay at home mom who always prepared home cooked meals…and I made the same unhealthy choices regarding food throughout my lifetime. Until now when I’m really trying to turn it around. Your blog helps me understand that it isn’t any one thing that made me overweight…it’s a lot things! So thank you…..

  2. You are welcome. I do think there are so many players involved and over so many years! That’s why I think its unfair for people to say just “stop being overweight,” or think its some personal flaw that was responsible for the obesity in the first place! That’s a simplistic, and I think, very FALSE argument. Keep up the incredible job…your progress is impressive!

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