On Obesity and False Friends

Recently, I was having a back-and-forth with a friend about the correlation of obesity with “westness” in the United States. I made the argument that Colorado can’t really be in the “Midwest”, because the obesity rate is far too low. Tongue-in-cheek, I proposed that a state should be only considered in the Midwest if its “Fat People to Mountains” ratio is sufficiently high. Unbeknownst to me, this conversation set off a different “friend”, who took it all extremely personally and decided to vent his frustration via a public attack on my character. Among other things, he claimed that my “position” on the obesity epidemic was extremely shallow (and ignorant).

Despite turning out to be a surprisingly nasty person (good riddance), I do have something to thank him for—he got me thinking about writing something about my position on obesity. Which, I can assure you, is not shallow (and hopefully not ignorant, either). Indeed, it is one of about 2 or 3 topics that I am passionate enough about to consider, at times, devoting my life to, or at very least, having no hesitation to bloody my knuckles over.

Lets start here: I was a fat kid. Like, really, very fat. When I was 15 years old and 5’8” I weighed 225 lbs. Growing up, and even today 10 years later, I identify myself as the “fat kid”. I feel that way, like a bit of a social outcast and self-conscious of how I look. I’ve been told by recent friends that this is surprising since I am so focussed on fitness today. My current run of good health started when I was 16. I lost nearly 75 lbs in about 6 months. After that, I gained back some weight, but have been losing weight again since I moved to Colorado. I’m happy to say that today I’m the fittest I’ve been and the most happy with my self-image. In large part, I lost the weight that I did because of a couple important life changes. Firstly, I started making friends who cared about fitness. My girlfriend Becky and my good friend Jake at the time were huge influences on me. I remember vividly panting after a game of pickup basketball with Jake, or stopping to walk multiple times along a mile long run with Becky. My neighbor at the time, Frank, who was a personal trainer, also took me under his wing and taught me about weight-training and eating well. For months, I met with him every morning and we commuted to his place in North Portland, where he would train me pro-bono before his real clients started showing up.

I also changed my eating habits. I basically started classifying all of the foods I could eat as “good” and “bad”. I was allowed to eat as much “good” food as I wanted but could only have very little or no “bad” food. Good food was things like rice, tofu, vegetables. Bad food was things like red meat, fast food, snacks, etc.. This “diet”, paired with substantial exercise was extremely effective for me. In fact, I had to have someone close to me tell me that I needed to start eating more, once I got down to 154 lbs and started to look unhealthy. I guess I can be a bit obsessive. I don’t mean to imply that this can work for everyone, but this worked for me, and now I know that it works—which is extremely empowering. It’s a fantastic feeling to know that I can control my own health and how to work with my body. This empowerment replaced an equal feeling of helplessness that had typified how I felt about my body and health previously.

My “friend”, during his tirade of late, accused me of not seeing the “why” of obesity. He really couldn’t be more wrong—it’s entirely the “why” that I’m concerned with. So, why was I fat? I was actually a pretty fit and active youngster growing up. However, around the time I was 6, my mother went into treatment. During that time, I lived with a number of other families and family friends. One family that I lived with, was very overweight and had bad eating habits. Between the psychological trauma of losing my mother and the bad environment, I gained alot of weight. I established eating habits which were harmful and began to associate emotional fulfilment with food. I still struggle with these things today, but I know how I work and I can call myself on self-deception (a bit of a circle, but it works). For me at least, my physical health increased in direct proportion to my mental health. As I became an adult, learned self-confidence, and something about myself, I also learned how to eat right and found substantial joy in exercise.

So, why are other people fat? Why is our whole damn country fat these days? Well, this is the part that gets me really riled up, because the way I see it (and I’m not alone), the obesity is just a very visible (hah) symptom of a number of confounding issues with the way things are done in the United States (and a number of western countries).

The free-range that we have given to large corporations to take ownership of our food supply has resulted in an environment where unhealthy food is cheap and easy and healthy food is expensive and difficult to obtain. This then, plays into a socio-economic stratification that is still very much a problem in the states. Access to healthy food and education which helps people understand how to be healthy, is only accessible for the affluent. When I was growing up, we didn’t have much money, and my mother did a wonderful job raising me on very little. I also had substantial support from a loving extended family who taught me how to cook early, and taught me principles of gardening and the wonder of fresh-picked fruits and vegetables. I also learned that food is scarce and must be valued. These are lessons I’m lucky to have had an opportunity to learn and not everyone has access to them, either via their family or via greater society.

Similarly, the failure of our (very rich) government to provide basic services to the people in terms of healthcare, drug rehabilitation, and mental health facilities, creates an environment where it is difficult to be healthy and forbidding to take ownership of your personal health in a positive way.

Our massive transportation infrastructure for automobiles is fundamentally at odds with the interests of the people who live in the urban environments the infrastructure is meant to serve. Excluding a few exceptions, the United states isn’t a friendly place to be a pedestrian, ride a bike to your job, or go for a run. All along the way, you must dodge blundering automobiles and their exhaust.

Meanwhile, we have funding cuts for our national parks and forests and as a result increased usage fees. Visit a national forest park, you’ll find the fees have jumped up 10 dollars or more and the sites have all been refitted for motor-homes, reinforcing an excessive and unhealthy way of “consuming” the outdoors.

These aren’t all of the “whys”, but these are the ones I think about every day. In one way or another, be it via lack of education and access to cheap and healthy foods, poor funding for basic services, or profit-driven corporations running amok, it’s clear that the US is a fantastic environment for incubating unhealthy lifestyles that lead to the obesity epidemic we are seeing. There are plenty of people who feel as I do and have the same priorities. Folks that love their country and the people in it, and as a result wonder why we’ve stacked the deck against ourselves and our national health. Lots of these people care about this so much that they are fighting for it. My bikey friends in Portland, my family members that run Farmer’s markets, the hippies at the CSAs in Boulder—my hat is off to these people and their compatriots. But, there’s a lot more to be done. We need systematic change. We need an environment where it is easy to obtain healthy food and people are educated about their food sources, basic gardening, and how to prepare (and preserve) food themselves. We need to take control back from the corporations who do not have our interests at heart. We need small farms of high quality that are run by and for the people. We need infrastructure for the transportation of people, not cars. We need a government that sees these as priorities and is willing to put some of this war money to better use and get the citizens of this country healthcare that is better than the tax-credit-healthcare we have coming.

That’s all I really have to say, which is plenty I think. Hopefully a little bit of personal and heartfelt disclosure on an issue I care alot about is a positive contribution. My close friends and family have heard me get up on a soapbox about these issues time and time again, and are probably tired of it. Perhaps some day I’ll run away from grad school and start a store which sells good staple foods for a fair price and educates people on how to live a healthy life. In any case, thanks to you, undisclosed-angry-person-from-the-midwest for getting me at least annoyed enough by your total misunderstanding of me, my past, and my opinions to write something down about it.