Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Health, the Obesity Epidemic, and Framing Goals

Imagine that you're having some problems with your car, so you take it to the repair shop. It's not in the greatest shape (maybe it's even like one of these), so--in addition to the necessary repairs--you are anxious to hear what the mechanic has to say about how to keep it in the best possible shape. But instead of telling you about the importance of regular tune-ups and oil changes, instead of suggesting that you get new tires and avoid off-road mud racing, instead of extolling the virtues of an air freshener and seat covers, the mechanic says this: "Well, if you drove a new Lexus, this wouldn't be a problem."

Old Car
"Thanks. Really helpful."
Now, this wouldn't be a particularly helpful thing for the mechanic to tell you. Chances are that if you could afford a new Lexus, you wouldn't be repeatedly nickled and dimed by the repairs this well-worn beast has been requiring. You probably wouldn't be standing in front of him in the first place. You didn't come to him to ask you how to get to the best possible fantasy; you came to him to  make what you had work as well as it could.

That's how I feel when I hear stories about doctors (or, on a few occasions, my own doctors) who listen to a patient's health complaints and respond with, "Well, if you just lost 30 pounds."

Perhaps, doc, but how about we focus on the task at hand instead of creating alternate realities.

I'm not saying that there aren't people who can lose 30 pounds. There obviously are. But there are also people who gradually move up from a rusted-out piece of junk to a Lexus, too. The fact remains that neither the doctor nor the mechanic is treating the actual circumstances by throwing out that "if only."

And it's driving me a little crazy.

The Obesity Epidemic

The obesity epidemic is everywhere. It's all over the news, television shows, and magazine covers. We're warned of the rising costs of obesity and shamed as a collective for allowing our culture to get here.

From every angle, from medical professionals to runway models, from direct statements to subtle advertising, we get the message again and again:

Thin is healthy. Fat is unhealthy

Nevermind that studies are suggesting that isn't true. Nevermind that there are plenty of people who are decidedly unhealthy despite being thin. Nevermind that the methods to getting thin don't always (or even often) work. Nevermind that the people who have set themselves up as the experts--those in charge of weight loss medication, equipment, and beauty standards--have their own profit margin in mind when they tell us to lose, and the less we lose (at least long-term), the more they gain. 

We continue to send and reinforce the message that health occurs on a simple thin-fat continuum. It's so pervasive that people use losing the baby weight as a measure of success for new moms, even if--as Jessica Valenti points out was the case for her--she and her baby are actually very sick.
Meanwhile, Jessica Simpson's post-baby body "reveal" makes headlines.

So, if the "obesity epidemic" doomsdayers are correct, if fat really does equal unhealthy, how is this helping? It's like pointing to my 20-year-old Escort and telling me what I really need is a new Lexus. You may highlight a problem, but you certainly aren't pointing to any solutions.

I Cannot Control How Much I Weigh

I can't control how much I weigh--not really. I can control how much and what I eat. I can control how much, how hard, and how frequently I work out. I can control the things my body does, but I cannot control what my body is

The thinnest I've ever been (excluding pre-adolescence) was in high school. At the time I was eating nothing but Slim-Fast, handfuls of dry Special K cereal, and Lean Pockets. I worked out a minimum of two hours a day. I dropped twenty pounds and received compliments from everyone about how great my "new" body looked. 

I was not healthy. I was eating junk and abusing my body. I was tired and depressed. And you know what else? I was just barely, barely, barely under the line of "overweight" on the BMI chart (at only 5'3", there's not a lot of room for curves). I was starving myself and spending hours in the gym and I was always on the edge of tipping back into the danger weight zone. One weekend of eating ice cream and skipping a workout, and I was "unhealthy" again. 

Giving Up

So I gave up. What I was doing was utterly unsustainable. It wasn't good for me physically to eat tasteless food full of chemicals. It wasn't good for mentally to constantly check the scale to make sure I was remaining under the line of acceptability. It wasn't good for me. 

So I stopped. I had heard the message loud and clear. Thin was healthy. Fat was unhealthy. I couldn't keep doing what I was doing to stay "thin," so I couldn't be healthy. No use trying anymore. 

That place of defeat left me both unhappy with the way that I looked and unmotivated to adopt healthy habits for their own sake. 

And that's why I'm mad at the way that the messages about health get spread. I wasted time. I wasted time being angry about what I couldn't control instead of realizing what I could control. I focused on the size of my body instead of the food I was eating and the exercise I was doing, and I think that's exactly what the messages that we receive tell us to do: focus on the ideal goal rather than the maintenance. Dream about getting a Lexus instead of changing the oil on your car. 

Rethinking It

A recent Cracked article discusses the way that our brains trick us into sticking with bad habits. Among these ways, the author lists preferring bad habits to real failure or a potential newly-recognized diagnosis of "self-defeating personality disorder."

Basically, our brains decide that we'd rather fail on our own terms than someone else's, so if we think that failure is inevitable anyway, we want to do it up right:
So you can see already how this plays into any attempt to fix a bad habit. Let's say you have trouble keeping jobs because you have a chronic resistance to wearing pants or underwear. You actually have a strong motivation to keep the bad habit, since it's the only thing keeping the world from finding out that you're not competent enough to succeed at work. Yes, you're unemployed, but having the habit to blame lets you cling to the illusion that you'd be a captain of industry if you just didn't have that pants thing. So incredibly, bad habits wind up protecting your self-esteem, specifically because they cause you to fail.
Think about how this works in relation to weight loss. If the message is that "success" can only be measured by how thin you are and you begin to realize that you are never going to be a size 2, then doubling down on unhealthy habits gives you a buffer.

Suddenly not working out and eating healthy becomes a defense mechanism. You could be thin and beautiful, too, you tell yourself, but you've made a choice not to, so you're in control.

And there are real, measurable health problems with that mentality. Sedentary lifestyles and diets full of unhealthy foods are hurting us. We need to eat nutritious foods and put our bodies into motion. The problems the "obesity epidemic" folks point to--rising diabetes rates, skyrocketing health costs, unhealthy children--are real problems, but creating a culture of shame surrounding our bodies that comes from everywhere--from doctors to billboards, from television to concerned friends--does no more to address those problems than sleek advertisements for a new Lexus does to fix my faulty muffler.

Problem solved.

Photos: Zazzle  Anthony DeLorenzo

No comments:

Post a Comment