Wednesday, January 19, 2011

the obesity epidemic : sad problems on sad problems

In light of the recent Scientific American article on "How to Fix the Obesity Crisis", I felt overwhelmed by a sense of you've gotta be f***ing kidding me.

When we go on diets and exercise regimens, we rely on willpower to overcome all these pushes to overeat relative to our activity level. And we count on the reward of getting trimmer and fitter to keep us on the wagon. It is rewarding to lose the weight, of course. Unfortunately, time works against us. As the weight comes off, we get hungrier and develop stronger cravings and become more annoyed by the exercise. Meanwhile the weight loss inevitably slows as our metabolism tries to compensate for this deprivation by becoming more parsimonious with calories. Thus, the punishment for sticking to our regimen becomes increasingly severe and constant, and the expected reward recedes into the future. “That gap between the reinforcement of eating and the reinforcement of maybe losing weight months later is a huge challenge,” says SungWoo Kahng, a neurobehaviorist who studies obesity at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.
Thanks, neurobehaviorist guy. I hope you didn't use millions of dollars in research to give us that enlightening tidbit.

What really frustrates me about this article is that it is, truly, paragraphs and paragraphs of DUH. Yes, weight loss is difficult, especially when you've got so much of it to lose. Yes, it sucks when all your friends are as big as you and eat as much as you. Yes, all-you-can-eat buffets and delicious foods put on lots of calories for you. And no, starving yourself is not the correct solution. Really?

The problem, as millions of dollars of research and the fattening proportion of America has shown, has everything to do with behavior. Excuse me while I shed any semblance of compassion I have for the plight of overweight Americans, but why does this even need to be published? You can't tell me obese people are dumb. They aren't. Like anyone else, they love yummy food, and they love to have lots of it. So what's the real problem here? Why do some (a whopping 30% of Americans) end up obese while the rest of the population continue on the righteous path of normal-BMI? I think the issue is a simple two-fold calculation:

  1. Everyone's looking for an easy way out. Myself included. Diuretics, laxatives, "cleansing" supplements, and all manner of foods or pills that will help you drop weight without even thinking about it. It was easy to put on all the weight, so everyone wants a quick fix to throw it off. Well, it ain't gonna happen. Our bodies are designed to keep us happily stocked with calories for hard times that will - let's face it - with McDonald's around, never come. I'm really convinced that no one wants it enough. Those pounds won't come off unless you give your share of sweat, sweat, and tears.
  2. What's "healthy" look and feel like? I sure as hell don't know, and I think most people would be in the same boat as me. As we come face-to-face with the plague of obesity, you have to wonder what our nation looks like. What's the average anymore, if a sizeable chunk of the population is "above average" in terms of weight? And, more than that even, what/who do people look at to aspire to? Our society is driven by a lot of different motivations. On the glossy front pages of magazines, there are ripped men and women, frighteningly (but beautifully) thin men and women. In school, afraid of these pop culture images, they teach: inner beauty is more important. The superstars we see - whether athletes or actors - give us examples of what is ideal but also what is nearly impossible to achieve as your everyday individual. I'm sure if all we had to do all day was prepare for the next game and work out and try hard to be beautiful, we'd all look like the stars we see on TV. As it is, none of us are getting paid to put in that kind of time, so what's the next best thing? You want to feel healthy. And for you, what that means is beautiful and sexy. But is that it? Becoming obese is not an instantaneous process, and so you might imagine you don't really notice when you don't feel good anymore - when your heart's beating too fast and you've always got a funny taste in your mouth and the food in your stomach never seems to sit well or leave.
The truth is we've built a culture that's entrenched in unrealistic standards and self-perpetuating bad habits. It's easy to show people what they could look like, all wrapped up in inches or pounds lost and smaller dress and pant sizes, but I think ultimately it's an uphill battle unless you really motivate some underlying change. Now how you do that - I have no idea. How can you show someone what it feels like to breathe easy when they've forgotten, or maybe when they never knew?

Ultimately the best thing to have done would've been to prevent this whole thing from happening in the first place. I'm convinced that major social stigma plays a large role in keeping other developed countries from experiencing their own epidemics. It's on the level of Amy Chua-crazy, but I know plenty of Chinese women who, upon deciding their 120-pound figure has gone too far, will impose their own vegetables-and-water-only diet until they drop back to their normal 100- and maybe even 90-pound figure. Weight's a sensitive subject no matter who you're talking to, but I think maybe other countries have better ways of dealing with its problems head-on.

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