Saturday, June 10, 2006

My Take on Obesity

I used to be fat. I weighed over 240 lbs. I really liked eating, and it was one of the few pleasures I had in my life at the time. I was going through a painful time; my parents were divorcing, my own mother wouldn't speak to me, and my husband was mentally ill. I contemplated suicide, and I was too upset to do any work. Life was not good, although chocolate sure was!

I took anti-depressants, I got psychological help, and I took up karate. My husband started getting better, and I started being able to do my work. The pain caused by my fragmented family lessened, although it was still there (and is still there to this day). I was able to go off the anti-depressants and think more positively about life.

As I began feeling better about myself, I became less dependent on food to make me happy. It was at this point that I got up the courage to join Weight Watchers. I think I told Jeff, but I didn't tell anybody else, just in case it didn't work for me. I decided that I was a worthwhile person who deserved to be healthy, so I resolved to lose weight for my own sake.

I really like Weight Watchers for several reasons. First, by going to a weekly meeting, you get to know other people who are also in your shoes. Some of them are ahead of you in their weight loss goals, others are behind you, but you're all in the same boat. Weight Watchers stresses lifestyle changes: eating healthier foods and a balanced diet, engaging in positive self-talk and assertiveness, recognizing your needs and finding positive ways to meet them, and encouraging increased physical activity. You do have a weekly weigh-in, and your weight is recorded, but the numbers on the scale are not stressed as much as the lifestyle changes. I made a lot of friends at the meetings and it was a really positive experience for me.

Thanks to hard work and perseverence, and with the support of my Weight Watchers leader, my karate instructor, and my friends and family (whom I did tell after I began to see some progress!), I lost 68 lbs over the course of 19 months. I also worked hard in karate, culminating with my brown belt at about the same time. I am prouder of those two accomplishments than I am of my Ph.D. They were two things that I thought were impossible.

This is my personal story about fatness. I used to be unhappy, which led to being fat. Once I resolved the unhappiness, I decided to lose weight by changing my lifestyle, and I was successful. But I don't pretend to think that everyone else works the same way.

I had a few friends who felt intimidated by my weight-loss success, and they became self-conscious in front of me. I told them that my weight loss didn't change my opinion of them. I like people because of their personality on the inside, not their appearance on the outside.

Weight is a very complicated subject. There are many reasons why people are fat, and not all of them are because the person is unhappy or lazy. As I said before, I was unhappy and became fat. In that order. This does not mean that all fat people are unhappy. And there are plenty of non-lazy fat people. Laziness is just a negative stereotype that people associate with fat people. There are three primary factors that influence weight: priorities, behavior, and biology.

Often, a person's priorities are a big factor in their weight. To some people, enjoying good food takes a higher priority than being thin. This could be because they are unhappy and food makes them feel better, but it could just be that they really like food. Sometimes, they just have so much going on in their life that being thin takes a back seat. Whatever the reason for not being thin, it's their body. I think that's their choice and should be respected as such.

Sometimes people have behavioral habits that cause them to be fat. They may be unaware of how to eat healthily, or of physical activity that could assist them in losing weight. Sometimes there are behaviors that seem minor but make a huge difference. Also, sometimes people engage in negative behaviors like negative self-talk and feelings of helplessness that complicate the situation and make it harder to lose the weight they might want to lose.

Genetics also play a major role in determining a person's weight. Some people have a genetic predisposition to store more excess calories as fat than others. This genetic predisposition was useful in earlier days, when food sources were inconsistant and unreliable, but in our society, with food always available, it is not necessary. People with the propensity to store excess calories efficiently will easily gain weight and have a lot of trouble losing it. And some medications have a similar effect. Also, I know that some people have trouble knowing when their stomach is full. Due to some sort of genetic problem, or the interference of medication, they never feel full.

Another problem in our society is the fact that food with high nutritional value is so much more expensive than food with low nutritional value. For example, you can buy five pounds of white flour for less than a dollar. How much lettuce can you get for a buck? Not nearly as much. So, if you don't have much money, you're going to buy the flour instead of the lettuce, because you can get a lot more meals out of it than you can out of the same money's worth of lettuce.

I once read an article about the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in the migrant workers who harvest our fruits and vegetables. They subsist on low-cost foods such as white flour. They are paid so little that they can't even afford to eat the very food they harvest! If I ruled the world, I would subsidize fruits and vegetables so that the poor could better afford them.

Ultimately, it is possible for everyone to be at a healthy weight. Genetics, medication, and behavior can make it hard, but if maintaining a healthy weight is high enough priority, it can be done. I know, for some people it's a lot harder than for others. But ultimately, the laws of Physics make it impossible to stay heavy if you take in fewer calories than you expend. If there's somebody who can beat the laws of Physics by storing more calories than they consume, then we need to figure out how to harness their biochemistry to make a perpetual motion machine!


Ginger said...

You don't know how much I needed this post! I have been considering Weight Watchers and wanted to ask you what you thought! So now I know. I definitely am ready to do something. Low carb dieting worked for me before my wedding, but I didn't stick with it. I suppose either would work with a lot of determination and hard work.

rachel said...

This is the reason it's important to cultivate healthy attitudes toward food in children. I just read an article about how children whose parents are strict and authoritarian tend to have greater incidences of obesity -- they eat in reaction to stress. But kids in super-permissive households didn't fare much better because they weren't given any limits. The kids did best in households where the parents set limits, but respected them as people.

Food gets used as rewards for kids, or as a means of quieting them down. They might be allowed/encouraged to eat when they're bored or stressed, or forced to clean their plates even though they're not hungry. Or food can become a power play: it drives mommy crazy if I DON'T eat. Everything I read says never force a child to eat -- they will know when they are full, and if they're not eating, it's because they don't need food right now.

So, in short, I think people's relationship with food can get pretty screwed up before they're even old enough to understand what's going on (and then for girls, in jr. high and high school, a whole other layer of baggage! But I understand, much to my dismay, that boys are starting to feel that pressure too. Maybe overweight boys always have.)