Our lifestyle choices can be deceiving in their independence.
A bagel here, a twenty minute jog there, there’s an existential comfort in believing the decisions we make to exist in a vacuum, free from unseen influence. Unfortunately, science is rarely considerate enough to offer us that same comfort. From open access journal and beloved light of my life PloS-One:
Physical inactivity, ambient air pollution and obesity are modifiable risk factors for non-communicable diseases, with the first accounting for 10% of premature deaths worldwide. Although community level interventions may target each simultaneously, research on the relationship between these risk factors is lacking.
Over the span of May to October 2012, anthropologist Lauren Renée Moore interviewed 37 residents of the university town Lawrence, Kansas.
Finding volunteers through various supermarkets, community events and restaurants, Moore was interested in documenting one of the fastest growing populations in the United States: the gluten-free.
This is a reprinted post from last year. As is, it’s honestly one of my favorite ones and the timing is perfect considering the subject. Though my thoughts have evolved slightly on the matter, it overall nails my present convictions and beliefs about nutrition and obesity. It’s especially relevant considering an upcoming writing/personal project I’ll be taking on next month…though that will have to wait until tomorrow to reveal.
The last week of February is a very important time to me. An anniversary of sorts, more significant than my birthday in March to be perfectly honest with you. The day, I don’t remember now, that I first started running.
It’s been six years since of ragged running shoes, smelly gym clothes and broken headphones. In those six years, I’ve graduated high school, college and that bartender course with the honorary home bar kit I’ve never used once. I’ve performed Off-Broadway, become a Wikipedia citation, and ran a canceled NYC marathon. I’ve also lost over fifty pounds.
At six years out, I am an anomaly. An exception in the world of dieting and nutrition. Someone obese who has lost 10% of their starting weight and maintained it for more than five years. While earlier studies place the likelihood of weight regain somewhere around 98% of all attempts, more recent numbers show the chances of success of someone like me to reach as high as 20%. At 16-years-old, my last documented weight was 226 lbs. At 23, I am currently 175 lbs.
The reality’s not as piercingly amazing as they make it out to be. I still have pudge around my belly, my head’s big, and I won’t be headlining a Calvin Klein modeling gig with my rocking abs anytime soon. But to anyone looking at my high school yearbook, I’m nearly unrecognizable. To myself, I’m unrecognizable.
Running, coupled with a healthier diet, changed everything for me, and I owe more to it than I’ll ever truly understand. It wasn’t just the weight loss. It was the strength and confidence that came with dedicating hours every week to lacing up a pair of sneakers and setting off into the breeze come rain or shine. It was the sly glances from cute girls on the subway. The adrenaline highs of a five-mile run at sunset. There’s no doubt in my mind that I haven’t lived as worthwhile a life as I have these past six years. And when it comes to the growing obesity crisis facing our developed world, I know my unique place in the story.
As the waistlines get bigger, the health problems facing Americans only escalate. Heart disease, diabetes and an early death are what await the fattest generation of Americans to date. One third of Americans are considered clinically obese, half of them overweight. A lazy citizenry eating themselves into a tomb, with no signs of stopping, and people like me are the ones pointed to as the solution.
“See, they got off their fat asses, started exercising and now look!”
I’m what happens with a little bit of willpower and some personal responsibility, they’ll say. Truth be told, that’s what I want to tell myself.
With every year that’s passed, it’s been the same singular thought running through my head: I shouldn’t be here the way I am. I should have failed. I had failed time after time as a kid. Nights spent crying that I couldn’t keep the weight off, worried I’d be mocked or bullied the minute I stepped into a classroom. And then it did. Something changed and looking back now, I want to believe it was because I was special. Am special. I’m better than the 80-98% who came before me. But I’m wrong, and anyone who points to me as an answer to the obesity epidemic is wrong too.
In 2012, scientists studying a hunter-gatherer tribe known as the Hadza in Northern Tanzania came to a counterintuitive conclusion: While the Hadza were certainly more physically active, there was very little difference in the daily calorical expenditure between the average Hadza tribesman and the average Westerner. In other words, contrary to popular belief, we might not have gotten significantly lazier than our prehistoric ancestors.
Back home, researchers are building a large base of evidence around the idea that processed foods laden with sugar are capable of triggering addiction in certain people, complete with withdrawal symptoms. A review of studies looking at fast food in 2003 found “that the high energy densities of many fast foods challenge human appetite control systems with conditions for which they were never designed.” And this month, NYTimes journalist Michael Moss is releasing a book that purports to show
[A] conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.
Meanwhile, the dieting industry generates upwards of 20 billion dollars a year, with at least 100 million of Americans currently on a diet plan.
What it all amounts to is this: Obesity is not an epidemic of the lazy and unmotivated. There’s plenty of blame to go around but you cannot ignore the toxic environment created by food corporations focused on generating loyal (addicted) consumers no matter the health costs. Least if you’re actually interested in combating the problem.
And by framing the solution as people needing to try harder to stay healthy, you ignore how incredibly rigged the game has become. By blaming the lack of personal responsibility, you allow these conglomerates to shirk their societal responsibility in fixing the problem they created.
There is no shortage of self-brought guilt in young people who are taught that being healthy means being thin but aren’t told that the evidence says our bodies rebel against drastic changes in weight by reducing metabolism and generating hunger hormones. Who aren’t told that weight is only a crude marker of health and much more important is the nutritional level of foods they take in and the level of physical activity they engage in.
That’s the other underlying problem I have with the ‘success story’ narrative. At my most, I ran forty miles a week. That’s approaching 6,000 calories of extra cardiovascular activity and it took anywhere from 9 to 12 hours of jogging a week. It’s also borderline dangerous for someone untrained in long-distance running and I faced long stretches of injury and chronic pain because of it. But here’s the kicker. That wasn’t what I needed to do if I simply wanted to be healthy. I was already in plenty of shape. It was the motivated fear of being seen as a lazy fatass deserving all of the scorn he could reap that kept me out there beyond reason. It’s that same fear that whispers in the ear of a 23-year-old man about to complete his first marathon. The peak of my physical health and I was still worried it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t and am not thin enough yet.
Worse still, I’m aware of how lucky I am. Lucky I had the free time to run, that I lacked the pressure a full time job brings, and possessed the genetics that enabled me to lose weight at a better pace than someone else doing the exact same amount of work. Even there, I know that my body will never burn as efficiently as someone of my identical weight and height who never had to lose weight. This is something I have and will constantly have to struggle with, and I’m blessed that I’ve had the physical and mental resources needed to do so for this long. The one thing I refuse to do is be propped up as the easy answer to a systemic problem fueled by unchecked profitmongering.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage healthy dieting and exercise to the greater population. It means understanding that even if everyone tomorrow instantly ate better and always got in sessions of vigorous walking, it wouldn’t turn us into The Biggest Loser. It’d definitely lessen most, if not all, of the dangers that come with being overweight, but it wouldn’t turn us into the Hadza. We don’t work that way. The only reason why that still wouldn’t be great news is if we as a society were more concerned with thin bodies as opposed to healthy ones. (Spoilers! We are). Too often, the call to deal with obesity feels like more like a mandate to lay off the pounds and stop being so ugly than it does a plea to think about our future health.
The National Weight Control Registry keeps track of people such as myself, those who have lost over 50 lbs for more than 5 years. There’s no shortage of lessons to be gleamed from studying people who have succeeded at long-term weight loss. Public health strategies and advertising campaigns to be formed around what actually works. But the sad truth is that getting healthy is a losing endeavor compared to starting out healthy. You won’t make a dent in obesity until you make the healthier choice an easier and earlier choice to make.
At the end of the day, all I represent is a band-aid to a looming disaster that we aren’t willing to honestly confront. That’s not good enough.
P.S. – I am currently 170 lbs and still anxiously looking at the bath scale.
In an article late yesterday, prominent Slate writer Amanda Marcotte asks us whether prosecuting a crime is worth forcing an alleged rape victim to testify against her alleged rapist by placing her in jail.
There ya go, not a hard question at all. No, we should probably draw the line at holding captive a 43-year-old woman believed to have been held captive by her alleged rapists and whose crime we’re supposedly seeking justice for.
But to be fair, so does the rest of the world.
Just this past Friday – presumingly because the government hates Valentine’s as much as every 20-something does – the National Science Federation released its 2014 report on the Science and Engineering indicators of the U.S. (alongside comparisons to other nations).
The hefty document, intended as a baseline measurement of how influential the science and technology fields are in the country’s infrastructure, pulls its data from hundreds of individual surveys and government reports and contains eight distinctive chapters. These chapters range from discussions about science education in our schools to estimates on the amount we spend on academic research annually; chapter seven in particular offers a prognosis of the average American’s understanding of and attitude towards basic scientific principles and findings. It’s…not great.
In honor of Darwin Day, I present to you an example of naturally evolved buffoonery.
Philosophers’ historic failure to anticipate Darwin is a severe indictment of philosophy. Happy Darwin Day!
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) February 12, 2014
Leaving aside that the statement makes about as much logical sense as blaming ornithologists for not predicting the Goodyear Blimp…it’s also not at all true.
Not only did philosophers like Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Empedocles put forward and discuss various aspects of what came to be known as evolutionary theory, but Darwin himself was likely very influenced by Hume, his personal library chock full of his works. There’s even good speculation that he was reading Hume right around the time he began formally drafting his world-shaping treatise. For natural selection’s sake, Darwin’s grandfather was a philosopher – who wrote poems about evolutionary concepts!
Dawkins tries to save face later on by claiming that he obviously knew all that, he just meant that while many philosophers nailed down parts of evolution throughout the ages, none understood the whole picture quite like Darwin did; which I think is evidence Dawkins has no idea what the word anticipate actually means.
That all might seem a bit petty to poke fun at, but really, it’s gotten to the point where you can pretty much roll your eyes at anything Dawkins says that isn’t immediately related to biology, especially when it comes packaged with a bloated and presumptuous seal of authority as it so often does.
I…I don’t know. It’s just tiresome to take Dawkins seriously these days, probably because he’s so so good at doing it himself.
For the update hungry, a new episode of Skeptical Connections is up and out for your viewing pleasure!
In addition to me laying down some history about two of my favorite passions, improv comedy and skepticism, you can catch Kevin Keith on the ethics of “Thinking And Caring”, Amy Kelly talk about her “Co-Worker’s Ghost”, and Susan Gerbic with a look at future skeptical conferences. Tune in!
Now a fancy pug.
The latest reprise of the Woody Allen scandal has brought many a social media commentator, blogger and journalist out from under the woodwork, offering their varied opinions on the validity of Malone Farrow’s (formerly Dylan) allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of her still adoptive father in 1991.
And from that angle, there’s nothing dazzlingly insightful I could say that other talented writers haven’t already. So let’s instead take this opportunity to remind ourselves of the long-term repercussions and fallout of childhood sexual abuse. Via a study released on PloS-One last week:
While I am in the middle of a busy week here, I did want to touch on a very frustrating story involving an oft-visited topic of mine: the pseudolegitimate Dissociative Identity/Multiple Personality Disorder.
Here’s psychiatrist Allen Frances, former chairman of the DSM IV, on a clear-cut example of cowardice:
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an approximate 5 million Americans currently live with the aloofly understood disorder.
With various degrees of dementia, these sufferers are supported by around 16 million caretakers and rack up a yearly medical bill of $200 billion dollars, not to say nothing of the lives increasingly ended by the disease. Demoralizing in its prognosis and outlook, Alzheimer’s remains one of the least treatable chronic conditions of our time. It may also be one of the most exploitable.