Yesterday I facilitated a viewing and discussion of one of my favorite documentaries The Weight of the Nation. Specifically, I like to use the “Challenges” episode because it really dives into the “WHY”. Why has obesity exploded in the last 30 years? You might say it’s because people need to eat better and exercise. That is true, but it is SO much more complicated than that.
One of the first questions I pose is this: Are you more or less sympathetic to individuals who are obese after watching the episode? I am taken aback by the lack of empathy towards obese individuals, and further the outright discrimination that takes place towards them. Obesity is looked at as a condition where people are just lazy and bring the problem on themselves. I disagree to a large degree, although, I know there are people who have all the resources and education in the world that continue to make bad choices. But again, WHY? Why would anyone continue to make these bad choices? Here’s what I think:
- Childhood exposure: We have little control over what we eat as children. Many kids develop their eating habits and preferences early on and carry them into adulthood.
- Turning down calories is not natural: If we look at evolution, we are “hunter-gatherers”. When there is food present, we must eat it to survive. Although we have evolved, our brain biology has not changed much.
- Modern agriculture: The government has industrialized food and it is now its own economy. It is much more readily available, however, most of it is very poor quality compared to what it was a generation ago. Our Farm Bill subsidizes crops that produce ingredients that are making us sick: soy, corn, wheat. No funding goes to fruit and vegetable farmers.
- Marketing and the Dollar Menu: We are inundated with messaging about food. We eat the food that is the most profitable because that is what is most readily available and quickest. It’s cheap to produce and can sit in a package on the shelf for a really long time. You will also see this most prevalent in poor, neglected areas (see Place Matters below).
- Technology has worked physical activity out of our day: Where we would once burn a few calories here and there to add up over the day, we sit and we sit and we sit some more.
- Place matters: The chasm between rich and poor continues to expand. Poor people living in neglected, urban areas are exposed to more hazards to their health and have less access to the things that improve health like grocery stores with fresh food.
Behavior change is hard. Quitting bad habits “cold-turkey” does not apply here because we need to eat to survive. By no means am I trying to make excuses for anyone. We all share the burden of an unhealthy population. But seeking first to understand is a place to start to address issues. So, the next time you look at someone who is obese, which is now pushing 40% of the U.S. population, consider these things before judging them.