In no particular order, I am compiling a list of ways society, not irresponsible individuals, contributes to the obesity epidemic. While I do believe that personal responsibility does play a role in our personal health, the more I learn about it, the more I think that placing too much responsibility on the individual does nothing but take the spotlight off of social issues that are probably much bigger contributors to poor public health than anything else. If we want to improve health in this country, we can’t expect individuals to be able to rail up against this system with any success. We have to change the system to a healthier one.
So, with great enthusiasm (and some fear over what the internet sizists are going to do to attack me over this), I present to you with what I see are the Top 10 Reason’s it’s Not You’re Fault You’re Fat.
1. Epigenetics (Food) – To start with, let’s define epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of how the environment affects gene expression. When it comes to food, it’s the study of how the food we eat changes our genes, and therefore how our bodies work. What we’ve been finding is that what we eat has the ability to change our gene expression to varying degrees. Moreover, what we eat when we are pregnant has a very profound effect on how genes are expressed in our children. What does this add up to when it comes to your weight? It means that how much you weigh now and how your body is programmed to store fat likely has as much or more to do with what your mother ate when she was pregnant with you and what she fed you as a child than it does with what you eat now. If while pregnant your mother ate a great deal of junky food and wasn’t active, it probably programmed you to store a lot of energy as fat and even programmed how you would store that fat (in your butt or on your waist, for example). What about if your mother dieted obsessively and gained very little weight during pregnancy? Well, that likely did just as much harm, if not more. When a mother fails to gain a healthy amount of weight, the child’s genes program themselves in expectation of an environment with very little food. It increases hunger to encourage you to eat as much as you can when food is available, and encourages your metabolism to store as much of those excess calories as fat as possible so that in anticipated periods of famine you will have fat stores to survive off of. Of course, when you are born, you find that you are not in an environment with little access to food, in fact, you have practically unlimited access to it, but your body still behaves as if food is a rare commodity. If this fetal environment is followed by an environment filled with processed food and too much fat and sugar, you’re pretty much boned as an adult if you want to have that movie star body.
Of course, there is a degree to which you can change this now as an adult or for your children if you realize you may have had some habits that programmed their genes poorly during early childhood or pregnancy, but you can really only do so much. You can eat a healthy diet based primarily in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats, and you can stay active. The degree of strictness you must maintain while following this depends on the results you’re hoping to achieve and how much damage was done as a child. Realistically, most of us will never achieve the “perfect body” we’re all supposed to be striving for, but we can achieve good health.
2. Epigenetics (Environmental Factors) – Food isn’t the only thing that can change our gene expression. Exposure to various chemicals, drugs, and pollutants can do just as much damage. Chemicals commonly found in our food, water, personal care products, cleaning products, and many other sources we’re exposed to daily, have been linked to weight gain or the inability to lose weight, along with other scary health issues such as infertility, miscarriage and cancer. BPA is one such chemical that has gotten lots of press in recent years, known for mimicking estrogen, but there are thousands more on the market, very likely in products you use every day, and only about 10% of them have ever even been tested for safety (thanks, FDA!). And chances are that while your mother was pregnant, she was using these products too. Inhaling them, putting them on her skin, eating them, and all of them cross the placental barrier. Even if your mother was Amish and never looked at a can of tomatoes or a bottle of Nivea, you were still exposed to these chemicals in the womb, because as everyone else put these on their skin and consumes them, they all get washed off in the shower or peed out into the toilet and eventually back in the water supply of the whole world, only to be consumed again when we drink water, something with water in it, or eat something that drank water. Scary, huh? You can stop using these products and it will certainly lower your toxic burden, but there’s no way to eliminate these environmental factors from your life entirely, at least, not until we as a society start prioritizing safe cosmetics and cleaning products over cheap ones, and governments start prioritizing citizen health and safety over corporate campaign financing.
3. Government subsidies for junk food – Do you know why soda costs less than milk? Soda, a product that must go through a massive amount of processing, chemical tinkering, and manufacturing, costs more than a product that essentially just needs to be heated to kill pathogens and then shipped, because the government pays the farmers who grow the crops that eventually (after a lot of adulteration) becomes sodas a subsidy so that they can sell their crop for less than what it costs to grow it. In a nutshell, junk food is cheaper than healthy food because our tax dollars pay the difference in cost before these products even hit the shelves. And it’s in our nature to go for a cheaper food (so long as it’s not generic brand, apparently), for some, the cheaper food is literally all they can afford to buy. See the next bullet.
4. Poverty – Nothing irks me more than hearing people say “Junk food’s not cheaper when you factor in the cost of your heart disease later in life.” Well, yes, that’s true, but imagine, for just a minute, that you have to feed a family of four, and your family food budget is $15 dollars a day. When faced with the threat of starvation now or the threat of heart disease in 20 years, the threat of starvation now is always going to win out. This doesn’t apply to everyone who’s going to be reading this list, I’m sure, but it applies to a large percentage of this country, and we should remember it before we pass judgement on anyone. We don’t know their financial situation, or their parents financial situation (going back to points 1).
5. Food Deserts – This ties in with #4. A food desert is a part of town where there are very few, if any sources of fresh, unprocessed foods. I’m sure each and every one of you can think about a part of your town where it seems like there are no grocery stores. What they do have is lots of fast food restaurants and convenience stores. Obviously, you’re not going to be able to find much in the way of healthy foods in these establishments. So how are people supposed to eat healthy if they don’t have access to food? Lets go back to the example above of the family of four with a $15 a day budget for groceries. The head of this household is poor, but not stupid, she knows good and well where the nearest grocery store is and what kinds of healthy foods she could buy if she got to it. It’s 10 miles away, but she doesn’t have a car. It costs $5 to take the bus there, so by the time she gets there she now has $10 to spend on food. What kind of food is she going to buy to provide her family (we’re assuming either two children and another adult, or three children and herself) with three meals each? With $10, it’s not going to be 3 meals of fresh, unprocessed foods consisting of the proper portions of carbs, fats, and proteins. In fact, it’s probably not even going to provide every person in her house with the bare minimum of calories they’re going to need to function. Unless she goes with highly processed food laden with fat and sugar. And in order to get to the grocery store only to buy food just as crappy as what she could get if she walked a block in any direction from her home, she’d have to drag kids on a bus and carry groceries on very likely crowded busses and distances between destinations and bus stops, all of which would take precious hours of what little free time she has after caring for children, taking care of her home, and very likely working outside the home
The reasons why grocery stores are not built in these locations are complex, but it tends to boil down to fear of criminal elements and an assumption that poor people don’t buy whole foods or cook, so why would they ever go to a grocery store. When I drive through the food deserts I know of in Denver, I am always struck by what a missed opportunity it is for community health and growth. A grocery store would not only be a source of healthy food for people, but a source of good jobs which could help members of the community climb out of poverty and build up their neighborhoods. I see it as an opportunity to reduce crime and improve health, but I guess business owners don’t look at it the same way that I do.
6. Poor City Planning – I am blessed. I live in a place that prioritizes putting sidewalks on every street and bike lanes on many roads. We have a flourishing public transportation system, with busses that frequent the entire metro area and even some lines between cities, and a light rail system, which is constantly expanding. Drivers in this town not only know how to share the road with alternative commuters, but understand the importance of it, our streets are relatively straight and clear grids on which we can usually see for miles, and we are blessed in this state with more days of sunshine per year than any other state in the nation. People in my town tend to take these blessings for granted, assuming everyone in this nation has these same city features and has no excuse for not taking advantage of them in day-to-day life. But that is not true. Denver was rated best public transportation in the country a few years ago not just because of our vast and ever-expanding light rail and public bus system, but also because of the convenience and safety of access to it, a feature that is rare in most cities across the nation. Lets compare Denver to St. Louis, for example, a city I visit frequently because I have a lot of family there.
In St. Louis, there are sidewalks downtown. In the suburbs of St. Louis, sidewalks are things you put only in neighborhoods, in front of houses and yards. Sidewalks are less common on roads where commerce takes place or mass commuting, although over the years it does seem that I’m seeing more of them. In St. Louis, people in the suburbs don’t want busses in their towns, because it will bring in “negative elements from the city”. I imagine tax dollars being spent on public busses also play a role, but I only ever hear people speak of it who dislike the majority of voters’ decision, so of course they cite the most racist and classist sounding reason why the majority voted the way they did, clearly people who want busses think you must be a complete moron to not want busses. In St. Louis, the streets are curvy, hilly, and surrounded in dense forest that, while beautiful, makes it very difficult to see on coming traffic if you are a biker or walker, or a biker or walker if you are a driver. This translates to danger for alternative commuters. In St. Louis, there are no bike lanes. Anywhere. I have never seen a bike lane on a road there. They do not have the abundance of bike trails in St. Louis that we have here, either. And because it is so dangerous and difficult for bikers out there, it is not common knowledge that bikes are legal vehicles that have just as much a right to be on the road as any other vehicle, and there is very little knowledge amongst drivers of how to safely share the road. And on top of all of this, Missouri is extremely hot and humid in the summer and dangerously cold and icy in the winter, arguably making commuting by non car means fairly uncomfortable, and why bother putting yourself through such discomfort when your city has so obviously designed its self to discourage you from commuting in any other manner than private vehicle?
What it’s like in St. Louis is very likely what it’s like in the majority of the country. And it’s not just neglecting to build sidewalks and bike lanes that define the problem with poor city planning, its doing things like building neighborhoods far from centers of commerce so that everyone is commuting an hour to get to work in the morning and an hour to get home again in the evening. It’s setting up roads to maximize driving miles rather than efficiency or pedestrian safety. In short, it’s designing cities to meet cars needs rather than people’s needs. Promoters of personal responsibility in the obesity epidemic often point out that in other developed nations with much lower obesity rates, people walk and ride bikes more and drive less. What they fail to recognize is that the cities in those countries are set up to encourage more walking and biking and to discourage driving, which is the exact opposite of what our cities do. People who move here from places like Paris and London find themselves driving more and walking less, not because their values have changed, but because it has become less practical to get around any way but driving.
7. Long Work Hours – Since the 70’s, the number of hours the average American works has increased, and it shows. We have less time for activities such as cooking, cleaning, playing with our kids, etc. After 9 or 10 hours at the office and 2 hours commuting, it is very hard for most Americans to get in everything else they need to do in a day, such as cooking a wholesome meal, cleaning our house, spending quality time with the kids, bathing, and sleeping 8 hours a night. In fact, most Americans don’t do this stuff anymore. Most of us eat prepared foods almost exclusively, either take out of some sort or some kind of “Just Warm Me Up!” miracle found in the freezer section of our local grocery store. Most of us don’t get a full 8 hours a sleep a night (a very big contributing factor to weight gain and inability to lose weight, in fact, not getting enough sleep may play just as big a role as diet and activity do in maintaining a healthy weight) either. If we don’t have time for sleeping or preparing food, we certainly don’t have time for additional exercise. And on top of all of this, our busy, busy, go, go, go lifestyles are extremely stressful, and stress hormones play a big role in fat storage.
8. Poor education – People get very little education on personal health, and what they do get is often sponsored by food manufacturers who have a strong interest in getting you to buy the foods they produce, most of which are not in any way healthy. But it’s not just the fact that Nabisco is trying to teach us about how to eat a healthy diet while also trying to sell us Oreos. It’s also that public schools are rapidly doing away with things like physical education and recess, major sources of physical activity for children, while at the same time increasing school hours and homework loads, confining children to a desk for more and more hours. On top of that, children have less and less freedom to play outside than they did in previous generations, parents siting fears of kidnappers, perverts, law suits, and cars (which is where poor city planning comes into play again). This leads to more sedentary children, which eventually leads to more sedentary adults.
9. More sedentary jobs – Where as people used to work on farms, in factories, or in some other physically demanding jobs, more and more people today work behind desks in front of computers. Even work at home has become less physical as we develop new, more convenient ways to run our homes. You no longer need to stand in front of a stove to cook, you no longer need to scrub floors, you no longer need to repair your own broken shelves. Everything is instant and disposable and cheaply replaced. Putting less elbow grease into our daily lives means we no longer burn as many calories as we did 50 or 100 years ago. We must make up for this deficit through extra exercise (exercise just for the sake of exercise), which as we established in #7, few of us have time for, and making time for it always means sacrificing something else. Shall it be sleep? Time with kids? Grooming?
10. The addictive nature of foods – “Once you pop, you can’t stop.” “Bet you can’t eat just one.” These statements are ironically accurate, given that studies show that human beings tend to have an almost addictive nature when it comes to foods high in fat, sugar, and sodium. We evolved to instinctively seek out these flavors, which lead us to foods that are calorie dense and rare in nature, but not so rare now. In fact, food companies knowingly add more of these elements to food knowing it will cause you to want to eat larger volumes of them. In the case of sugar, the chemical reaction that takes place in your body when you consume it is not unlike that which takes place when you snort a line of cocaine or shoot up heroine, having very real effects of physical addiction in many people over time. When it was becoming clear that tobacco companies were knowingly selling an addictive product that gives people cancer and other terrible diseases, people were outraged. I wonder when we will feel the same way about food manufacturers.
When you look at all of this, it’s actually hard to believe that the American people are as healthy as they are. And it’s easy to suddenly see why so many people have such a hard time maintaining a mythic perfect body, or even good health. The whole world is designed to prevent them from doing so. While personal accountability does play a part, I do choose what food I buy at the store (to some degree, there is always tension between my husband and I on the subject) and what food my child eats (to some degree, because he does eat places beside my home, and I can’t control what grandparents, daycare providers, schools, friends, and other outside sources give him, and I furthermore cannot insert a feeding tube to force him to eat things that he doesn’t want to eat), I cannot repaint the lanes on the roads so that I have a bike lane to safely bike to work. I cannot build a grocery store in my community if my community doesn’t have one. I cannot redesign my city so residential areas are closer to commercial areas. So much of what causes our public health issues is beyond the control of any one person, and I think it’s time that we as a society recognize this and give credit where credit is due.
The obesity epidemic is a social justice issue.
This list just scratches the surface, and only addresses a few of the social issues I’ve seen fingers being pointed at. Others would include GMOs, formula, low gas prices, TV, global warming, lack of access to health care, sexism, and even the diet industry itself – and all of these I believe have some legitimacy.