Is Obesity the New Average?
(Barb Tessari is an author, speaker and corporate wellbeing coach. This is her personal blog to share 15 years of her observations, experiences and conclusions in the industry.)
Since the age of 10, I had been obsessed with the scale, dieting and how it impacted who I was as a person. I think it was in my family genes. My mother was a dieter; my sister was a dieter. Looking back, I wasn’t fat (by today’s standards) just bigger than all the other kids in my class. Most kids in that era were downright “skinny." Hip-bones would flank girl’s bikinis and a guy’s rib cage would be more prevalent than muscle. They didn’t have an eating disorder, they weren’t obsessing with their weight or only eating whole foods; it’s just what most teenagers looked like back in the ‘70’s.
I was the one with the eating disorder - obsessed with food, the mirror and the scale. I had every kind of bad habit: denial, closet eating, a penchant for unhealthy foods and I’d rather watch soap operas with my mom than hang outside with the other kids. The only reason I dodged obesity was because in the 70’s we didn’t have access to enough food, and public gluttony wasn’t acceptable.
Gluttony Was a Sin.
Fast forward to today. Gluttony is not only acceptable in public but it can arrive on your doorstep 30 minutes after you have a craving for it. The food industry “serves” us and we have lost our innate feeling of our body’s satisfaction level and what types of food it wants. “Are you hungry?” “Do you want something to eat?” Are used interchangeably. We eat what’s on our plate (or in our wrapper) – after all, we paid for it and everyone else is doing it.
The average American eats 530 more calories than they did 30 years ago. Add to that, stress and lack of movement due to technology and guess what? We get fat! Now let me clarify. I don’t mean a BMI definition that is often inaccurate. I’m referring to when one’s unhealthy lifestyle choices has caused unhealthy weight gain leading to future illness or mobile disability.
I’m not pointing the finger at people here. I’m referring to our society. When I was a child, I had “issues” with food. Today, you can have a normal relationship with food but struggle every day with increasing weight gain because we have fallen victim to our environment.
I have coached employees who are unhappy with their size and they can’t figure out how this could have happened. Before addressing their actions as the cause, we first talk about what environmental factors may have contributed to their situation. I want them to recognize – hey, it’s not your fault. Look around you! 70% of Americans are overweight or obese. The question to ask your self is “what do I want for me?”
Once they realize that the origin of their situation is not an inherent flaw in them, they are more empowered to take positive action to get what they want. It often leads them to fight back against the system that did this to them.
Social Outcast in Reverse
Over the years, I have passively studied the evolution of our toxic lifestyle culture and recently it seems we have entered into a disturbing, but well-intentioned, culture change. I guess you could say it’s a side effect of the anti-fat shaming movement. I want to tread lightly here as to not to be misunderstood. Let me clarify. I totally support treating everyone as equal and size does not matter. You are inherently perfect just the way you are and you should not be judged. As someone who was teased on the playground and felt uncomfortable in high school, I get it. But there is something not right with what’s going on.
Even though we are bombarded with healthy living messages, the real world is moving further away from being “healthy” and our environment is adapting to the changes. We are letting obesity win. Mannequins are larger, seats are wider; sizes are more forgiving and there is a huge market for conveniences to help people of size. Our society is making it easier to be obese and we are promoting new and unhealthier ways to overfeed and make moving optional.
There is also another growing problem – “thin shaming.” The unwanted attention given to those who choose to make healthier decisions. They are a minority. People have come to me for advice as to how to handle it. Choosing to have the ahi tuna appetizer while everyone else has the loaded nachos doesn’t come without a side of hurtful comments. Sometimes it’s easier to just eat the nachos because ordering what you want makes you unpopular. From men I hear, “my buddies give me a hard time for ordering the salad” as if not ordering wings and fries somehow attacks their masculinity.
The problem is even worse for people who are working on making healthier choices. It’s hard enough to make the better decision without the rest of the table trying to talk you out of it. It’s peer pressure. It’s not being done with bad intention, it just happens. The tables have just turned.
It Was Simple; But it Got Complicated
Media influencers reporting good food/bad food, ridiculous diet theories and skewed and worthless studies lead us to believe that being “healthy” requires doing burpees, drinking kale shakes and saying “no” to carbs. It’s so unrealistic and complicated people rightfully say, “Screw that!” Personally, I don’t know if I could live without my chocolate and wine, yet, people are shocked to learn I have dessert every night. I’m a wellness coach. I’m sending the wrong message, right? Or, I could be sending a message everyone needs to hear.
Over the past 15 years, through penning books and coaching, I have endlessly tried to send a message to stop obsessing and just chill out with it all. You don’t have to be thin; you don’t have to be uber healthy. You just have to have some sense of responsibility and control just like we do with everything in life. My message never got me on Oprah. Common sense doesn’t sell.
Here’s the thing. There is nothing wrong with size 18 models or being proud of your plump body at the beach. BUT, just like emulating thin people, it’s superficial- it’s just visual. Let’s not let go of the reality that we, as a country, should not be condoning and going out of our way to accommodate the lifestyle.
From my experience, people who are ready to come out of denial and work on changing behaviors don’t do so because they need a discount on their health insurance or because they feel like social oucasts. They are concerned about their future, and, most of all, feel terrible carrying around the excess weight. They are tired of living this way. And often, supporting them to change their mindset includes unraveling all of the ridiculous dieting and good food/bad food messages they have been spoon-fed that has left them defeated and feeling unable to change. Often, there also needs to be a plan on how to maneuver through their toxic environment that didn't exist 30 years ago.
So as time goes on and we continue down the path of least resistance, we enter the health care system and then one health problem leads to another. In coaching, I’ve observed that some employee’s doctors don’t even suggest lifestyle changes anymore; they just dole out medication. It’s okay though, because three other people they know have diabetes.
A Balancing Act
As a country, is this where we want to be? There is nothing inherently wrong with being overweight. But does accepting obesity as the new "average" better our lives and economic standings? How do we delicately separate equality and acceptance without allowing our culture to be driven by condoning a state of being that is detrimental to our existence?
Let’s not label people, but let’s also not succumb to obesity being the new normal. Let’s stop all the nonsense that makes living a “healthy” lifestyle so complicated and unrealistic that it has done more harm than good. Let’s just figure out how our country can lead by example so that gluttony is no longer popular, but eating cake isn’t a sin. You don't need to sweat for an hour, but let’s move more than a disabled person. And for heavens sake, can we please stop DIETING?
We Had the Answer All Along
We need to look backwards to find our answers, not forward. Let’s take a lesson from the 70’s that worked just fine: moderation & balance. Young people don’t even know what that term means. Let’s not give into what our environment has done to us. Let’s fight back and regain what we had 35 years ago when, to be obese, you had to work at it and Type 2 diabetes was rare.
I don't know how we shift the tides, but let me reflect on an idea I had about 12 years ago that might have been a place to start. I was working with a Healthier Delaware Campaign committee. Our task was to brainstorm an add campaign to support healthy lifestyles. The concept I came up with was having a grandma image as the spokesperson/guru. Billboards and ads would picture her along with quotes of the sayings we would hear years ago when we didn’t have so many rules to follow. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
· An apple a day keeps the doctor away!
· You can’t have dessert until you finish your supper!
· Go work up an appetite!
· Don’t spoil your dinner!
· Eat your vegetables!
· Don’t talk with your mouth full!
· If you eat too much you’ll have a bellyache!
· Go out and play!
Unfortunately, they didn’t like it. I don’t even think they got it. But, it seems to me it had a common sense message; simple, sensible and doable. It's certainly easier than exhausting boot camps and living without pizza and ice cream. :)