Sunday, 13 May 2012

Tipping the Scales

DISCLAIMER: This piece is just my opinion. Feel free to disagree with me. I'm not a doctor, nor do I claim to be a fitness or nutrition expert. However, I have done my homework on the topic and speak mostly from personal experience.

The other day I was listening to someone on California's local NPR station talk about child obesity and ideas about how to combat it. He was the first person I've heard say, "P.E. is not enough." Yet, there exists a common misconception that weight gain and low physical activity are invariably linked and that overweight people are also indisputably lazy.

Exercise, while providing many,many health benefits, some that aid with weight loss, as well as a calorie burn boost, is often over-exalted in the war on obesity. Exercise alone cannot turn a food-addicted fat person into a thin person. Not no way, not no how. Or, at least, not without spending all day in the gym.

A thin body is primarily created in the kitchen, through choosing the right kinds of foods and, MOST OF ALL, controlling portion sizes (something I've often struggled with myself). Healthy habits over the long term will help a person get down to a normal weight. Add exercise and you get a winning combination, and a body that looks healthy and strong.

I've known many people, myself included, who were quite fit, but also fat. Why? They ate more calories than they burned in the gym. When I lived in London, I was quite hefty at 180-185 lbs, and I was in incredible shape, fitness-wise. I ran 3-5 miles every other day, used the elliptical, bike or row machine for 45 minutes 2x weekly, weight trained for 30 minutes 2x weekly, did 1.5 hours of Bikram yoga 2x weekly, PLUS I walked everywhere. All of the beer, chips and sweets, however, packed on the pounds.

Recently, I spoke with a triathlete who just completed her first Ironman. She told me that she gained weight while training because she thought that she could eat whatever she wanted. People training for an Ironman probably work the hardest of any athlete out there. If SHE can't eat whatever she wants, then someone who runs 3+ miles every other day at the gym certainly has to watch his or her intake.

I dislike the stereotype that fat people are fat because they are lazy. Rarely do I find that to be true. Do they eat too much? Yes, most likely, they do. Do they lack willpower and self control? In most cases, I would say, "No." I believe that there are several factors at play here. One is most definitely a person's overuse of the dreaded "carb." The sugars in refined carbs and even unrefined carbs have addicting qualities. They can trigger a person to overeat. Even if a person is not binging on carbs all of the time, the overload of sugars in the bloodstream (explained to me by several doctors as an effect of being pre-diabetic) cause sort of a chemical dependency on the sugars that come from food. Secondly, these sugars cause a boost in serotonin (the feel-good chemical in our brains). When we're feeling stressed or depressed, we often turn to food, even when we're not particularly that hungry. Pretty soon, we get addicted to that feeling as well. Combine those factors with a general overload in portion sizes, misleading packaging (like a big cookie being two servings instead of one, or a "snack" bag of something having two servings), and ads everywhere for food, food, food, food, FOOOOOODD...and you have a perfect storm for someone to get fat.

Losing weight when you have all of these factors against you is hard. If it were easy, then it wouldn't be a billion dollar industry. I've struggled and failed, and I've seen many other people I know struggle and fail. Maybe we get all the way to losing weight and looking great, and then our lifestyles change and we don't know how to adapt, or we get really depressed and we just don't care, and we gain it all back and more. It's heartbreaking, really. It bugs me that this country stereotypes the overweight, when MOST people in this country are overweight or obese.

Yet, here we are, with TV shows like "The Biggest Loser" where obese folks are publicly shamed, humiliated and "whipped into shape" by ferociously barking personal trainers. These people are our modern gladiators, struggling for their lives in an auditorium full of spitting spectators. We make weight loss seem even harder than it really is, and that these fatties need to suffer for their lazy transgressions. We need to see them sweat! Meanwhile, such a small portion of the program places emphasis on food choices and portion control, which is realistically a much larger chunk of the whole weight loss pie. Plus, shaming people may motivate them initially, but,in order to truly be ready for weight loss, a person must come from a place of self love.

Our culture does not create a self-love-fostering environment. If you're fat, forget it. It's as if you're not worthy of love of any kind, so why love yourself? Men walk around wearing shirts that say, "No fat chicks." Jokes abound. Weight gain and loss are such a huge focus in this country, but few of us actually focus on what's going on inside. We react with such disdain for fat people, we don't even give them a chance. People are cruel. While hate speech is unacceptable for certain groups of people, overweight people endure mooing, whale jokes and other such horrors. It really feels like people don't really want fat people to stop being fat. They'd have nothing to make fun of if the fat people lost weight. And still, in spite of everything working against them, a select few overweight folks manage to get healthy. Those people are a force to be reckoned with, in my opinion.

The worst of it is that some of these taunters are the "skinny fatties"--as I like to call them--people who are thin on the outside but who don't work out or eat particularly healthfully. They just naturally know how to get the right amount of calories that their bodies need, and their bodies probably waste a lot of those calories as well. They're the "lucky ones"--I guess--but also the types who are at extreme risk of health problems later in life, as well as obesity, once the "magic metabolism" begins to slow.

Overall, I think people make fun of things that they fear. Being an outsider can be scary. It's very easy to make someone the scapegoat for your fears and insecurities about not being a part of the "cool kids." Maybe saying that fat people are the lazy ones absolves a person from their own responsibility to be physically active. Or maybe they're afraid of what will happen if they stop hitting the gym. It's easy to find yourself scrutinizing a fat person. At a younger age, I even did it. I'd see an obese person walking down the street and think, "That person must do nothing but sit around and eat mountains of food all day." And, yes, it would make me feel good about myself. Looking back at it, I think, "What if that person would have been able to hear my thoughts?" And, what about the number of times that people didn't keep their opinions about her to themselves?

While I wish the best of health and happiness for all, I do think that we need to change our attitudes toward overweight folks. Why get hung up on stereotyping a person, when what they really need is our support in order to succeed.

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