Friday, October 2, 2009

Why are we obese?

So I do policy work in DC. Although most of my day is Stata and spreadsheets, staying up on the latest thinking is part of the job. Right now, there's a lot of very interesting thinking about obesity. I read so, so much of it, and I think about it a lot. I want to start working through a few of my thoughts about it. Essentially, my goal is to dig through some of the leading thinking about obesity, discuss whether it feels true to me, and hopefully hear back from you guys about whether these seem true in your life.

James Fallows of The Atlantic has recently had a really interesting series on obesity. (I can't find a unifying tag on his blog, but most of it is on the front page here.) I may talk about a few other of the letters at some point, but I wanted to start off with this one:

It is one thing for a successful, financially comfortable, socially accepted and respected person who has multiple things happening every day that are pleasurable (golf, driving a nice car, nice home, stylish clothing, success at work, interesting social events, kids doing well, planning vacations, etc) to take just one pleasurable aspect of life (overeating) and sacrifice some of that pleasure for the good result of losing weight.

Now, for people struggling financially and socially, trying to just get through the day and keep their lives together to varying degrees...their meals are often the only consistently happy and pleasurable events they can count on each day.

Obviously, a generalization. But, if one gets up and faces a day with a tedious and unfulfilling job, not much money to spend on anything but necessities, and no "fun" things ahead, how much more difficult it is for that person to also think ahead to a day of denying themselves the pleasure of their mealtimes....

(All the ellipses are original.) Another Atlantic blogger, Ta-Nehisi Coates, expounded on the idea, and his experience with it. I'm not going to block quote the post, but it's an interesting read. Coates picked up the attention of the Washington Post's Ezra Klein, who brought the situation away from the personal to the academically grounded:

This reminds me of Charles Karelis's "The Persistence of Poverty." The basic argument is that the wealthy misunderstand the mental state of the poor, which leads them to make conceptual errors when creating policies to address poverty, or, in this case, obesity. Think of a bee sting, he advises. If you have a single bee sting, you'll go buy some salve to take away the pain. Now imagine three bee stings, a sprained ankle, a burn, a cut, a crick in your neck, a sore throat, and arthritis. Does the bee sting matter anymore?

Karelis argues that this is more the situation of someone in poverty. Obesity is bad, but it may be just one of many bad things. Overdue bills. A horrible part-time job. Endless commuting time on the bus. A mother with diabetes. A child running with the wrong crowd. A leaking roof. In that scenario, slowly reversing your weight gain might be a good idea, but it hardly makes a dent in the overall crumminess of the conditions. It won't replace pain with pleasure. So you do things that are surer to replace pain with pleasure, like have a delicious, filling, satisfying, salty, fatty meal. That may make your overall situation more unpleasant, but then, making that situation pleasant didn't seem like an option in the first place.

And this, to me, screamed true, true true. Not just about poverty (which I've been fortunate enough not to experience) but with the other stresses in life. When I was in college, terribly stressed, depressed and constantly freaking out about what I was going to do for a career, losing weight just didn't make sense. I had all those other terrible things, and it just made so much more sense to do the things that made me happy now, that helped get me through the day. Even when I started my job in DC and was just getting set up here, I don't think I could've done it. There was too much else to stress about. Now, though, my little world is relatively under control, and I have the mental energy and willpower to devote to fixing my weight. I can work on curing this.

How do you guys feel about this theory? Do you think the success you're having now or failures you've had in the past are related to all the other things going on in your life? Or do you think this theory is a bit namby pamby, and feel like weight loss success or failure is independent of other things?


  1. You know, for a time I wondered if the obesity was some kind of virus. I mean, when 19-year-old kids look like 38-year-old middle-aged adults, I shake my head. I remember one fat kid in school in the early 70s. It seems physically impossible. I do recall as a kid, though, being out and active and not being near the house and food. Now, it's a 15' walk for most kids from TV to refrigerator. I admit when I was growing up, we took lots of vacations. Dad worked for the Post Office headquarters in DC and mom stayed at home and taught art. We lounged around in our spare time. There were no computers, VCRs, or any other distractions. I can't lounge now without extreme guilt. I never vacation. In fact, the only time in the past 15 years I took off work for more than 1 day was when my mother died (4 days) and when I had foot surgery (1 week). I can't imagine having two days in a row off work. I was super thin until I began to work from home and then all of a sudden weight packed on fast. I know it's because I worked near my fridge and was lonely and bored. When I worked outside the home, I worked through lunch and stayed very slim. I can't imagine what kids face when they're home to no one there and sitting alone in front of the TV playing games and eating and eating and eating. No wonder there's teens who want stomach stapling. It's a matter of proximity and almost all of us tuck into our homes at the end of the day and collapse with exhaustion and eat.

  2. I think that I put on most of my weight when I moved from the USA, so I agree completely that when the going is tough, you tend to not want to lose weight. Food was my comfort, and it was one of the very few things that was similar between the US and Ireland. So I started eating more and watching more TV... And here I am today! :)

  3. Hmmmmm, valuable information on a blog. What will they think of next?

    Great post.

  4. Very interesting. I know for a fact that our meals haven't been as healthy since my big paycut. It's easier to eat fresh fish and veggies when I can afford to go to the store every other day. Right now frozen vegetables and chicken are getting boring. Plus, I've cut out Weight Watchers. It's a lot more difficult being poor!

  5. I totally agree with this line of thinking. When I was in college, a newlywed, a new mom, a mom of a toddler, and then a mom to a pre-schooler and a new baby, weight was the last worry on my mind.
    I do feel like my life in general is a little more under control now and that definitely lends me more time to take care of the weight.
    Another aspect of things for me (and probably most moms) is that I come last. I don't mean that in a horrible way, but in the whole scheme of things, the kids, house, bills, and other obligations have always come before me. I have recently gotten a little "selfish" and decided to make a little time for "me", but it's hard to do that as a mom who works full time. So, I definitely think that society puts that in a woman's head that when you are a mom, everything else comes first.

  6. You know, when my parents divorced my father really took advantage of my mother's innocence when it came to finaces.
    She & I were left with an extra mortgage & child support that he very rarely paid. She worked 2-3 jobs & I began making dinner when I got home from school because some nights she didn't get home until around my bedtime.

    Long story short, we were broke & had to buy cheap food that was easy for an 11 year old to prepare. We ate a lot of boxed stuff like Hamburger Helper (the off brand version of course) & I remember making a lot of tuna casserole (basically cream of chicken soup, pasta, a can of tuna).
    We weren't worried about nutrition as much as we were worried about getting food on the table. I know my mom did the absolute best she could for us even if it wasn't the best nutritionally.

    The few times we had extra money we would splurge & go to Taco Bell because the two of us could eat for $4.00. lol I have fond memories of those dinners out because we'd sit & talk & relax.

    So yes, I agree with a lot of the info you posted.
    All in all, when money is beyond tight, concern is more on filling the bellies & less on what is actually going into the bellies.

  7. True, true, true. I've felt this, and like you it was not so much poverty as it was just stress. Of course, these days with the economy, things are tight, so there is that element of "I need to be working more to pay those bills that will start piling up" that makes losing weight seem like the least of the things I should be dealing with.

    I'm going to have to blog about this myself! There's a certain feeling of "I deserve this" tasty/fatty/salty meal because of all of the other stress that is going on, and that ties right into the theory you posted about - in the grand scheme of things, this meal will make me feel better instantly (or so we think), when nothing else in my life is having that effect right now. So the fact that this meal doesn't comport with my overall goal to lose weight becomes less important.

    I think there may be a difference for someone who is mildly overweight versus morbidly obese. Or, there SHOULD be a difference, but there probably isn't. What I mean by that is that if you have your list of things that you can devote your time to in a given day, and if because of life pressures the "weight loss" thing gets a low priority, that may be okay if you want to lose 20 pounds. But if you NEED to lose 100 for health reasons, then the weight loss thing needs to be given a higher priority, because if the weight affects your health (or worst case, takes your life), then the other priorities become completely irrelevant. I think it was only when I realized this that I was able to shift my priorities and make the weight loss happen. I knew that if I didn't do something soon, all the other things that had been given higher priority wouldn't matter any more.

    Sorry to ramble on so...but this really spoke to me!

  8. I am definitely in a very good place in my life right now and, yes, I do think that it has largely contributed to the successes I have had so far. On the other hand, I think that there are other components such as genetics, habits, and deeper mental well-being that factor into the equation as well.

  9. This is an amazing read. I feel like my life has always been out of control and food is the only part that I ever had to look forward. No matter how bad life was, food was always GOOD.

    Sometimes, to be honest, I miss the days when I could turn to food. Eating healthy is way boring.

  10. I had never thought of it in these terms, where obesity was the least of a multitude of problems, rather than at the top of the "must take care of" list like it is for so many people I know.

    I can now see that weight loss and obesity may very well be very dependent on not only our mental state but also our socio-economic status.

    Thanks Hadley for this really insightful post.

  11. Hmmm...Hadley you're making me think... which is not a bad thing, of course...

    For me, carrying extra weight makes a stressful situation more stressful. With all the babies we've had in the last eight years, it's been stressful and losing weight felt to me like I had some semblence of control and something to look forward to.

    At the same time, I can relate to eating too much because of the stress...but I always didn't like how I looked or felt after I overate.

    Now, even if it's stressful, I'm happier because I feel great physically. Also, I feel more confident and like I "can do" something to correct the situation where I didn't feel so confident before when I was carrying extra weight.

    I suspect there are a lot more factors going on here than anyone even realizes.

  12. Okay, this is why I put on the weight:

    1. I allowed myself to eat foods with no nutritional value which included: cookies, cakes, fried foods, and sweet drinks.

    2. Preparing of the foods. I cooked with a lot of butter, oils, and salt.

    3. I did not control my portion. This is my first time admitting this but I would binge on foods like white rice and ice cream at least 4 times a week.

    4. I was not big on exercising everyday.

    5. I would allow myself to eat the crap foods in moderation thinking it would be okay because I could handle it. Wrong way to the think. I abused it.

    This is my story and I have owned it. My mother had nothing to do with my obesity because I was a skinny kid and we ate healthy all the time. I put my weight on when I moved to California at the age of 21. I new better but I did not care. I was free to be me and that included eating out of control.

    Well, that is all over now and it feels really good. I will never go back to that out of control world. I have decided to set food boundaries and get some form of exercise in everyday. I have also dedicated 6 month to myself which will include molding and shaping the new me mentally and physically. It feels good! Thanks for the great post.

  13. I guess im f'd up in the head, when I'm stressed I don't eat. If I were to put anything in my mouth I would get sick to my stomach. As for stress from college I lost 20lbs in the first 3 months.... and to think I grew up obessed with food... I still am...

  14. I have a lot to say about this. I was born to two fit parents and had a thin older sister. My mother is one of 8 and she was the only one without a weight issue. I was overweight from the time I was 1 years old. My parents were not. I wasn't feeding myself and was still overweight. I do think genetics must play a roll in why some are obese. I felt compelled to overeat at a very young age. I remember sneaking food as young as 7. I wish there were more studies on overweight children to attempt to find a common link and then maybe help them young. I spent all of my younger years too overweight to fully experience life. I hate that any child has to go through that.

  15. I think that life situations, like poverty and children's health or friends, are a little different that college stress, or just "stress" that makes you not eat. I get what Chupsie is saying and I didn't eat in college either.

    But I knew NOTHING of stress or responsibility in college. I thought I did, but not really. When you are in crisis mode-- husband out to sea, barely making ends meet, step daughter having emotional abandonment crisis, stuck alone in a big scary city with smog, pollution, anxiety-anxiety-anxiety--- food becomes a comfort. And losing weight, or "dieting" becomes a futilie battle against the one thing that is a luxury or comfort in your world.

    I gained all my weight relatively quickly and was not in a place in my life where I felt I could devote the time to myself or this journey for at least 5 years. I agree that it is hard enough for a person in an ideal environment and financial situation.

  16. I love this post. can i add you to my blog roll?

    - Lisa

  17. I think there is a lot of truth that food is the one thing that can be controlled and give pleasure under stressful circumstances. We're miserable and so we give ourselves pleasure by eating (overeating) what we like.

    I think personally, for me, obesity stems from selfishness and lack of restraint. Childish behavior. I guess I'm too tired to come up with the words. My wants being more powerful than my logic. The feeling that I deserve. I don't know. For me, it's about growing up, maturing. I can still have food I love, I just need to learn to do it in a healthful manner. A breadstick at the Olive Garden is a lovely thing, but does that mean I need to be a pig and eat 5 of them? I used to.

    But I do agree with food being one good thing, and there's nothing to do in my small town, so I really enjoy going out to eat. It's pleasure, it's social, it's getting out of the house, and it tastes good. We still have "scrounge" nights where everyone eats what they want, only now I make sure DS and I are eating proper portions.

    I shouldn't comment when I'm tired. lol

  18. Just checking back in. Hope you had a good Sunday! ♥

  19. Hope tomorrow is a good scale day! ::Crossing fingers:: Good luck. Hope all is well. ♥

  20. I've got an award for you on today's post. :)

    Have a great week Prancer - we're having a kick butt weigh in this week.

    Can't wait to see how you're doing this week!


  21. Hey Hadley! It's not like you not to post by now. I hope you are just BUSY!