Sunday, September 15, 2013

My Struggle with Obesity

Today is Sunday, September 15, 2013.

I wasn't always obese.

As an elementary school student, I was actually tall and lanky, and I could easily do things like splits and back bends.  Of course, I didn't stay tall for long – only until fifth grade, when I stopped growing, and others did not.

 I was a little pudgy in high school, but managed to slim down by graduation time, and I was fairly slim for most of my time at university.  I was even pretty slim when I got married, and looked OK in my wedding dress.

After marriage, I started to gain weight, but not all at once.  Since I lived in Japan for a decade from my early 20s to early 30s, I probably didn't gain as much as I might have if I had lived for that time period here in the U.S.  And I slimmed down considerably after my divorce, simply because depression left me with no appetite, and I had so little money that I couldn't afford much to eat.

When I got back to the States, I was still in pretty good shape.  I gained maybe 10 or 15 pounds over the next few years, nothing too serious, and I was still able to walk long distances.  I remember living in St. Paul in my 40s and walking a mile or so to Lake Como, which I would circle twice on the walking path, then walk (uphill!) back home, no problem.   I enjoyed walking briskly in time to music.  I do remember being a little concerned about my weight, and making an effort to do lots of walking and some aqua exercise, which didn't work out for me because of a serious skin reaction to chlorine.

Then I remember walking on some uneven pavement and stretching or tearing my ligaments, which made it painful to walk.  Staying off my feet started me on the path to obesity.  Getting myself a computer and hooking it up to the Internet did the rest, I think.

Pretty soon my knees, hips and ankles started to hurt, further limiting my activity.  Then I got cancer, and a whole list of other conditions as a result of the treatment.  At my heaviest, I weighed well over 100 pounds more than I should.  I remember going into a clinic in the mall once and having my BMI read.  I was hoping that they would tell me I was fat, but not obese.  Nope.  I was obese.  Morbidly obese.  How I hate that terminology!

I had friends, family, and doctors tell me to lose weight.  Rather than feeling grateful for their concern, I simply felt uncomfortable and defensive.  As well, I could still remember being perfectly proportioned and feeling unhappy after my divorce, so I knew that being slim, per se, is not necessarily the key to happiness.

I joined Weight Watchers a little more than a year ago – this is my second go-round.  The last time I joined, it was just to lose enough weight to satisfy my mother before my sister's wedding.  This time, I joined at the invitation of my niece, who went with me.  At one point, my mom joined, as well, but both of them have dropped out.  I'm still plugging away.

So far I have lost 25 pounds, and I know I can lose more, but right now I am having a great time being able to wear everything in my closet.  I know that if I lose another 25, I will have to make quite a little outlay on clothes, which I can't really afford at this point.  Still, I'm keeping the weight off, and that's what counts, for now.

What has helped?   Mindfulness.  Paying attention to portion sizes. (In fact, adjusting to new ideas on what one portion actually is, and realizing how little is actually "enough.")  Paying attention to which foods I put into my mouth.  Paying attention to when I eat and why.  And increasing my level of activity.   Those have all helped.

I've been doing some aquacise classes in a saline pool – no chlorine burn on my skin – and I know that has helped a great deal.  I now feel strong enough to lift some very light free weights, which will help tone my arms some.  I'm also trying to get a decent amount of sleep each night.

*** *** *** *** ***

I read some statistics on obesity recently.  An ABC News article said that obese people tend to suffer more from migraine headaches, and they are at greater risk for infertility problems and cancer.  Those who get cancer are more likely to die from the disease, partially because it tends to get diagnosed later.   Obese women who give birth are more likely to have premature babies due to weakening of the uterus and cervical membranes.  Web MD says that 1 pound of weight loss takes 4 pounds of pressure off your knees.  In that case, no wonder my knees feel better:  I have taken 100 pounds of pressure off of them! 

What surprisd me was a statistic that I read in several places: that women who are obese tend to face more job discrimination and make less money, overall, than their slimmer counterparts.  There was no correlation between weight and salary level for men, however.  Only the women.  And it starts as soon as you apply for a job.  If you send your picture in your resume, you are much more likely not to even get an interview!  Employers tend to see their obese employees as poor role models, and often describe them as "lazy, sloppy, lacking in self-discipline, less competent and less conscientious."  Is this true regardless of the employee's actual work performance?  If so, that's pretty scary!

A statistic that I resonated with said that 67% of obese men and women feel that their doctors shamed or buillied them about their weight.  I can relate.  This is not so surprising when you look at the results of surveys given to doctors.   50% of doctors in one study thought of their obese patients as "awkward, ugly, weak-willed and unlikely to comply with treatment."   24% of nurses surveyed said they were "repulsed" by obese patients.  How much help do you think you're going to get from a health care worker who thinks you're ugly and repulsive?   It's no wonder that many obese people dislike going to the doctor, and try to avoid it if they can.

Fortunately, today it is understood that obesity is not a simple problem with a simple solution.  It's not just how much you eat, but what you eat, when, and why, and how your body processes what you eat.  It also has to do with the context of your life, in terms of what foods you have access to, how much you can afford to pay for groceries, how much exercise you get, and what your emotional state is.  It has to do with your general state of physical health, and your metabolism.

Obesity is not only an individual problem, it's a societal problem, and as a society we are going to have to work together to find some answers.  One thing that we will have to take a hard look at is the way our government subsidizes some foods and not others.  When Norway did this, the level of obesity went down in the population.

In the U.S., commodity foods are those foods which the government has legal authority to purchase and distribute in order to support farm prices.  Not in order to support poor people – in order to support farmers!  Commodity foods are distributed to state agencies, including public schools, and to Indian tribal organizations.  They are supposed to "supplement" the diet, but as everyone knows, they form the bulk of the diet of our poorest citizens. 

Commodity foods include canned fruit juice and canned fruits, which are loade with sugar.  They also include canned vegetables, farina, oats, ready-to-eat cereal, monfat dry milk, evaporated milk, egg mix, dry beans, peanut butter, canned meat, poultry or tuna, dehydrated potatoes, pasta, rice, cheese, butter, honey, and infant cereal and formula.  Notice how many dairy and grain products are in this list?  There have been a number of news stories in recent months about the fact that the diet of our citizens in poverty is contributing to malnutrition and obesity.  Something has to change.  Couldn't the government offer subsidies to farmers who produce fresh fruits and vegetables?

These days schools are doing a better job of serving meals with fresh foods and foods with lower salt and sugar content.  They're also better at getting kids active, but there needs to be a stronger effort in this area, especially at the local level, where kids need to have choices of activities in a safe, neutral location during after-school and early evening hours, and on weekends.  Summer recreation programs are fine, but this effort needs to be year-long.

It's a whole lot easier for a kid to lose weight than for a 60-year-old woman, I can tell you.  :-/

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