My aunt and I were discussing a relative’s health problems. When I pointed out the relative’s obesity as a contributing factor, I was met with a resounding “She is not obese!” I was dumbfounded. I had worked as a personal trainer for the past 3 years. Part of my job was to determine a client’s baseline health when they wanted to begin a fitness routine. I knew that she most certainly did fit into the obese category. In that moment I realized that perhaps people do not actually know what an obese person looks like. It turns out that despite all we know about obesity and America’s weight-related health issues, there are a number of related facts which are not common knowledge. It is the unknown facts that make it difficult for us to change our perception and understanding of obesity.
Many Americans understand the basic elements that contribute to the US weight/obesity problems (I use the term “weight” loosely- but I’ll expand on that later). They realize that weight-related health problems plague America and are aware that eating too much, lack of exercise, stress, and unhealthy food or empty calories are contributing factors to obesity. They also realize that the consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle can be diabetes, heart conditions, cancer, sleep apnea, psychological issues, and more (“Obesity Symptoms, Causes”). Americans believe that there is a simple solution to the problem: people who are overweight should lose weight and change their unhealthy habits to prevent development of these health issues. But as I have already eluded to, the problem is that these same people do not even realize they themselves are also at risk!
As I mentioned, some of the contributing factors to obesity and America’s weight problems are common knowledge. Americans are no longer as active as they were in previous generations. They are sedentary for most of the day between their desk jobs and sitting around at home watching TV. The average American spends a little over 8 hours a day sitting and looking at a screen (Petronzio). The jobs which involve physical labor somehow seem less appealing to the higher paying abundantly available office jobs. A typical routine in the daily life of an American goes something like this:
- Get up (possibly rush kids out the door first).
- Make or grab coffee on the way (likely with cream and/or sugar).
- Possibly grab a donut, croissant sandwich, or bagel.
- Work hard all day- probably right through lunch.
- Rush home, possibly running errands during the 25 minute ride home.
- Grab some take out for dinner because of the stressful, busy day.
- Get home ready to relax and watch TV shows.
- Hit the sack late and do it again the next day.
At the end of the week we have slept an average of 6.8 hours, which is barely under the recommended amount of 7 hours a night, but research has shown it is enough to cause cognitive and health problems (Jones). Lack of sleep can cause food cravings (Radcliffe). When our body is tired it wants sugar to wake up via that ‘quick fix’ of energy. We are tired and stressed from our day and lack of sleep so the last thing we want to do at the end of the day is go home and make supper. Even the event of determining what to make is a daunting task after a day of stressful decision making. And once again, after this busy day we are ready to relax and we deserve a reward! The thought of cooking a healthy meal does not stand a chance to the alternative of grabbing a cheeseburger or pizza. Cooking is likely out of the question, as is the idea of preparing something to take to work the next day. By taking a planned lunch and/or breakfast with us we can prevent ourselves from making a rash, rushed, and hungry junk food decision.
In my four years as a personal trainer, I have become accustomed to the standard beliefs people hold about their diet. Many people feel they eat a somewhat healthy diet, and many people feel their diet could be better than it is. However, most of these people have never tracked what they eat. They do not realize exactly what is contained within the food that they consume and they have NO idea how many calories are in any of the foods that they eat. As a trainer I would highly recommend that people try tracking their diet for a week, especially over the weekend. I think it important for everyone to have an idea of what nutrition their diet is made of. Even if you are of a healthy weight, you can still have elevated health risks by eating an unhealthy diet.
When I was in school to become a trainer, one of our assignments was to track our nutritional intake for a month. It was very effective. We were all exercise-loving people who had a tendency to eat healthier than the average person in our lives. Yet, we were still very surprised to find out what we were actually eating contained high amounts of carbs, sugar, or fat. This is generally the same experience of anyone who makes the commitment to track their food for a week or a month. Although I find this practice to be a good experiment for anyone, for a person who is looking to lose weight I feel this is can solidify your chance of success. Either you ONLY consume a diet which has been recommended to you by a nutritionist, or you start tracking your food. The most important part is the weekends. For many people almost every weekend includes a reason to celebrate or let go. Many people find the progress they have made all week is negated by rewarding their hard work on the weekends with a lax diet.
Even as a health loving individual I have found it beneficial to utilize the free mobile apps which track what your caloric intake is as well as the macronutrients that you are absorbing (i.e. carbohydrates, fats, proteins). Eating a healthy balance of macronutrients is an important way to keep the body feeling satisfied so we do not overeat. Tracking your food will make you more mindful of what you are eating. An apple might suddenly seem like a more appropriate sugar fix than a donut. Using a nutrition tracking app can further assist you in your weight loss endeavors by providing community support. You can choose to post your results to social media. By making your friends, family, and co-workers aware of your goal you can evoke their support and they can help keep you accountable. Additionally, by making or having friends through the apps you can develop a group and all keep each other accountable. It is helpful to have the support of others who can emphasize with you and the obstacles you may be facing as you try to reach your weight-loss goal.
A study based on BMI revealed that out of the 66% of Americans who ARE overweight, only 36% KNOW that they are (“There’s a 1 in 3 Chance”). How is this possible? In our society the average family household has a scale. Many people know what they weigh or can guess within 5-10 pounds. Many people may realize that they weigh more than they should, so how is it they do not realize their weight is high enough to cause adverse effects on their health. Part of it is denial (Parker-Pope). It is because we like our lifestyle and do not want to change it, nor do we want to put the effort into trying to change it. Part of it is complacency . With more Americans becoming obese and morbidly obese (yes, that is an actual category of having a BMI >40), we are now surrounded by a physically larger society (“What Is BMI?”). Part of it is being unaware and unable to identify if another person is of a healthy weight, overweight, or obese (Raloff). Part of it is self-deceiving yourself to believe you are not obese when you are; this has brought about a new word known as “Fatorexia” (Howard). Part of it is the sensitivity surrounding the issue of weight. In a world where we have come to value a supermodel thin ideal, a person’s weight is now directly connected to the self-esteem and the worth of a person. To attack a person’s body size is to attack their self-esteem.
Before we go too far, let’s identify what “overweight” means according to BMI. The most common ways to measure a person’s health and their risk for developing health-related issues is to use weight or the BMI (body-mass-index) scale. According to the World Health Organization a person is overweight if their BMI is greater than 25 (“What Is BMI?”). While BMI is more accurate than only using a person’s weight, experts dislike using BMI as the sole test for measuring a person’s health (Melnick). It is not the most accurate measurement because it only uses your height versus your weight and does not take into account how much muscle or how much fat is on your body. Just using weight or body fat percentage is not a valid way to test a person’s health. An individual can be a healthy weight but have too much body fat because they are sedentary. Or a person could be of a healthy weight and have a healthy amount of body fat but still have health-related diseases due to a poor diet.
There are a number of reasons why people do not realize that their health is poor. People think that because they feel healthy that they are healthy. They do not realize that it might take years for the symptoms to emerge. Blood pressure, blood work, and height and weight measurements should begin to be checked at the age of 20, but that is not common knowledge (“Heart-Health Screenings”). A good health care provider should tell you what the numbers mean and help you to watch them. By keeping track of these numbers one can be aware when changes begin to occur and can stop them before they happen. When the numbers from test results are poor it becomes personal and can convince a person that it is time to make health changes. If the poor test results are presented by a doctor they become more legitimate which helps the person to realize the severity of the situation (Melnick). But a study found that 44% of doctors feel incapable of helping their patients lose weight (Dalessio). This problem caused the American Medical Association to vote to have obesity recognized as a disease to help doctors feel obligated to treat it.
This where programs such as 8 Weeks to Wellness excel. They utilize more comprehensive tests to yield results beyond your common weight and body fat percentage. More factors are used to yield a score (both a number and letter “grade”) which determines how healthy you are. In addition to BMI, waist-to-hip ratio and, body fat percentage, it utilizes resting heart rate, blood pressure, and can even include blood work, and posture and flexibility (which are risk factors for injury) (“How to Measure Health”). If you do not eat a healthy diet your grade will not be good.
Although many of us have an idea of what healthy eating entails, we do not actually know how our diet compares to it. We know that due to processed and packaged goods we have to be careful not to eat too much sugar, fat, or salt. The fear of excessive fat and salt consumption has become common knowledge to the point that some Americans have begun to consume less fat than they need. We know that fat and salt contribute to high blood pressure, but the dangers of eating too much sugar is not as commonplace. Every day the average American consumes 88 grams of sugar which is 3 times the amount of sugar they need in their diet (“How Many Grams”). In addition to having addictive effects on the brain which are similar to cocaine, sugar can overload the liver and lead to fatty liver disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, nutrient deficiencies, insulin resistance, or cancer. It also adds to obesity and leaves you feeling hungrier rather than satiated (“The Harmful Effects”). Additionally, recent studies have found that sugar actually contributes to high cholesterol and heart disease more than saturated fat does!
Knowing what to eat does not fight the battle. Healthy food is much more expensive than unhealthy food. It costs an average of $550 more per year to eat healthy foods, which is not an expense many people feel they can afford (Rehel). However, is it really that they cannot afford it or are they simply not willing to make the necessary sacrifices? The average person pays $123 a month for cable television (Rosato). They are paying for something that encourages them to continue the habits which are contributing to their health problems. People lived without cable TV for years and the increase in sedentary practices appears to say that people are less interested in their health and physical activity than in previous generations. One could wait to view the shows when they come out on tape or one of the numerous online streaming sites. By doing this you could save the money that cable costs and use that money to fuel a healthier diet. Yes that means you would still need to have internet and a stream-provider but you would be able to save about $720 a year which is enough for one person to eat a healthier diet.
For some people it is not always a question of making the necessary sacrifices to purchase this food. Depending on where you live you might have limited or no access to healthy food. These areas are known as food deserts (“Food Desert”). Residents of food deserts experience excessively hard challenges to obtain healthy food. The price of the food may be too high for the residents or may be located in an area which requires an excessively long commute to get to. These areas are typically in urban settings, such as Philadelphia, and in areas with poorer populations. For these people the solution is not as simple and the ability to change their diet is limited and would likely require external mediation to remedy. The best solution for them is to keep track of what and how much they eat and purchase canned/frozen vegetables and fruit when possible. For the rest of Americans it means changing their diet.
It is all too familiar to hear that diets don’t work and people just end up gaining back the weight (Freedhoff). And this is true, but the reason is due to the methods which are used to lose weight. Essentially the formula for losing weight is to use more calories than you eat. However, that tends to be easier said than done. There are a plethora of “fad” diets out there which initially will work. But often times these diets do not incorporate everything a person needs in a healthy balanced diet and as your body begins to suffer so will you. The ultimate truth of the matter is that there is no catch-all solution and you have to find a weight-loss method that works for you (Freedhoff). But one must remember that this needs to be a lifestyle change and not a temporary change. If you are suffering due to an unbalanced diet you won’t be able to stick to it. By only making a temporary change to your diet you will be likely to put the weight back on when you go back to eating your regular diet which is likely how you gained weight in the first place.
If you have a loved one who is overweight it is probably a good idea for you to try to help them but do it with love (Luciani). While it does work for some people to bluntly tell them they look heavy or need to lose weight, for others it may cause them to comfort eat. Be patient and understanding because it is HARD to lose weight (“The Harmful Effects”). The habits which have made you unhealthy have been there for years and it may take years to fix them. For a person who is obese it can be presumed to take years to safely lose the weight and body fat to reach a healthy weight. It takes a lot of effort and dedication and with today’s way of living it can be so easy to fail a healthy lifestyle goal.
More importantly than telling a person they need to be healthier is to actively support them (Sperl). This means exercising with them, and not eating things in front of them that they cannot eat, especially in the beginning. Do not watch them like a hawk or scrutinize every little thing they have. There will likely be setbacks for the person. Food is often used as a reward and virtually every social gathering we participate in is centered on food and usually unhealthy food at that! Also, fast food is available everywhere and it is much easier to find unhealthy choices than it is to seek out the healthy ones. Driving can be a challenge as one passes the fast food restaurants they use to dine at. Walking into the same gas station they always frequent can challenge them to attempt to make a healthier decision than the routine choices they have been making.
In order to make a true and lasting change to their diet, individuals have to combat their own family, their friends, their co-workers, and of course their own minds and habits in order to be successful. We, as their trusted friends, need to also change our mindsets in order to help them make the necessary improvements to their lifestyles. This is not something that happens overnight and is something that needs to continually be adjusted as the changes occur. It is important though that everyone take responsibility of their own lifestyle choices and also encourage those around them to do the same. In order for obesity in this country to become a non-issue, we need to work to resolve our own misunderstanding of what it is and how to treat it.
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