I heard a heartening story about a man and his joy-spreading tactic. Essentially, he spends half of his time acquiring special little chocolates and the other half, gifting them to people as morsels of universal love. I am either becoming a very cynical nutritionist or a very empathic human being. The collective psyche is longing for the morsel of joy even at the expense of the perfect waistline. The truth is that we have appetites and hungers because we are merely human, not because we are bad people. However, when all of these human tendencies accumulate into extra pounds, getting rid of that weight is very difficult.
A few years ago, I attended a conference on an obesity-related topic. During one of the workshops, the speaker, a physician and researcher at a major university, presented a case study of a postpartum woman with a body mass index (BMI) of 30–thus classified as borderline obese. He instructed the audience of professionals to brainstorm how to counsel this woman. The exercise had me squirming from the get-go. As the attendees were dead-ending in their attempts to describe a reasonable approach, the presenter intervened. He said, “Let me offer this idea. I am often in my office at my desk and on the phone. I could just sit there and talk on the phone, but instead I stand and pace as I am talking.” My agitated brain said, “Yes, let’s file that idea to use.” Not with my clients but in this article. I could picture Homer Simpson stuffing one more donut in his face while muttering “Ah, vigorous pacing. That’s the ticket.” I wondered when was the last time this guy got out of his office and realized the experiences of real people, including real fat people and real postpartum women.
Hardly are all designated cases of overweight problematic. Some in the field maintain that the goal is for all individuals to attain an “appropriate” BMI. Short of that, they will be at risk for various health problems. My intuition and much science beg to differ. Many people are fine–if not perhaps better off–with a little extra weight on them. Pavarotti once said, “The reason fat people are happy is that their nerves are well protected.” My own observations reveal that the neurotically thin tend to be more frayed than their rounder counterparts. Besides, BMI is just a tool. At times it is a cruel tool—or at least a not very nice one. It makes no allowance for age, fitness, or even natural body type–nor pregnancy-related metabolic changes. Whether we like it or not, our bodies will shift and change as we age. Nature, with no ill intent, seems to want to round us out a bit as we mature. That is how we get to be grandpas and grandmas. Appropriate BMI does not necessarily confer lack of health risks–only ones of a particular nature.
Do not get me wrong. I am not undermining the seriousness of the obesity crisis that we are facing. I understand its consequences perhaps more than most. I see the implications of weight that people struggle with on a daily basis and I strive to alleviate the challenges through educational, lifestyle and nutritional support. I bemoan the forces that are propelling our society into ever-expanding levels of girth, especially those that are now affecting our children.
Still, I feel a need to call TIME OUT! To stop the madness that makes those who are the statistics speechless. To stop pointing the finger merely at the individual without an understanding of the deeper forces that are at play. There are multi-factorial causes that lie at the root of the weight gain epidemic. Many are so abstract or insidious that it is very difficult for the experts—let alone an ordinary individual–to understand what is going on. Though overeating, bad eating, food addiction, and poor lifestyle choices are definitely a part of it, the magnitude of the communal weight gain doesn’t seem to make sense based on calories alone. In the causative mix lie politics, hormones, pharmaceuticals, poverty, nutrition misinformation, dieting, food sensitivities, sensory science, profits, changes in the components of our food, environmental toxins, personal and spiritual alienation and lifestyles spinning out of control. There are strange bedfellows in each and every fat cell.
Now, back to our friend the Lorax. For the record, the Lorax, our venerable spokesperson, was rather portly himself. Based on his picture, I’d put him at a BMI of about 27. I’d describe him as neither apple nor pear-shaped but rather pickle-shaped. According to Dr. Seuss, “He was shortish. And oldish. And brownish and mossy.” The final message of the Lorax in his plea to save the environment was UNLESS. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
I too am rather shortish. Oldish, brownish and mossy may someday also describe me. For now, my intention is not to imply an ultimatum. It is, however, to bring a greater sense of compassion and understanding–and a broader lens to the discussion and to the approaches to care.
I do not intend to deny the role of personal responsibility—be that for everyone. It is a big piece of the puzzle. Though it is critical that we address the current weight epidemic–we should not do it with an assault on the fat people. We must not slap everyone silly in an attempt to squeeze them into a size six dress or Speedo swimsuit. Besides, who would be left to sing the blues? And though I’d have been happy to find my grandmother at the gym, it could not replace the experience of cuddling up on her big, warm lap with wonderful smells wafting in from the kitchen.
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In health, Elyn
My Plate Haiku
Hunger tiptoes in
From bellies, hearts or minds
Feed me now she calls.