I don’t even remember how I came across this article a few days ago, but my brain had already started churning for blog post about obesity long before I realized the article was dated October 2011. But the epidemic of obesity in America is hardly old news. Thirty-six percent of American adults and seventeen percent of children are obese, with percentages as high as forty percent in Hispanic populations and fifty-eight percent among blacks. Percentages can also be much higher depending on location: the state of Mississippi, for example, has one of the highest obesity rates in the world.
The idea that obesity is a drag on the economy is also still very much alive, as employers complain about “fat people” taking too much time off for obesity-related illnesses, and American taxpayers are told ad nauseam how much obesity costs them by overburdening the medical system.
Most of us progressives are already well aware of most of the ignorant rhetoric that’s out there; I wrote about it in a post about how our society separates us from nature, and again in response to comments by Rick Santorum back in December. I’m going to assume we all know by now that obesity affects poor communities disproportionately because healthy food and safe space to exercise–or a way to escape the concrete and connect with nature–is almost completely unavailable to these people.
It should be obvious how ignorant it would be to blame these victims of inequality, so I’m not going to talk about it again in this post. Instead, I want to look at another demographic where the causes of obesity may not be so obvious: the seemingly better-off middle working class.
To say that the middle class is that much better off than the poor these days would be to perpetuate an illusion. In terms of risk factors for obesity, it’s clearly a different situation, but the bottom and middle of this demographic isn’t really ahead by that much. Poor people load up on cheap carbohydrates because that’s all they have; the middle class does it because they have absolutely no idea how their day-to-day environment is shaping their behavior.
The Environment Trap
In the beginning, humans evolved just like all the other animals with whom we share the planet, and our relationship with food was simple: we went out and hunted or foraged. Our instinctive drive to nourish our bodies was satisfied through a direct relationship with the natural world and our food sources.
With the birth of agriculture, however, that relationship became a little more complicated, as some discovered they could control others by controlling the food supply. In his book “An Edible History of Humanity“, Tom Standage tells how anthropologists studied the remains of early farmers and found them much less physically healthy when compared to their nomadic predecessors. Of course, early agricultural societies had no idea what was going on with their own biologies; so history, farming, and the tendency of the few to control the many by Bogarting surplus resources marched on to become what it is today.
The fact that in this age of advanced scientific research and instant information most of us still have no idea what’s going on indicates that a more sinister game is afoot.
Think for a moment how differently we obtain food now than we did in the old hunter-gatherer days. Today, if we want to eat, we don’t go out hunting or foraging. If we need medicine, we don’t find or grow herbs. We make a resume, get a job working for an employer and wait for a paycheck. That paycheck is our food, our medicine, our shelter, our transportation–it is our lives and the lives of our offspring.
The direct link with the natural world that used to assure us of survival has been severed.
I am not a psychologist, nor an anthropologist. I am speaking from personal experience and observation. There is something about allowing a middle man to interrupt the direct relationship between humans and the natural world on which we actually depend that messes with our very instinct for survival.
Studies have suggested that we have natural tendencies driven by physiological needs hard coded early in our evolution. For example, disruption of the body’s natural rhythms with light at night has been linked to increased cancer risk. Addition of green plants to inner-city concrete jungles reduces crime rates; plants and views of the outdoors also increase workplace productivity when employers can be bothered, and scientists speculate that this is because the presence of green foliage satisfies an ancient need for visual reassurance of food security.
There is no question that we have a very strong biological need for alignment with nature, but our society forces us into a much different lifestyle. We spend long hours in sterile workspaces, add hours of commuting in cars, think about work when we should be sleeping, then spend our weekends and evenings watching TV or catching up on minutiae we neglected while at work. Even when we think on a conscious level that our survival is assured, our primal subconscious isn’t convinced—it doesn’t understand that compliance and the paycheck, not connection with nature, are the only keys to survival.
When forced to live this way, we completely lose the internal barometer that tells us what to eat, when, and how much, because our bodies and subconscious minds are cut off from the natural cues that tell us on the most primal level that we are surviving—and maybe we aren’t. From your subconscious mind’s point of view, we are in survival mode, so fattening up on as much calorie-dense food as possible makes perfect sense.
Now that we’ve laid all of this out, can you imagine what kind of signal eating at your computer desk while staring at a screen sends to your body and your subconscious?
Can you imagine wild birds weighing their food, counting calories, or trying to decide if it’s OK to have an insect portion today or just stick to grain? We are the only species that has these problems. We are the only species with a middle man between us and our sustenance, and that middle man is taking in profits hand over fist.
The Obesity Economy
Her natural internal signals disrupted, the average person trapped in this unnatural lifestyle will have mental and physical health issues that appear to stem from an overwhelming confluence of dozens of factors. She can be extremely intelligent and very successful in business, but it is unlikely she will be able to identify the root cause of her problems. This opens the door for multiple industries to step in and “help” her.
Packaged food. Between commuting and time at the office, she has little time that isn’t devoted to her employer, so packaged food adorned with health claims seem a godsend. What she doesn’t know, and what her body can no longer tell her, is that she’d probably get more nutrients by eating the cardboard box it came in. That doesn’t keep packaged food peddlers from making billions of dollars.
Excercise. She has little time or energy for exercise, and when she does force herself to try she won’t get results. Exercise regimins based on “burning fat” and “toning muscles” don’t address the core lifestyle issue (it also never occurs to anyone that we have such a hard time sticking to these programs because they are unnatural in themselves. Ever seen a squirrel doing crunches?). Miracle exercise devices and shoes with outrageous health claims swoop in to help her do the wrong things right to the tune of millions of American dollars annually.
Diet plans and supplements. No matter how much she analyzes, measures, counts, or even starves, she can’t do anything right. More Omega 3 fatty acids? Less protein? More protein? It is really OK to eat fruit if it’s technically sugar? Is coffee good or bad for you? Everyone says something different, but they all have one thing in common: they’re more than happy to take her money. Dietary supplements and gurus with “secrets” become a multi-billion dollar industry. There are even services that will ship you pre-packaged meals to help you with “portion control”.
Pharmaceuticals. She feels like a failure, and the pharmaceutical industry is ready to welcome her with open arms. Anti-depressants? Ok, maybe just for awhile to get through this. Anti-depressants not working? How about an anti-depressant to supplement your anti-depressant? Blood pressure medicine. Cholesterol-lowering drugs. More drugs to counter the side effects of those drugs. Pills made from gila monster spit to take away those food cravings you can’t seem to control yourself. Weight loss surgery! Ka-ching!
These are just a few of the ways corporations capitalize on unhealthy middle-class American workers. People either struggle their entire lives, thinking their health issues are their fault, or they just give up–and who can blame them? Even if lean health becomes their only obsession, once the system has a hold on them she will never achieve it. They are in a vicious cycle, a trap far too complicated to unravel from the inside.
Obesity drags on the economy? Cry me a farking river. The profits being made on obesity are astronomical. The very employers that complain about obesity are themselves largely responsible for the epidemic.
That “drag” you’re seeing? That’s what it looks like when an unsustainable scheme starts to crumble around the edges.
The Way Out
We hear so much talk about the obesity epidemic, but many people suffer in the same trap and do not become obese. Stress has been called “the silent killer”, and with good reason. If we were to add to the obesity rate the number of people with other ailments–depression, high blood pressure, etc–stemming from lifestyles disconnected from nature and the real sustenance she provides, it would be a much better measure of our nation’s health than the obesity rate alone.
Obesity, however, does happen to be the most profitable of all these illnesses because society still perceives excess weight largely as a cosmetic issue rather than a medical problem or disability. It is still socially acceptable for popular culture and ignorant peers to speak disparagingly about “fat people”. They put pressure on people of size to do anything and everything, at unlimited expense, failure after failure, to get their weight down. What these cruel, ignorant people don’t know is that they too are pawns in the game, helping corporations shame victims of obesity into forking over more of the money they got sick earning.
Corporations know that their “weight loss solutions” will never work. They don’t want them to work, because then there wouldn’t be any more money to extract from people! The trap is that it is very easy to make someone think that targeting just one aspect of obesity will help them lose weight when in reality nothing—NOTHING—is ever going to work unless you target the core of the problem.
The government is not going to reduce the obesity rate with awareness campaigns or shame, or a “fat tax” on junk food (named as if corporations hadn’t designed that “food” to get people chemically addicted without their knowledge). No person can escape the trap and become healthy just by trying “diet and exercise” or “portion control” for the hundredth time.
Even health gurus who say that you can’t “diet” to stay healthy–they think they have an answer in telling people it’s a permanent lifestyle change they need–are still only half right. They are still focused on “fixing” food choices and eating habits. Let’s just establish right now that it can’t be done. The core that must be targeted is a connection with nature that tells our ancient instincts that we are safe, that food is indeed plentiful, and we will always have enough healthy, nutritious, natural things to eat.
That being said, trying to change society’s attitudes or waiting for the government to do anything doesn’t help us now, does it. We know now that the only way to get out of the unhealthy–and very profitable for the 1%–cycle is to return body and mind to a natural state in which we feel safe and assured of survival on a deep level. No, I’m not saying drop everything, quit your job, and go off the grid today–or maybe ever. But you can take one single step that could make all the difference.
There is an exercise I sometimes do for myself and my clients to realign eating habits with nature. I had planned to put it in this post, but it felt strange putting something so deeply personal online—plus, I’d love to hear from you if you found my post helpful. I won’t keep your email address or use it for any other purpose. If you’d like me to send you the exercise, email Rose@PricelessEarth.org and let me know you’d like to try it. I personally will email it to you.