Sunday, October 21, 2007

Finding a constructive viewpoint

CNN has posted a map of the US depicting the increase in the proportion of people who are obese in the US. Especially since it only spans from about 1985 to present, I was shocked at the rates of increase:

Obesity has become a major issue in recent years, and it is very complicated and contentious. Poverty is a major factor in obesity, as is the continually swelling portion sizes in restaurants, and the predominance of very convenient foods which are high in refined carbohydrate, high in saturated and trans fat, high in salt, low in nutrients and laced with high fructose corn syrup.

This issue is especially delicate because it is so personal. Fatness is brutally stigmatized in our culture, and recognizing the major public health problem that widespread obesity presents could worsen these prejudices.

It’s clear to me that the deck is stacked against people struggling with overweight in our culture. But that’s the “culture” created by corporations that want to sell you more and keep you confused about what is good for you. But, as human beings, we each affect our social environments as well, and create our own “micro-culture” within our homes, among our friends and co-workers, and on our blogs!

The New York Times recently published an article about a study showing that people tend to gain and loose weight in concert with other members of their social network:

The focus of the article is gaining, of course, but isn’t it empowering to think about the other side of the coin. When each of us decides to make more nourishing choices, we have the potential to positively influence our whole social network. Marvelous! Healthy habits as a service to our loved ones!

I don’t mean to sound like a Pollyanna – I am deeply concerned with this issue, and so many politically powerful forces seem to be working against the public good when it comes to a healthy lifestyle. Political power and marketing strongly influence our environment, determine what choices are most convenient, and remind us to use certain products, but political power does not determine absolutely the choices that we make. Some people may even find motivation to live an active, nourishing lifestyle as a radical act of refusal to swallow these corporate values. Others may find some motivation in the idea that their choices do have an impact on their social network, and taking good care of themselves is not a selfish act.

It is an important practice to look at how scientific research is presented by the media, too. “Blame your friends if you’re putting on weight” is the “hook” presented in the title of the Times article. I can see how that would sell more copies than “Your healthy choices can help your friends, too!” If we can manage to avoid being sucked in to the dramatic spins the media lens draws out in this information, we may actually learn something useful from these stories, instead of simply finding more things to be afraid of and angry about.