At any given time, nearly one of three women and one of four men are on some type of diet. It is hardly breaking news that most of us are concerned about our appearance and (perhaps to a lesser degree) our health. With the diet industry currently bringing in $40 billion a year, people are clearly going to great financial lengths to shrink their waistlines and minimize the health risks linked to being overweight.
From here, though, the story gets ugly.
An alarming percentage of dieters fail to lose any weight at all. Of the ones who do, two thirds gain the weight back within a year, and nearly all gain it back within five. Obesity rates have climbed to over 30% in six of the fifty U.S. states, with the rate of diabetes growing with them. Colorado’s obesity rate of 19.1% is the lowest in the nation, but considering it was less than 7% in 1990, it is clear that the trend is moving in the wrong direction.
Why is this happening?
Is it the prevalence of convenience foods, high fructose corn syrup, sedentary life styles? Is it because we use food to entertain us or for mood enhancement? Perhaps it just comes down to the simple fact that people lack self-control, and are in denial about potential health risks that are lurking around the corner.
These may all be factors, but I’m going to go out on a limb and propose that none are the real reason this problem persists and worsens each year. I’m also going to propose that self-control is only part of the equation. People exhibit self-control every day. When we look at when they exhibit this control, and conversely, when they relinquish it, we move closer to gaining some real insight.
In analyzing the motives behind our own behavior, we are often somewhat blind to the cultural influences that shape them. Social acceptance may be important in high school, but we’re grown-ups now, making our own decisions, standing firmly on our own two feet. We’re proud, independent, self-made citizens, right?
Maybe we’re not.
There’s nothing more ironic or strange or contradictory than life itself.
A quote from Robert De Niro, and an appropriate sentiment. People are often ridiculed for being overweight. It’s okay to carry a few extra pounds, but despite the obesity numbers noted above, in our culture it’s not okay to be fat. It’s seen as a weakness or a handicap, and those who suffer from it suffer the quiet disapproval of their peers. It’s just one of those unwritten rules.
When it comes to the behaviors that lead to obesity, however, the rules are a bit different. Not only are they culturally accepted, they’re practically required. Watching the game with the guys tonight? I hope you’re hungry for pizza, beer and three kinds of chips. Going to your nephew’s 10th birthday party? You better believe there will be hamburgers on the grill and a big chocolate cake. Having a family get-together on Sunday? Get ready for mom’s lasagna, garlic bread and cannoli for dessert. Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Labor Day, Valentine’s Day, Fourth of July…the list goes on.
When people gather together, we gather around food. Lots of food! Over time the food has gone down in nutritional value (more premade junk) and up in quantity. Ever notice how a party with ten guests will have enough food for twenty? “Have more, there’s plenty, let me pack some up for you to take home”. Grandma is insisting you have a second piece of her German Chocolate Cake; you’re not going to be rude and decline, are you?
Eat, Drink and Be Merry!
It’s all fun and games until someone gets a triple bypass. Why do otherwise discerning people lack self-control when it comes to food? Our culture asks us to. Self-control is largely dependent on social consequences, and in this case, there are none; overindulging is normal behavior. Why are these age old customs causing so many problems now? The food we’re eating is denser in calories, we’re eating more of it, and we’re moving less.
Are you suggesting that I stop celebrating holidays?
No. What I suggest is simple; be conscious of what you’re eating and why you’re eating it. The onus is on each of us as individuals to make our own rules. No one is going to tell you not to have that second piece of cheesecake; in fact, it is much more likely they will urge you to indulge. It’s all up to you my friend. If going with the social flow has you buying bigger pants every year, perhaps you have to set some new guidelines for yourself and be responsible for abiding by them. Ultimately, you must decide what you want, and take ownership over your decisions.
If you’re afraid you’ll catch some funny looks if you eat more salad than stuffing, try to remember that in reality, nobody really cares what you eat. While you’re worrying about what people think of you, they’re worrying about what people think of them. Sure, your family may give you a little flack the first time you turn down cake and ice cream, but it will only become an issue if you make it one. Politely decline and move on and so will everyone else.
Why can’t I just enjoy myself on special occasions and eat well the rest of the time?
You can, it’s what I do and it works out well, but it’s easier said than done. How we eat on these occasions usually spills over into our regular eating habits. It’s very likely that one “cheat” meal will turn into three days of gluttony, followed by an uttering of the motto of failure; “I’m just going to start back on Monday.”
The bottom line is, regardless of your dietary strategy, the one crucial element required to succeed is a serious, deliberate, grown-up commitment to stick to your plan, regardless of any social inconvenience. Write it down, have it flash on your screensaver, tell everyone you know about, and do it. Yes, it takes discipline and sacrifice, but you’d be surprised how things fall into place once you make the firm decision that it’s what you’re going to do. Your friends and family might not make things easier, but there’s no reason they should cause you to fail.
Center for Disease Control