I have a story for you.
I was at the deli in the grocery store a few weeks ago, and I was going to make a bad decision. I was getting chicken tenders, mashed potatoes, and potato wedges.
I don’t know what healthy thing was in my fridge that night, but I was in no mood for it. I wanted the good stuff. And by good stuff, I meant the bad stuff. I meant the stuff that clogs your arteries. I meant the stuff that not a single diet would recommend. It’s not paleo. It’s not low carb. It’s not organic. And it sure as hell isn’t gluten free.
This was going to be a beautiful disaster. But that’s not the real story. The real story happens when I go to pay for the food.
I had my dinner in hand, I went to the register, and they tried to give me a cup as a part of the dinner.
But I didn’t want the cup. The cup was for the soda fountain. Nothing that came out of that fountain was going to be good for me except water, and I had water at home (we’re going to ignore that I drew a health line at sugary beverage but not fried everything).
So I politely declined.
They told me it was the same amount, and they looked at me like I was weirdo for declining a Coke I paid for. They looked at me like I was the weirdo for making a slightly healthier decision even though financially, I’d already paid for those empty calories.
But still, I declined.
There’s a couple of other things for you to know now. The first is this: I live in a poor area. Not like bad neighborhood poor. Just rural South poor. And really, in the rural South, I live in a very nice area, including for health. They don’t make documentaries about how bad health is in my area. Those documentaries are filmed a couple of hours to the west in the Delta. (I’m not kidding as much as I would like to be. The documentary Bite Size follows four stories of overweight children, and two of the stories are in the Mississippi Delta. One is in Cleveland. The other just said The Delta without even giving a town that I remember. Netflix had it last I knew. It’s really worth a watch). When they show national maps of obesity, diabetes, etc., my state lights up every time.
The second thing to know is this conversation is not uncommon. I overhear it. I’m a part of it. It’s all over the place. For a lot of folks (including myself up until a few years ago) your decision-making is impacted by the money you have in your pocket. I remember ordering a plate of fries in a restaurant because it was all I could afford (I couldn’t even afford to tip). I remember scrounging up a couple of bucks to buy a chicken sandwich for lunch once and not having a dollar more. Thankfully, I never had to miss a meal. But I knew what it was like to squeeze calories out of a dollar.
And that’s a problem. That’s a very dangerous problem.
There are two common refrains that you’ll hear when people try to ignore why poor areas are hit harder by obesity, etc. One is that eating healthy and eating unhealthy are economically the same. The other is that it’s all about calories in vs. calories out.
Let’s go after the first one. There was research to back this up (though there’s also research that says a different thing), but I think the research saying the costs are the same misses a couple of points. One, food costing the same and having access to that food aren’t the same thing. Poor areas don’t have the same access to grocery stores (the last town I lived in didn’t have a grocery store in one-fourth of the town, which was where the poorer part of the population lived, meanwhile I was inundated with 3 Publix stores within about 2 miles of each other). Transportation matters. The other is the cost-efficiency of certain calories. Even if a salad and a burger cost the same, you get more calories from the burger, so it looks like you’re getting a better deal. I say that from experience and observation. I’ve bought food with more calories because money was tight, and I knew I’d need it. I’ve also heard that conversation from people in line at stores/fast food places. The fact is when you’re trying to make ends meet, and you can’t afford a mid-afternoon snack, you have to make your lunch count. And of course, there’s education. Education matters. I might not have been wealthy as a kid, but I was educated. Even though I didn’t know how to make good food decisions growing up, I was able to learn as an adult. Not everyone has the luxury. Seriously, watch Bite Size. The kids weren’t the problem. It was the adults. The adults didn’t know how to make good decisions, but the parents often blamed the kids.
And let’s talk briefly about calories in vs. calories out. It’s bull. That’s plain and simple. Yes, a calorie is a calorie, but what accompanies it matters. Fiber, vitamins, minerals, etc., matter. They affect your health. They affect your energy. They affect your basic ability to function. To pretend that the calories in an orange are equal to the calories in a candy bar are asinine. If you find me starving, by all means give me the damned candy bar. It could save my life. But in my desk job and relatively sedentary daily lifestyle, that candy bar’s a contributing factor to my demise, so give me the orange please (I may or may not have an orange sitting on my bar right now waiting for me to finish this post so I can eat it). And let’s not forget, it’s easier to cut calories than it is to burn them off exercising. I can easily ingest 2,500 calories in one sitting (I was equal parts disgusted and proud when I realized I did this casually at lunch one day). I can’t burn that off in one workout.
And it all comes down to SES status at the end of the day. The fact of the matter is you have a bigger safety net if you come from a higher SES situation.
I had a mixed childhood in this regard. My family is well educated. Out of the four immediate family members, there are 8 college degrees (I own 3 of them). So like I said, I’m educated and I know how to find information. This has been the thing that’s saved me the past few years. This is why I’m not over 200 pounds (though I was for a time but only months, not years). I know how to make fully informed decisions. I don’t always make the right decision, but I know what the right decision is.
But on the other hand, I still saw residuals of Depression-era thinking. The food that was often on the table was not the healthiest stuff, and I was a picky eater, so it was a double whammy. That said, pickiness may have also saved me. I didn’t like cheese as a kid, except on pizza. I avoided a lot of dishes that probably wouldn’t have been healthful contributors (including many occasions where I ate plain grilled chicken), though I also was skipping salads until I was 21. It would be fun to blame my parents, but I know I can’t. For starters, I really was a picky eater. I just wouldn’t eat what I didn’t like. I still won’t. And parents who both worked full-time raising two boys who would eventually become teenagers who played sports, sometimes you have to take the easy out that means food on the table without hours in front of the stove. Those easy outs though didn’t help prepare me to make good decisions as an adult though. I had to get there on my own, for the most part. I had to make my own decisions. But not everyone has that luxury (see education; also, I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve been able to earn enough the past few years that I finally stopped counting the calories per dollar).
So where does this leave us? I don’t know, honestly. I don’t have a fix for you. It’s a systems-level problem.
Hell, one of the reasons I have an issue with people being gung-ho, 100% organic is that I think that’s a rich-person’s luxury. Organic usually costs more, and I don’t believe there’s evidence to support that it’s actually better for health (trust me, I’ve looked into the issue multiple times, and I haven’t seen evidence that would sway me. It’s actually job-related for me, so please don’t go that route; that’s not the full point I’m trying to make). Don’t get me wrong, I have zero issue with people buying organic. And judging by some of the blogs I follow, there’s a good chance the person reading this wants to buy organic. I really don’t have a problem. There’s a price premium for it, so if you’re willing to pay for it, someone’s willing to grow it for you. But that’s kind of the problem. Poor people don’t have that luxury. Imagine being in a store and seeing two apples that look pretty identical but one costs a little bit more. How do you think that decisions going to for the people trying to convince me to drink a coke that they have to know is bad for me because it’s included in the cost of the meal? It’s just not going to happen. I’m just happy they’re getting any apple at all.
There are other problems too. Serving sizes are getting bonkers in this country. What I remember as a large Coke at McDonald’s as a child is now the small. It’s almost impossible to find canned Coke machines. They’re all 20-ounce bottles. Even now, knowing what I know, I have a mini internal fight every time I make one particular marginally better decision: I buy those 7.5-ounce Coke cans instead of 12-ounce cans. And I know, and I just know, I’m getting less of a deal. I’m paying more per ounce. But I’m paying an extra price now for my long-term health. And look at what happened in NYC when the mayor tried to ban ridiculously large sodas. It eventually got overruled because limited soft drinks to 16 ounces was overstepping. My favorite was the argument that poor people would be disproportionately harmed by a policy that, as far as I can see, would probably have benefited them the most because lower-SES folks are hit the hardest by obesity.
And where you live matters. I used to live in Gainesville, FL. It was a college town, and I’m in a college town now, but it’s not even vaguely the same. Gainesville as a whole is more health-conscious. Runners are everywhere. Restaurants have some options I wouldn’t have imagined coming from West Texas. The idea of vegan-friendly options would have blown my mind (not the least of which because I’m not sure I 100% knew what vegan entailed before living in Florida).
Being fit was just a way of life there. I felt like the fat kid the whole time I was there. But here? Not so much. I feel downright scrawny. And seeing the state light up in red on obesity maps doesn’t really explain what’s going on. That color red isn’t a coincidence. Come visit. Try to make good decisions without doing 100% of your own meal prep. I dare you. The idea of healthy eating is ridiculously difficult if you want something other than salad or stir-fry. And they have this magical thing called a blue plate lunch. Evidently they used to have them where I lived in Texas, too, but I never saw them as a kid. Imagine the lunch special at a restaurant, but you can pick your entree and sides. For about 8 or 9 bucks, I can have fried chicken, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, fried okra, a biscuit, a big-ass Coke with free refills, and a big-ass Coke to go (and they will look at you weird if you don’t take a drink to go; they even offer water to go if that’s what you ordered). This is embedded in the culture. You can’t just take these things away.
And as for running, that’s been an adventure. Gainesville (and especially the University of Florida campus) are extremely jogging friendly. Busy roads always have sidewalks, and there are sidewalks and paths all over the campus to take. Here? Not so much. Sidewalks in town are almost non-existent, and whenever construction forces any patches of sidewalks, there’s in incessant grumbling. As for campus, it’s much better, but there are still spots where it’s not fun to run. Continuous sidewalks aren’t a thing. There’s one spot where if I stay along the same road, I have to cross the street twice because of the sidewalk ending. And mind you, this is a busy road with cars that aren’t always prone to paying attention to crosswalks (this is why I wear obnoxiously bright shirts). I don’t say this to bash the town. It’s a nice place, and it’s clearly making efforts to improve these things (hence the mandated sidewalks). It’s just necessary to understand the cultural underpinnings that impact the health of entire communities, regions, and states. There’s an individual decision, but where you live impacts your decision-making.
Like I said, it’s a systems-level problem. There’s no easy fix, but I’m hoping one of my next posts will actually go in-depth into how you can be a part of the solution through behavioral contagiousness. But that’s enough for today. I have an orange to eat.