We like to think of obesity as an individual issue. We make poor food decisions. We make poor fitness decisions. And then we pay for it.
These things are true. Personally, this week I hate 13 cookies in a 24-hour span. I’ve also only been able to exercise 2 times in a 7-day span. I should pay for those decisions.
But this oversimplifies things.
Individual responsibility is a thing, and it’s not something we’ll ever fully get away from in this country. We value individual liberty too much, even if that means making crappy decisions.
Imagine, though, systemic issues. Being confronted with the opportunities to make poor decisions repeatedly and having to go out of your way to make good decisions.
That’s the reality for much of the country.
I was showing a couple of documentaries to my classes this week, which means I was watching the documentaries. One was Super Size Me (quality of the actual shooting is super low by today’s standards, but it’s still a worthwhile movie even to see how little some things have changed), and the other was Fed Up (more professional, though I could make a case that it’s actually more propagandaish than Super Size Me).
I’d seen them before, so it wasn’t anything new. More of a refresher put things back on the forefront (seriously, there’s so much freaking news going on these days that they’re going to have to reboot the matrix).
When I moved to Florida in ’09, I was the fat kid. I was carrying a little extra weight, but I wasn’t fat. But I was fat compared to the people there.
Everywhere, you have people jogging. People are biking all over the place. And there were so many healthy options for eating out. It was ridiculous. The culture was built to help people be skinnier.
And then I moved to Mississippi at my heaviest and immediately felt like one of the skinnier people there.
My time in Mississippi was great, by and large, but there’s no getting around the fact that Mississippi is one of the epicenters of the obesity epidemic, and it was easy to see how.
It’s super easy to eat like crap there. There were days that for 10 bucks (excluding tip) I could get fried chicken, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, fried okra, a biscuit, and a big-ass Coke. And then I could get a refill on the Coke. And then they would give me a Coke to go. There’s individual choice involved, but this wasn’t an atypical experience because
It was surprisingly difficult to eat healthy there. When I think about my options, the restaurants largely focused on homestyle, Southern food. Even getting salads at these places wasn’t necessarily going to end with a healthy balance. The cards were stacked against you if you were eating out.
You would also have difficulty getting around if you weren’t in a car. Bike lanes were mostly non-existent. Sidewalks were only slightly more common, and as they were getting built, people would complain about them. Even the buses weren’t all that frequent compared to Florida, so walking to the bus stop wasn’t much of a requirement. Where it seemed like there were runners everywhere in Florida, runners were a much rarer thing in Mississippi.
I was also able to park SUPER close to wherever I needed to be (dealing with that in Oklahoma now). For a lot less money than I was spending in Florida, I was walking less than half the distance. There were days I was only hitting two or three thousand steps. I started intentionally parking farther away because I was hoping to work off that 10-dollar calorie bonanza I was ingesting.
And lastly, there are just a lot of overweight people there. It’s weird to say that overweight people are the cause of people being overweight, but we know that behavior is contagious. So much of what we do is ingrained culturally. We seek social approval. If you go out to lunch and everyone else orders fried chicken while you get a salad, you’re going to stick out. There might be outright jokes at your expense, there could be passive aggressive comments, and there could be plain resentment. Even if there’s nothing at all, it’s not easy to make good decisions if the person across from you is eating fried chicken, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, a biscuit, and drinking a big-ass Coke.
But how do we fix these things?
We take away people’s ability to make bad decisions as much as possible, which really means public policy.
“But Q, what would your policies look like?” I’m glad you asked. Here are my requests, in no particular order:
- Bans on Coke machines in places of education. This policy has been popping up, but I’d want to see it across the board in K-12 and higher education. You can’t stop people from bringing them in, but you can make it more difficult for people to get easy access to them (and believe me, I’m a big offender when it comes to Coke machines). Even dropping one can a day during the week would amount to 700 calories saved a week (35,000 over a working year). And don’t even pretend diet is any healthier for you.
- Bans on aggressively large portion sizes. I’m old enough to remember what a large Coke looked like at McDonalds around 1990. Portions are ridiculous. But people want to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. If you can at least have restaurants serve reasonable sizes as their default, you can mitigate some issues. Yes, some people will just order more, but some people will order the smaller size and be ok. If the smallest size is too much food, you’re not even giving people a chance.
- Daily PE in schools. Physical activity is overrated in terms of weight loss (compare the time it would take me to burn off the estimated 2,300 calories I can get for 10 bucks in Mississippi to the 15 minutes it takes me to eat that meal), but it still has huge benefits for health overall. At it’s most basic level, you increasing physical activity, but you’re also potentially ingraining physical activity as a habit.
- Naps for everyone. This is about stress. Stress affects how much people eat and exercise, not to mention just their general well-being. We fetishize overworking ourselves in the US, including demonizing naps. Naps are great. There’s ample evidence they improve productivity, so grab yourself a pillow and a snuggie, and go crawl under your desk for 15 minutes of shuteye.
- Taxes on sodas. This has happened on small scales, but I want to see it across the board. This won’t prevent consumption, but if you taxed Cokes like you tax cigarettes, you start to price people out of some ridiculous consumption. And if you earmark the funds for something to go toward public health, then even if you don’t cut soda consumption directly, you at least can fund other positive activities.
- Taxes on fast food. This is mostly the same as the previous, but we know fast food is largely a big bag of crap in terms of nutrition. Those options that are big bags of crap should also be taxed. I’m willing to withhold the tax on things like Panda Express’s healthier options (think bowl with brown rice and string bean chicken), but it would have to be a case-by-case situation.
- Required labelling of added sugar. This one is supposed to show up next year, but considering the new administration has made its main priority undoing anything resembling social progress, I don’t know if this will actually happen. Sugar as a substance is necessary, but it’s not necessary in the amounts it’s been added to everything under the sun.
- Car-free downtown zones. This shows up different ways. In Barcelona, they’re reworking city blocks so that traffic will increasingly be cut off from driving in certain areas. In smaller areas, you could effectively close off a downtown area from driving and make it a pedestrian and bike zone. To do this means building parking garages, which is a cost, but you would get people walking around more.
- Increased bike lanes and sidewalks. It should always be an option for you to get anywhere in town via bike or walking. There were times at Mississippi State where I would have to cross the street twice just to stay on the sidewalk. No bueno.
- More parks. People need places to play. Green space makes a difference. Go hang out around Central Park some time. New York is densely packed, and yet that park sits there ready to give people a break from the world, whether it’s a chance for a chill walk or you want to be overly ambitious and run all over the damned thing. People need good options to get out of their homes for physical activity.
- Adding gym memberships to all insurance plans. This is fairly common, but as we seek a goal of universal coverage, we also need to make sure it’s good coverage. Good coverage should cover gym memberships. It doesn’t have to be super fancy, but you need to have access to a gym. Parks are great, but they don’t include weight rooms, usually don’t include fitness classes, and aren’t going to protect you from inclement weather. Having my gym paid for at my new job has already made it easier for me to justify staying active (because of my knee, I wouldn’t be inclined to pay for membership knowing I can’t get as much as I’d like out of my time there; counterintuitive, but if I’m spending the money then I want to get every ounce out of the gym I can, similar to the 2,300-calorie meal).
- No junk food served in schools (K-12 or college). This goes along with the Coke machines, but I wanted it to have its own line because this has to be more than vending machines. Nearly every meal I ate in high school consisted of pizza and fries (tater tots if it was a good day). In college, I lived off of pizza, burgers, and chicken sandwiches. Yes, healthy options were there, but I wanted the thing that tasted better and gave me more calories for staying active. Kids are dumb. They aren’t programmed to make good decisions yet (and yes, college students are still just kids; believe me). Taking away easy, bad decisions at least gives more people a fighting chance.
This was a fun rant. Basically, take a look at your environment. Look how it’s stacked against you. Yes, people have to live with the decisions they make, but we can make decisions as a group to make it easier for everyone as individuals.
Stay frosty, friends.