Saturday, 25 August 2012

Obesity - What's it really about?

Yesterday's figures show that the NHS spent £91.5million on Obesity last year, and Gastric Bypass Operations have increased 530% in five years. As usual, much of the news seems at some point or another to feature deeply unflattering pictures of obese people walking about, or holding chips etc etc. You get my drift.

I’ve always been slightly baffled by the way we deal with weight. I read a book some years ago (& annoyingly can't now find it), in which the Author suggested that our dislike of fat, our desire to be thin, comes from a deep seated and modern western Guilt about having so much. In the old days, plumpness was a sign of health and wealth - take a look at Ingres - our definition of beauty in those days was voluptuous, overfed, large milky breasts, as my boyfriend might say.


Now, I’m not going to argue that being overweight is healthier than being underweight, or that obesity isn’t really as much of an issue as people make out. But I do think that our attitudes need to change.

I’ve been overweight most of my life, bar a couple of extreme diets at various points in my twenties, and even then, I didn’t manage to get down sufficiently to fit into the ‘Normal’ weight category. At one point I dropped nearly 3 stone, and for a while, I loved that body, I loved being able to walk into a high street store and get anything I wanted, I loved being healthy. But it didn’t really feel like me. And slowly but surely the weight crept back on.

I’m relatively happy the way I am, but from a health perspective, I’d like to be smaller. I still have a desire for chocolate on a daily basis, but I’d say that in the last couple of years, since I vowed not to diet anymore, my eating patterns have improved hugely. It’s a slow process. I’ve learnt to accept I’m never going to be a size 8. Despite a relatively healthy diet (and I use that word in the proper sense, rather than the Weight Watchers/Slimming World/Atkins/Lighter life sense), which is now primarily gluten free (unless I’m out and then I might indulge in the bread basket), I haven’t really lost any weight. Apart from about half a stone when the gluten free began. Which has stayed off. I also don’t really do much exercise, apart from walking whenever I can. So I have to acknowledge the fact that my body is such, that if I want to significantly lose weight, I am going to have to portion watch more carefully, and up the exercise. Such is life. We can’t all be Kate Moss. 

But what I do now isn’t really the issue. The weight piled on in my teens and early twenties. I think my attitude to food wasn’t great during that time, and my eating was probably both hormonal and emotional. If I look back honesty, I think food was a way of regulating emotions. You don’t realise it at the time, but thinking back, that’s what it did. It was a coping mechanism for my everyday life - and my life wasn’t too bad!

Now, here’s the crux. We all have a coping mechanism. For some it’s an abundance of exercise, and those endorphins become addictive. For some it’s restricting their food, and the sense of control becomes addictive. Some drink. Some take drugs. Some are OCD. Some watch movies obsessively. Some have sex obsessively. None of us are perfect. Everyone has their thing. Which is why I find our reporting, and our attitudes in general (and I’m not lumping everyone in with this) to obesity, somewhat disappointing, archaic, and frankly, dishonest. And why I find the increase in Gastric Bypasses terrifying.

I know a girl who had a Gastric band. She saved up and had it done privately. Every so often she has to go back and get the band loosened or tightened up - every time she has to pay for that. And the counselling was negligible. I’m not convinced she’s much happier than she was before. And her weight still fluctuates. Yes she’s smaller, so I guess in terms of long term health, that’s better for her. But to me, it’s a marketing con. A way to make money out of vulnerable people. And it doesn’t address the issue. Which is psychological.

I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who have conditions which make it easier for them to put on weight, harder for them to lose it, there’s also some genetics thrown in there for good measure. But I’d hazard a guess that for the majority, their weight issues aren’t weight issues, or certainly weren’t to begin with. For whatever reason, that particular person sought to deal with their stresses, their unhappiness, their disappointments, in some cases their abuse, be it emotional or physical, with food. Some limit their intake, some eat to excess. But the initial drivers are surely the same? 

So, let’s please stop with the attacks. The ridiculous ‘They should just eat less’. Of course they should. Don’t you think that they know that? But they may have been using food as a coping mechanism for years. And you know what, it’s the hardest addiction to have, because we need food to survive in a way that we don’t need alcohol, or drugs, or cigarettes. So you try kicking something that deep rooted, that’s needed for survival, but is also your addiction. And it’s just as hard for bulimics or anorexics. 

But we aren’t quite so harsh with Anorexia or Bulimia are we? Because they are thin. And thin is desirable. And fat means you have no control. And we don’t like that either. We like people to be in control of themselves. But I’d suggest that fat does mean control - the food is controlling the problems. Just in a different way.

At some point, we need to start spending the money on counselling, on educating, on making healthy food as cheap as convenience food. And it needs to start from a young age. Toby Young tweeted a while back that he thought it was insane that a government committee had suggested we teach kids self-esteem in school, and that that should be taught at home, innately learnt from parents. I thought that was fascinating. Given that self-esteem is so clearly tied up with our early years, and most notably, our relationship with siblings and with parents. And those parents have their own issues - a mother’s relationship with food especially is one that deeply affects the child’s. Or certainly did in my case. Parents often reward kids with food - when they do well at something, when they’ve tidied their room, or to get them to behave. It’s a habit you see in supermarkets every day. And it’s destructive, but perhaps symptomatic of a busy and stressful world. So, let’s educate our children, let’s help them, let’s give them self-esteem lessons. We teach them how to protect against STI’s, and how to work out Pythagoras, but the basic personal development skills aren’t important?? Really? 

We need to learn how to treat ourselves better, how to be kinder to ourselves and to others who are struggling, and check ourselves next time we look with scorn on someone significantly over or underweight. Because they’ve just chosen a different way to deal with the problems that we all have, and theirs are just more obvious. Now, to lunch.....

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