Saturday, December 29, 2012

Resolution road blocks

It's almost the witching hour for New Year's resolutions, and the most common resolutions include health, fitness, and weight loss.  Even our federal government is responsive to the pervasiveness of these themes, with four of thirteen common resolutions listed on this page invoking those goals directly, and some other resolutions (such as stress reduction) being ancillary to them.

Here's the question I have:  What are the local environmental influences that stand in the way of people attaining weight loss and fitness goals? 

I posed this same question to TJ Aulds, an editor with Galveston County Daily News who is documenting his weight loss experiences in a blog called "Fat Boy" (and who has lost 145 pounds to date).  Rather than regurgitating the rationale behind my question, here's a screengrab of it:
Like the rest of GCDN, his blog is now behind the paywall. 
Reality is never ALL one way or ALL the other way.  I myself do believe that personal responsibility is by far the largest variable influencing weight loss and weight gain.  But it's been demonstrated time and time again that human beings are exquisitely sensitive to their environments, usually without even being consciously aware of it.  Our surroundings play a pivotal role in the American obesity epidemic

I don't want to lead any witnesses, but at the same time, I'd like to provide a few examples of what *I* see as being deleterious local environmental influences. 

1.  Nowhere to walk.  A residential street with no sidewalks or shoulders telegraphs the message "No walking.  This is not for you.  This is only for cars.  You are not supposed to traverse this area unless you are sitting motionless in a car.  You are not meant to move around in this area." 

This nonverbal directive gets amplified when ignorant and belligerent people use their personal vehicles to block what few sidewalks are available, and when both innocent children and adult pedestrians get killed because they are forced to share the roadway with motor vehicles.  The environment says, "Not only is this not designed for walking, it's not even safe for you to walk here.  You need to retreat back to your house and resume sitting on your couch in front of the TV." 
Taking his life in his own hands:
A dog-walker on Wisconsin in League City.
Another unnecessary tragedy waiting to happen:
Pedestrians cross the Clear Creek bridge along FM 270.
Walking is not the only exercise option available to people, but if people cannot safely begin with walking, the single most fundamental and instinctive human exertive activity, it doesn't bode well from that point forward.  Walking is THE gateway to greater physical participation in life, but a lot of our surrounding environment has been structured to discourage us from doing it.

2.  Lack of healthy food availability.  For one thing, we have no healthy grocery chains such as Whole Foods within 30 miles of League City.  But the other problem is simple lack of stock among the mainstream stores that are located here.  In this post, I presented a collection of photos of some of the healthiest products that are chronically sold out.  And what I described there was just one blog post.  I face this barrier every time I go to the store - every week, every trip.
Here's yet another product I did not feature in my initial post on this issueApplesauce.  My family eats significant quantities of the stuff, and the only kind I buy is the kind with no added sugar.  Applesauce is naturally sweet.  It doesn't need more sugar than what the apples themselves provide. 

But our consumer environment makes it damned near impossible for me to procure applesauce with no added sugar.  Note the following about this photo above:
1.  The no-added-sugar product is sold out, whereas sugar'd products are still offered in abundance.  This is frequently the case.
2.  The no-added-sugar variety is placed on the very bottom shelf, making it hardest to find and hard to retrieve.  Sugar'd products are instead placed within easy reach. 

A few weeks ago, I faced an situation like this one shown above, and I got down on my hands and knees to check the back of the shelf, to see if any product was remaining.  I accidentally obstructed another female shopper in the process and so I said, "Excuse me for just a sec - I'm just trying to see if there are any bottles that maybe got pushed back out of sight - I'm looking for the no-sugar-added applesauce."  Startled, she stared at me and asked, "Sugar free? Are you serious?  In America?" 

Doesn't that speak volumes?  A sarcastic wisecrack with an undertone suggesting that perhaps I should have my head examined for striving to avoid unnecessary sugar in my food choices.  This is how far we've fallen as a consumer culture.     
When I have to thwart supply and demand trends by timing my grocery shopping trips and hoarding food... when I have to crawl around on a grocery store floor in order to snag a lower-calorie sugar-free product - I'm sorry - those are very real environmental barriers to my dietary regime and overall health.  The ultimate responsibility for weight management may remain mine, but the world sure is playing hell with it. 
3.  A culture that pushes high-calorie foods using every conceivable psychological tactic This can overtake a person in the most unexpected ways.  I never eat junk food or fast food - never - but the wrong products still sneak into my house despite my strict controls and obsessive food label-reading.  A few weeks ago, one of those in-store grocery vendors, a sweet Grandma type person, managed to sell me a pizza-making kit.  I was so disarmed by her Grandma sales pitch and her cute little in-store toaster oven and warm, bustling Grandma demeanor handing out free samples that I bought the kit, realizing only after I got home that both the sauce and the pizza crust contained excessive amounts of added sugar (excessive in my opinion), to the point where the "whole wheat crust" (I was fooled by that phrase and neglected to look more deeply) actually tasted as sweet to me as a piece of pie.  It was supposed to be a bread - but instead it tasted like a dessert product. 
If I, an over-educated and constantly-diligent consumer, get suckered like this, what chance does the average American have?  I have a Masters degree in science and the so-called advanced wisdom of age, and I still get taken in!! What defense does the average American have against unhealthy products getting cleverly slipped into their lives?  Sure, it's their personal responsibility to eat healthy - but stuff like this works against them at every moment. 
4.  A culture that is recalibrating taste expectations even in non-food items.  Our culture is establishing an expectation that every food should taste like sugar - even pizza.  But it doesn't stop there.  I recently had to flush an entire large bottle of mint-flavored Listerine down the sink for this same reason.  I brought it home without examining the label, only to discover that it contained enough artificial sweetner to make it taste unbearably sweet (to my perception).
Sodium saccharin in the "Cool Mint" variety.
Screengrabbed from this site
For comparison, here is an excerpt from a description of the original Listerine, the one us old-timers grew up with in the age before rampant obesity.  Notice that it contains no artificial sweetener.  Caramel is the smallest-percentage ingredient chiefly in there for color. 
Screengrabbed from this site.
When people are conditioned to expect a sweet taste from every item they put into their mouths, even when it's not a food item, how is that going to influence their consumption habits and resulting weight management??  Humans are a bit more sophisticated than Pavlov's dog, but this kind of relentless conditioning still has an involuntary impact on people. 
5.  A culture that is increasingly developing sinister associations between weight management the expenditure of large sums of money.  I know I'm likely to get dumped on for this one, but what I see happening is the cultivation of an intentional association between fitness and wealth.  Almost everything we do in our culture has a pronounced commercial component to it.  If we're not being asked to pay for something, we wonder what value it could have. 
This is an aspect of TJ's weight loss that I find troubling: he had to pay a huge price for surgery ($29,000) and one of his primary physical training venues also comes with a monthly fee that I find to be huge - it exceeds my average electrical bill (as of today, they were advertising a "reduced rate" of $137 per month on this page).  Some folks, because of their personal health circumstances, may indeed require that kind of programmatic approach to weight loss, but not everyone does, so why aren't we seeing simpler promotions as well?  The answer is - because nobody can make any money from them.  It doesn't cost anything to go for a very long walk or a jog every day. 
Postscript inserted January 8, 2013:  Here's a screengrab from the GCDN homepage today:  "You do not need an expensive gym membership".  Thanks, guys!
Here is the URL (paywalled). 
It doesn't cost any extra to buy no-sugar-added applesauce (if you can find it).  But these ideas don't get any airplay because the rabidly-consumeristic culture in which we live drowns them out (said the small, insignificant blogger). 
So through various promotional campaigns and wildly-expensive "success stories", American people are coming to expect that having lots and lots of money is a prerequiste to effective weight management, and that subtle messaging becomes a psychological barrier, yet another imposition of the environment. 
And all of those individual little environmental impositions add up to a bigger imposition.  They do.  And unless we admit this, nothing will change. 
I could go on with additional examples of the environmental forces that are steering us away from healthy choices, but you get the picture from the examples given above.  I'd love to hear some additional assessments of what other people perceive in this regard, here or preferably on TJ's blog where they'd get wider exposure (said the small, insignificant blogger).
Happy New Year!  And may it be a healthy one. 
Every time you hear me say something that sounds a little wing-nutty to you, recall this photo above, contemplate the fact that I'm almost 50 years old, and then conclude that I must be doing SOMETHING right.  Yes, I avoid every unnecessary calorie, even if it means engaging in somewhat bizarre behaviors such as stalking unsweetened applesauce as if it were a Schedule 1 commodity.  I do those things because that's what it takes.  We have a lot of factors working against us in this culture, so it's important to be diligent about those practices and precedents that we can control. 

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