Hard Truths About the Obesity Epidemic

There are certain lessons about obesity that I learned the hard way and that’s a big part of the reason I write this blog. I’m also starting to see the people I went to school with going down the same path. I’d like people to walk away from this blog valuing the positive effects that being more fit could bring to their lives. I usually try to do that in a positive way and not talk about the other side but the time has come for this post.

I said I’ve learned about this the hard way but full disclosure I’ve never been obese or overweight. But I have been pretty unfit and getting on to desperately unhealthy at 30, that’s still not how I learned the hard way. And straight off the bat read this post about getting started on your fitness journey especially if your obese or have other health concerns.


Leaning lessons the hard way

My Dad was one of 5 brothers and he died as the second oldest at 64, I was 14 and my sister was 12. He had been sick since I was 5 years old and longer than I can even remember. None of them had healthy lifestyles they all smoked, drank more than the should, were obese, diabetic and sedentary for most of their adult lives. My oldest uncle, quit smoking in his 60’s lost most of the weight by walking when he was in his early 60’s and lived into his 80’s essentially dying of a broken heart soon after his wife. Three of my dad’s first kids struggled intensely with their weight one being super obese (class 3 with a BMI over 45). Their mom was not significantly overweight. My dad wasn’t as big as his brothers (BMI 33) but he smoked 2 packs a day, had a drink or two most nights in addition to his super stressful job. He was diagnosed as diabetic before I was born, developed heart trouble when I was 5, took early retirement the year after, had his first heart attack when I was 10, had a quadruple bypass when I was 11 and was gone when I was 14. All of this punctuated every single day of my childhood. I always new unless something big changed, and it didn’t, he was going to die. That’s how I learned my lessons the hard way.

My story

Is there some dramatic epiphany moment here? No, not really. I used to say I was genetically gifted and just lucky which may or may not be true. Even though I smoked for a lot longer than I should have I was pretty active running and doing other things from age 12 (because of my dad) and into the start of grad school I was never militant about it. But three years into my PhD my healthy choices started to slide. I started working over 80 hours a week, every week, often more between research and teaching. I was now smoking a pack a day, eating out literally every meal, drinking more, more often than any one ought just to to turn off at the end of the day. Needless to say I stopped working out. I gained 35 pounds going from my minimum to maximum healthy weight over about 3 years. I knew I had to change it but I put to off until grad school was over. It turned out that perhaps my genetics did take after my dad’s side after all. It took me 6 months to start working on it when I finished and I still kick myself for letting it go so far and not changing much sooner. I hated being inside my body, I always felt uncomfortable and self-conscious and all that held me back from making a change. I didn’t want to go out since I didn’t feel good in any of my clothes so yoga and spandex were out of the question. I had high blood pressure to the point doctors were talking about putting me on medication or immediately sending me to the hospital. Once while there were monitoring it for half an hour I snuck out. About 6 months after I graduated I scaled back to pretty much zero on the booze and the weight fell off, a month or two in I started back at yoga and riding my bike and running after that. You couldn’t pay me to go back to that for even a day now.

More people will see less of their grandkids (and kids) lives

As usual I’m starting with the reason I sat down to write this post and this is it. Truthfully this one has sat half written for a while now because it’s not the positive vibe I go for. But I have a good friend who is pretty darn skinny and she has four kids. Aged at the time 12-6. She and her husband were both about 30 at the time and he was well over 350 lbs. Because of their jobs they both have crazy first aid training and direct access to 911 dispatchers. I told her I always remember growing up knowing my dad would die one day, probably sooner rather than later. She told me she already had a plan of how she would call for help using the most efficient way available to her to get someone there fastest and get an ambulance sent. Then how she would get him flat on the floor from different positions like sitting or laying in bed so she could start CPR. Right down to how she would keep the kids from it and tell them after. He was 30… Soon after that he was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome which is basically a nice way of saying your almost diabetic, you have high blood pressure, cholesterol and early signs of heart disease due to being incredibly obese. He was 30… Then I looked at her kids.

Now that I’m a bit older, mid thirties, a lot of the people I’ve known for a long time have changed A LOT! Five years ago I moved back to my hometown and started running into them all again at the tiny grocery store and such. Honey’s kids are into their 20’s now and the kids they hung out with have changed a lot too! That guy who partied hard through his 20’s and is still a weekend warrior has a red face and half his hair, his much older brother doesn’t and has all his hair. That girl who was on every sports team in high school doesn’t work out any more and must be well over 250 lbs. The friend I had in junior high who walks the loop most days, I swear to god, looks THE EXACT SAME. Lots of ladies had three kids gained weight with every pregnancy and never lost a pound. Their guys gained sympathy weight right along with them. That heavy girl in high school is vegan now and looks like a freakin supermodel! The girl who modelled and tanned year round after we all graduated is super wrinkly and has age spots. Which is to say we’re all old enough now that our choices are catching up with us, and it’s starting to show. But we’re no different from any other group 12% were obese at age 19 and now at 34 that goes up to 35%, a full 49% of us are overweight or obese now and 54% of all Canadian adults are overweight or obese as are 67% of American adults. In 1978 that number was 42%.

The number one thing you can do to increase your chances of cancer, heart disease the top two killers at 23% of annual deaths each (46% in total), is to be overweight. Respiratory diseases are at number three accounting for 6% each year. The longer you are overweight and the more overweight you are the shorter your lifespan. What that means is on average we’re going to have more serious health issues sooner and live a shorter life because of it. What that means personally is that you’ll see less of your kids and grandkids lives. Spending the rest of your days together means saying goodbye in your 70’s instead of your 80’s. And as someone who lost their parent in their teens to obesity related health concerns let me tell you that’s heartbreaking.

It’s caused by post-war bad habits

So how did we get here? Well to a certain extent we all know that don’t we. In the 1950’s 10% of American adults were obese in 2017 that’s risen to over 38%. We tend to look back on those leave it to beaver times as simplistic and ideal but that’s when a lot of things started to change that led us here. People moved further from the city and to cities in general leading to owning two cars and commuting instead of walking and fewer manual rural workers. Cool post war convince food and cheap fast food were introduced and took off like crazy. In the 1940’s each American consumed about 1 gallon of pure ethanol a year now it’s closer to three gallons per adult, but remember 30% of Americans don’t drink alcohol at all now. Many more workers are sedentary and activity levels have fallen off dramatically. About 8% of adults answer yes when asked if they get 30 minutes of vigorous activity five times a week, when you stick fitness trackers on them fewer than 4% actually do. That’s the MINIMUM healthy living guidelines. Three channels ballooned to 70 and now on demand streaming of every program ever made. Add smartphones, wifi, playstation and poutine into the mix and is it any wonder we’re here?

Health care will have to be prioritized

We have a universal medical care system in Canada which we all fund through taxes. Our little province leads the nation spending 14 cents of every dollar it collects on healthcare. Nationally the federal government spends 11% of it’s total revenue on healthcare. In Canada health is a provincial responsibility but they don’t collect enough to cover it so the feds put up some cash too. Drugs and other services are not covered (like physiotherapy) generally anything that happens in a hospital or doctors office is covered. And these percentages have risen dramatically over the last few decades. In the USA things may have changed a bit since I was well informed but the sense is that it’s costing more for fewer services under private plans. Some people don’t have any access to medicare, at least it’s not universal.

Whether your looking at the economics of a family or a country the numbers aren’t adding up in the long term. Some people already have to make hard choices in both countries for example in filling perceptions. Occasionally doctors make the news for refusing patients who smoke, or a certain procedure for the very overweight, and gaining, patients. Our numbers are unsustainable by 2030 if trends continue so something has to change. If it’s not our waistlines it will be our healthcare. Plus if we are an unhealthier bunch we’re a more expensive bunch than our predecessors. At some point hard decisions will have to be made.

Workers inefficiencies will lead to shrinking GDP

The other side of that healthcare funding debate is us as taxpayers and workers. Workers pay taxes as do retirees that worked their full careers. My dad took early retirement at age 56 after missing a lot of work and being unable to continue due to health concerns. Mind you he was still well off and had full medical benefits. But poor health is the number one reason people miss work or have to stop. If early retirement isn’t an option yet or at all that means disability or welfare adding to the cost to the public purse while subtracting from the tax base. Huge and profitable companies like google, pay for things like healthy food, exercise classes and nap times because healthy workers are productive workers and it makes sense financially. The potential exists that few of us will be working and productive and therefore paying taxes. More of us will have to stop due to obesity related health concerns and collecting public money. Plus on average we cost more.

Weight might become another deep divide

Some would argue that this is already true. Employers may prefer to hire thinner workers perceived to be more productive and less costly. Workers with less weight may even make more. Obese patients may hit roadblocks getting medical care while thinner patients are treated no questions asked. Being overweight might cost you salary the way being female can now. Those that can afford it will take steps to keep their weight down like medication, exercise and diet ‘camps’ and gastric bypass surgery while for others that will be out of their league. I think most including I would argue that discrimination facing those that are overweight is alive and well already. Those of a healthy weight are already the minority if these trends continue, and they show no signs of slowing down, they will be a very small minority. Currently about. 1/3 of the population of the USA is non-white about the same amount that are not overweight or obese. Its impossible to say how this will play out in the years to come even which side will discriminate against the other or which will hold the power.

I shared a bit of my storey and my family’s storey and the start of this blog. All of these big ideas and statistics have real impacts on real people and real families. Some of them are children worried about loosing their parents or vice versa. Others are people who hate the life their living but are afraid to change things thinking it’s too big or too late to change. Others are people who have been told that unless they dramatically change their lifestyle their, diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure and cholesterol will certainly win but they can’t. Some of those people have health concerns and can’t work and so are worried about keeping their homes and feeding their children. Like me some of those people spend a lot of time doing math relating their loved one’s lifespan to what they will or won’t miss.

I hope this wasn’t too preachy or to much of a downer but rather inspires someone to make a change or but the breaks on changes that are already happening. But I also hope that the trajectory for the people I know slows, stops or even reverses. And that everyone takes away the message that it’s never selfish or a waste of time or a low priority to take care of yourself. If you don’t the people you want to take care of will end up taking care of you.




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