Weighty New Year’s Resolutions

2012 is now upon us. As is the tradition, the new year presents us with the opportunity to make various promises that are designed to make our lives better.

To the delight of many, particularly gym owners and the diet food industry, losing weight is one of the most popular New Year’s resolutions. Given that I ate approximately ten thousand Christmas cookies over the holiday season (a rather conservative estimate), like 70% of Americans I plan to begin a strict diet and exercise routine sometime later this week. I’ll start this new healthy lifestyle just as soon I finish the cheesecake that was leftover from this weekend’s New Year’s Eve party.

Most of us will fail in our attempt to lose weight. We’ll probably drop five to ten pounds over the next couple of months, but eventually our resolve to eat healthy and to exercise daily will weaken. By mid-spring, our pricey running shoes will be gathering dust and our new fitness center memberships will go unused. By summer, most of us will have regained every pound that we lost (and then some).

Every year, Americans spend more and more money in a desperate attempt to lose weight. Every year, however, Americans become fatter and fatter. An estimated two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese.

Our desire to lose weight is driven in part by media stories and advertising images that glamorize extremely thin women and overly muscular men. Conversely, being overweight is seen as something to be ashamed of, as one series of anti-obesity ads suggests.

In one television spot that recently aired in Atlanta, for example, an overweight child asks his morbidly obese mother, “Why am I so fat?”. Unfortunately, his mother doesn’t respond by saying “because the food industry has convinced Congress that pizza counts as a vegetable according to federal school lunch standards.” Nor does she say, “ because school district budget cuts have eliminated recess and physical education courses.” Had she said such things publicly, Child Protective Services might have taken her child away for ‘medical neglect,’ as they did with one family in Cleveland.

Ads like this, along with popular television programs like The Biggest Loser, do inspire some people to lose weight. For the most part, however, they simply reenforce existing stereotypes about overweight individuals: that fat people are lazy or that they lack willpower.

It is true that weight loss, at least for most of us, can be achieved by exercising more and eating less. But there are other factors that affect our ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle, many of which are beyond our individual control.

For example, most Americans live in physical environments that discourage outdoor activity. Few of us live in areas where we can safely walk to shops or to the grocery store. Public parks and other recreation facilities are also rare and usually poorly maintained.

Many of us also have personal and professional commitments that make it difficult to workout regularly. In these economically challenging times, those lucky to have jobs are expected to devote almost every waking moment to our careers — including responding to urgent emails and requests from our employers during evening and weekend hours — while also caring for elderly parents and young children because after-school and elder care programs have been slashed.  Even if we can afford an expensive gym membership, we don’t have the time or the energy to use it.

Finally, we are bombarded by savvy marketing messages that convince us to buy into the latest exercise fad while also selling us fat-laden and calorie-rich foods. Just this week, for example, I saw a daytime television program in which former Playboy Playmate (and misguided anti-vaccination advocate) Jenny McCarthy was promoting a new diet plan based on the zodiac. According to Ms. McCarthy, the easiest way to lose weight is to eat specific foods determined by your astrological sign. The earth-shaking revelations of this Today show segment were followed by a commercial break sponsored by both Nutrisystem and Applebee’s.

The obesity epidemic is a serious problem, and not one that can be fought with fad diets and shame-based marketing campaigns. Each of us needs to take some personal responsibility for maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle, by making nutritious dinners at home rather than ordering pizza and by going for hikes with the kids on the weekend.

However, we also need to convince our Congressmen that, despite what the processed food manufacturers tell them, pizza is not a vegetable. We need to encourage our schools to provide nutritionally balanced lunches and physical education classes. We need to convince our employers to offer flexible hours and discounted gym memberships as part of our benefits package. Finally, we need to reject the savvy marketing messages of an industry that cynically exploits both our desire to be thin and our weakness for salty and sugary snacks.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on January 5, 2012. It is also available on the WAMC website.]

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About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
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