Obesity is a problem, but is epidemic the right word?

Obesity is a problem in our society that I feel gets lots of attention in some ways, and yet maybe not enough. Here is a short story to work out my feelings behind that statement.

I was attending a CPR and first aid class yesterday. It was a rather full room consisting of around 30 people, including instructors. In my estimation I was one of 4 maybe 5 people who would not be considered clinically obese. I don’t normally figure out that ratio, by the way. I thought of it because of the course topic. I thought about giving CPR and how it would maybe be quite a bit different doing it on someone who is obese, and how heart attacks are much more likely to happen to people who are obese. The instructors asked numerous times if we had any questions, and I wanted to ask about this, and even though it is probably a very legitimate question, it felt like a very not good idea.

Worth noting is that none of the dummies we practiced on had any simulated body fat or breast tissue. It seems like extra body mass in these cases is relevant to the chest compressions simulation. Awkward though it may be I think the American Heart Association should consider this.

Obesity is a real and very serious problem. http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html The term epidemic is thrown around. I don’t disagree with it, also it feels a bit misleading in that obesity is more of a symptom than a disease in itself. Obesity does get called a disease, but in my understanding it just doesn’t fit that word well, and that word and the epidemic word might be hurting more than helping. Diseases of the epidemic sort are not something we usually associate with being preventable or treatable.

For example, Ebola, never really reached epidemic levels, but it is a fairly contagious disease, if you catch a disease of this sort, it certainly might be no fault of your own. Meaning, you’re just a jerk if you go around blaming people for having Ebola or Swine Flu. AIDS is sort of preventable, but there are plenty of ways to contract it where it would be silly to blame a person for having it. Plus the fact that it isn’t curable factors in. Similar with Cancer, for the most part – depends on the variety I suppose, but the only way I could see getting on anyones case about having cancer is if they had a treatable kind and just didn’t care that they had it, and weren’t trying to do anything about it. But who does that? Everyone knows cancer is serious, so I don’t think there needs to be a campaign to convince people of that! Alzheimer’s, again, maybe preventable in some cases, but not definitely. No cure. Autism… who knows, but inherited, so at least not thought of as preventable by the person who has it. No cure. These all feels like appropriate terms to pair with the word epidemic.

Now back to obesity. Preventable? Yes, definitely. Curable? Yep. More people suffer from it than contract Ebola? Without a doubt – not even close! Kills more people than AIDS? Well, trick question, most people don’t technically die from AIDS either, but generally yes, many more people die from complications related to being obese, like heart disease, than die from secondary infections contracted by people with AIDS. As serious as cancer? Not quite – though obesity is a risk factor for getting cancer – so still pretty serious. And yet it seems like most people don’t take it very seriously. I don’t understand why that is, and that is part of why I am writing this.

So what am I suggesting, that because obesity is preventable and curable, we therefor are justified in blaming or shaming fat people? Definitely no to the shaming, I mean, besides it not being nice, it probably wouldn’t work. Especially not for people who use food as an emotional comfort. Also I don’t believe shame would be justified. To illustrate why consider adult illiteracy. It is an interesting parallel since some people have said there is an epidemic of illiteracy as well as the statistical correlations with socio-economic status. (I don’t think I have heard illiteracy described as a disease though…) Anyway, I feel like shaming a fat person would be a lot like shaming an illiterate person. Ineffective for one, but more importantly it would be a misuse of shame. Shame has a place in my opinion, but it is in the realm of morals and ethics, not of knowledge. When the problem is essentially a problem of knowledge then teaching is the solution and shame is counterproductive, as well as – in this case – pointlessly making people feel bad which is just therefore mean.

My amateur opinion, that I think is shared by at least some experts, is that a primary cause of obesity is bad diet. I see bad diet as a lack of knowledge in two ways. One is that people eat unhealthy foods because they don’t know how unhealthy they are. Two, people have bad habits related to eating, and I think of habits as a type of psychological knowledge. Consider the way we talk about them sometimes. You are taught bad habits and can teach yourself good habits. Therefore  Teaching people about good diet choices and eating habits might be akin to teaching a person to read.

Vaccines

Apparently there is some sort of flu ‘epidemic’ going on. I am pretty skeptical of the buzz on this. The cynical part of me wonders about the fear mongering and who might be profiting from it. No doubt someone stands to make quite a bit of money from all the vaccinations that are being pushed so aggressively through so many channels. That in itself isn’t reason to buy into some conspiracy theory, but, just saying, it is worth keeping in mind.

Because of all the fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) running rampant numerous people have recently asked me about, or lectured me about, my stance on vaccinations. Before I get to what I think, it is worth saying that I’d be grateful to not be judged as stupid, crazy, or uninformed. I hate how people on either side of the issue tend to judge those with a differing opinion as such. Doctors or people with some element of accredited biological education tend to be some of the worst. In my experience these sorts of people seem to be some of the most blind to their own biases. Natural health type people can be just as blindly opinionated though. The truth I see is that there are virtual mountains of information to sift through on the issue and plenty of missing research to boot. That being the case I honestly have a hard time understanding the polarization. Given that my wife and I lead a normal life with plenty of other things to worry about I think we have made a reasonable effort to look at the data we have come across and listen to authorities on both sides objectively, and we’ll continue to evaluate new information on the topic as it comes to us. While our stance isn’t firmly planted, at this point it isn’t likely to move drastically. I suppose this is true generally for lots of stances we have, but I digress…

My take, briefly summarized, is that vaccines aren’t bad. However, they do have at least a small degree of short term risk. They also have potentially numerous long term risks including side effects ranging from developing more allergies to impaired mental function. Those long term risks seem to grow with more vaccinations concentrated at younger ages, so with our kids we tend towards a delayed and more spread out schedule tailored to our particular risk environments. Our kids didn’t conceivably need a Hepatitis shot at birth for example.  Even discounting the risk factors and granting some efficacy, at least in the short term, there is some evidence that vaccines aren’t the best way to build long term immunity, especially for particular types of viruses, and there is also some evidence to support the theory that vaccines aren’t the best way to develop the immune system as a whole. In general this leads us to avoid vaccinations for less threatening illnesses. That is all pretty softly stated and subjective – meaning I have no solid recommendations for what anyone else ought to do. Sorry, and you’re welcome.

The Benefits of Gardening

As I ate the last of the fresh produce that came out of my garden for lunch today it struck me that the value I got out of gardening this year has little to do with the edible output. The fun and challenge would be one of the intangible values. However, the knowledge and everything that comes with it probably outpaces that by far, at least for me.

For example as I ate today I marveled at the taste of the peppers in a way that I just wouldn’t have otherwise. The dirt, water, and sun combined with biological processes to produce something nutritious, colorful and spicy. It is truly amazing! Yet it is something that is so easy to miss when you aren’t involved with it as intimately as gardening forces you to be.

Then there is the sense of confidence that comes with the knowledge. I am not anywhere close to being able to feed myself, much less my family, but I am closer than I was; close enough that I feel like if I really wanted to I might be able to.  It is difficult to articulate, but there is something very liberating in that.

Gardening turns out to be yet another case among many that I have been noticing lately where thinking in terms of typical pragmatics fails – typical pragmatics being concerned with efficiency and measurable results. Life is more multidimensional. It exceeds the measurable environment it takes place in. That’s worth keeping in mind I think.

Hungry America

A billboard near my house advertises the statistic that ‘1 in 6 Americans struggles with hunger’. My first thought on seeing it this morning was, ‘wow, that is sad’, but then I thought about how they must have gathered the data for that statistic, and I thought, ‘…at what time of day?!’

Then I thought, ‘no, surely they must have accounted for such a thing as the perpetual recurrence of hunger.’ So then I wondered what the statistic is for obesity. Well In 2010 is was around 2 in 6. These are people that struggle with hunger in a way, though probably not the way the billboard meant. Theoretically it seems like simple math to balance these statistics out, some people have to much food, some people don’t have enough. Heck we’d have food left over to balance out some other small country that ‘struggles with hunger’!

Going yet farther in my minds rabbit trail I wondered what the overlap of these two groups was. How would people with an overeating problem answer a survey that asked if they ‘had difficulty fulfilling their hunger needs’? And how many people because of financial limitations eat cheap crappy food that makes them fat and unhealthy while doing a lousy job at satiating hunger for any length of time because it does a lousy job of providing the nutrients the body is asking for?

They more I think about it the more I am convinced that isolated statistics are good for nothing more than propaganda.