It was 6 am. The ratty sneakers my father’s, the oversized, even for me, shorts my cousin’s. As I stepped out into the unseasonably warm February air for the first intentional jog of my life, I felt a nagging sense of apprehension, equally matched by a motivated anger, a self-directed anger that made me want to run further and faster than I ever had before.
Much as my family would have protested, I didn’t like what I could see in the mirror, perhaps never did. All I could see was an obese 17 year old Hispanic kid on the precipice of flunking out of New York City’s most prestigious high school, and I was tired of seeing that kid staring back at me. “So I’ll run. Every day, whatever it takes,” I told myself repeatedly the day before that drowsy morning. This time, unlike every other quickly-sputtering time, it would stick. It had to.
It’s a terrifying picture to look at if you’re a everyday person worried about weight. While the 68% of Americans overweight and over one-third obese are leading the pack when it comes to weight gain, the rest of the developed world isn’t running far behind (presumably with jiggly arm fat). As the decades have gone by, the world has gotten bigger in more ways than one.
These added pounds come with a heavy price to our long-term health, finances and self-esteem. Diabetes, hypertension, stroke, cancer, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis and early death (300,000 every year in America alone) are all associated risks that jump the heavier you become. These chronic diseases in turn strain an already overstretched health care system and lead to a lower quality of life. But the unseen danger really comes from the next generation, as childhood obesity has skyrocketed in kind and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. These kids will grow up to become obese adults and face all the same physical problems their (likely) adult parents do coupled alongside wonderful prizes like anxiety, depression, discrimination and poor self-esteem. By 2025, some predict over 50% of American citizens will be obese.
From the proliferation of over-sized portions to less exercise to a new-found aggression in marketing cheap unhealthy food to the public over the last few decades to our genes, the explanations fly at us from every which way as though the answers could be figured out multiple-choice style. Of course, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, as close to a D. All of the above as you can get. The only sure-fire thing there is to say is that our weight gain problem is not a problem we can hoist on the shoulders of any one individual person. Obesity is not an epidemic of the lazy and unmotivated, it’s an indictment of our society at large.
Telling people that a nutritionally healthy diet of fruits, vegetables and lean meat will keep them and their children away from obesity does nothing to make those foods cheaper, more accessible or easier to make for the struggling family of four with two working parents and little time. Telling kids to be active and eat less while schools are inundated by unhealthy lunch food, vending machines and underfunded recreation programs (many schools have cut exercise programs flat-out) sends them a mixed message. And telling people to stop being stupid and just eat better makes no sense when we refuse to acknowledge that billions of dollars more is spent on promoting cheap, readily available options to poorer Americans and children than any nutritional outreach and education program. We tell people weight is an individual choice, then stack the odds overwhelmingly against them making the healthier ones. Even worse, we then ostracize them for it.
Our body works against us as well, because once it reaches that high-water mark, it does not let go easily. To the horror of anyone looking for some hope at the end of the rainbow, the outcome seems inevitable no matter you do; whatever weight you end up losing, you will eventually gain back. We often hear the rule that 90% of diets result in the dieter returning, and sometimes more, to their old weight once off the diet and though the evidence is a bit muddled as to that actual number, it’s certainly not too far off (It’s 85% from the most concise analysis I could find). While gaining weight is the result of over-saturating your bodies with easily stored energy (calories), losing weight is the depriving of that same energy, and the body does not appreciate the difference between being slowly drained of life by starvation and a willful plead to use up those energy stores.
It repels against those pleads by first slowing down our metabolism and ramping up hormones that control our appetite and hunger. In a study looking at obese patients who lost weight on a restrictive diet of 500 calories who then maintained it through diet and exercise, they found increased amounts of the so-called hunger hormone ghrelin along with other hormones associated with metabolism even after a year off the diet. They also reported being more fixated on food than prior to the diet. In short their bodies became hungrier as they lost weight and stayed hungrier than before they lost the weight. Other research shows that weight loss dramatically alters how calories are processed by the body; with the weight losser burning less calories per day than someone at their identical weight does naturally. To put it sadly, caloric loss represents a highly catastrophic event to the human body and we’ve long evolved mental and physical defenses against that event, whereas over-abundance has always been cause for celebration.
Genetically, there’s evidence to show that we vary greatly in our metabolism to start with, with research showing we gain and lose weight differently even under the same conditions. Obesity has been shown to run in families, though this probably comes burdened with social and genetic cues (most of my immediate family has struggled with weight at one point or another) and more genetic markers are being found every day that correspond with being at high risk of weight gain.
As for myself, I look back five years ago to that dreary February morning, and the spectacular half mile wobble I ran before my lungs gave out and wonder why. Why after a lifetime of chubbiness, big-bonedness and clinical obesity, at 16, 5’8″ and 226lbs, I made it through that first run and never let up. There was no grand revelation, no miracle diet; the pounds came off slowly but surely and they stayed off.
Superficially I know why. It was because that first day wasn’t the first day I went on a diet/exercise regimen, it was the day I became a runner. Through rain, pain and the occasional tornado, running became part of a life I often in the past doubted was worth much mention. It became the inertia I needed to bolden, to challenge and to strengthen myself mentally, physically and emotionally over the last five years. In as melodramatic a tone as one could muster, it redefined who I thought I was and could be. I am a runner. It’s easy to say my life changed because of my weight loss, but the inverse is just as true, I lost weight because I changed how I lived my life.
Make no mistake about it though, my story isn’t about the willpower of a 17 year Hispanic teen who just stopped eating like a pig. I had to research what I was taking in and pick healthier, more expensive options, to ignore the constant blaring of advertisements for a Mickey D’s or KFC (including the ones that trick people into thinking their “healthy” options are anything of the sort) on every block, to know that every restaurant serving I ever ate was impractically large to consume as a meal and so not eat everything on the plate, to have a mother who long ago switched to cooking more heart-healthy homecooked meals (on the flip side, I also had to fight a cultural drive by my parents to always provide their children with abundant meals and as many seconds as they asked for), to radically change how I spent my free hours, and yes, to fight against my own biological programming. All of that took time, money and education that many are not in surplus of. All of that I had to find and still find on my own. Moreover I needed the tremendous amount of luck that comes with being a young male teenager with no 40 hour a week job, no children, a family structure, the right genes and a discovered passion for running.
Exception to the rule that I am, I know that my body will eventually get slower, my never prize-winning metabolism lower (studies show those active lose their metabolism at much lower rates than average as they age, though it’s probably because they maintain muscle mass as opposed to losing it to fat), and my life infinitely more complex as time marches on. I’ll have to adjust my eating habits constantly and perpetually to match those deficits.
I, along with every other person living in a world of ‘too much’, have to fight a lifelong battle with my instincts, my hormones and my own society to stay thin and more importantly healthy. In the face of those overwhelming odds is where the sometimes haunting, but not entirely irrational, question enters my head as I lace up my custom-made running sneakers and stare into the distance where the water by the Verrazano reflects the orange sunlight of the morning dawn. Because while I know the reason behind my weight loss, I don’t know why I kept running, and if I don’t know the why of that something, how do I know that urge won’t just go away as quick as it came? As anyone who’s struggled with weight can tell you, you always wonder, even as a week becomes 5 years, as a half mile becomes 26.2 miles, if you’ll go back to what you were, somehow, someway.
All I can do, all I’ve ever done, when that doubt creeps in is start my timer, plug in my headphones and take off for the shimmering water. It’s enough, for now.
That’s all for this week, stay tuned next week for A Heavy Burden Pt 2: How not to lose weight. (Also, Eddy goes on a cleanse!)