Monday, June 24, 2013

On Overeating

The American Medical Association recently classified Obesity as a disease rather than a condition. I am reluctant to even opine on whether this is correct or not, because the problem is very deep and complex in our culture, and I am no medical expert. However, I will share a story.

When I was in college, I spent a semester abroad eating candy bars. I might have squeezed in some other activities-- some museums and things-- but primarily, my job was eating candy bars. Or so it seems to my recollection some 15 years later. I had never been a compulsive eater before that, but something about the lack of parental or institutional oversight coupled with the stress of culture shock and intense academic expectations led me to ... you got it... candy bars.

It was a habit that started off innocently enough- sampling exotic foreign flavors of goo piled with other different kinds of goo and coated in chocolate. Who wouldn't be seduced? But it developed into quite a regular habit, to the point where I found myself nightly consuming one or more candy bars alone in my room, secretively and guiltily. The net result of my efforts was 10 or 15 pounds gained in the space of 4 months-- a shocking achievement.

Luckily, my indulgences were tied to triggers that I left behind in a foreign land. I returned to a normal diet and exercise habits when I came home, and eventually I also returned to a normal weight. It didn't take me long to figure out that my problem was with regulating my own emotions, learning how to put them into perspective- when to turn a blind eye toward them, when to extinguish them. I didn't know who I wanted to be, and so I had nothing to shape myself into. I figured it out and I stopped the problem.

I am not saying that everyone who develops an eating problem develops it for the same reason. I am genetically predisposed toward thinness and this was an aberration for me. Some people are genetically predisposed to be heavy-set, ad that is just the way they are made. For them, a healthy weight is somewhere far above what our culture says is "perfect"-- and I'm not even talking about those people... although I think it has to be harder for them to know when they have crossed over into dangerous territory. Others are biologically set up for obesity by the way their mothers ate when they were in the womb. Others are taught horrible eating habits when they are growing up. There are all sorts of causes of the problem. But it is a problem, and it's an emotional problem.

By designating obesity as a disease, there may be some real benefits to people who are over-weight. They may get much-needed insurance coverage for life-enhancing treatments. I can't argue with that. But I worry about the cultural concept that is created when we begin to think of obesity as a disease. It is something that a large swath of our population (more than half) struggles with, for various reasons. But it's not good. It's not something hideous; it is not a reason to condemn people; it is not a reason to discriminate. But it is still very, very unhealthy and it's something we should discuss and try to figure out. I think the answer to the problem is very personal and individual and emotionally-based. But I do think that common, every-day wisdom can be a huge antidote to the problem if we don't shy away from it as such a taboo topic. I think that classifying it as a disease keeps it in the realm of sealed lips, as something we can't talk about directly. That only worsens the problem.