Sunday, August 29, 2010

Obesity and income (part one). Did the Stepford Wives have it right?

First of a two part posting, observing the topic of obesity and weight control at two very different ends of the economics spectrum.  This week:  affluence and attitudes toward weight loss.  Not being either judgmental or instructive here, just making a few observations on this endlessly fascinating topic...

What is the relationship between obesity and income?  From a broad macro perspective, obesity is a - pardon the pun - mass issue.  There are 1.6 billion adults around the world who are overweight and another 400 million who are obese (i.e., BMI > 30).  The World Health Organization is forecasting this number to increase to 2.3 billion overweight by 2015 with more than 700 million obese.  This would suggest that obesity affects most people, not just poor or wealthy people.  Further to the point, in the early 1970's in the US:
  • 21% of people below the poverty line in the US were obese
  • 12% of people who were 2X above the poverty line were obese (i.e., 8 percentage points lower)
In the period of 2001 to 2004:

  • 35% of people below the poverty line in the US were obese
  • 31% of people who were 2X above the poverty line were obese (i.e., 4 percentage points lower)
In other words, the obesity gap between poor and less poor over the past 30 years appears to have narrowed.  Sadly, obesity has become more of an issue for most people.

If all this is true, what's the deal with the town I live in?  Herein lies today's blog topic.  Affluent people and their weight.

First off, a little public disclosure is in order.  I didn't grow up in a town like the one I live in today.  I grew up an extremely middle class kid with a father who was a lifelong basic research chemist for the US government (National Bureau of Standards and then Department of Energy).  His was a noble calling, but hardly a lucrative one.  That said, I didn't grew up poor either.  As a result, the lives of people who had little and people who seemed to have everything was always an abstracted reality to me.  It was something I could read about, but never knew personally.

My first exposure to wealthy people was in college when I was fortunate to get accepted to Duke University (I am still assuming as the result of a fortunate clerical error).  Since that time, I've worked hard and had more than a little good luck.  I consider myself extremely fortunate to have the job that I have and to be able to provide the life I can for my family.  Said differently, I live in a town in Fairfield County, CT.

My town in Fairfield County, CT is part of what has been historically known as the Gold Coast of CT.  This stretch of towns along Long Island Sound (Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, Westport, etc.) is filled with people who commute back and forth to largely well paying jobs in NYC.  I live in a place where affluence and abundance is largely the norm.  There are obviously many places like it across the country, so what I say about my town would certainly apply to both upscale bedroom community and fancy urban setting alike.

From an anthropological observation perspective, living in my town is fascinating, particularly as it relates to my job.  Why?  Most people who live here are thin.  In the case of my town, they are also mostly blond (real or otherwise).  They dress well (depending on how one feels about whale pants), and they drive nice cars.  But I'm always struck by the observation my parents made when they first visited me here 10 years ago:  "where are the heavy people?"

It is telling that the original version of the Stepford Wives was filmed in a Fairfield Count town.  Maybe all the heavy people of my town were replaced by robots?  More likely, I would attribute the thinness of my town to the metaphorical lesson from the Stepford Wives:   peer pressure plays a massive role in how we live.  In my curious town, it seem that it's just expected that one be thin.

There is a research basis for all of this.  There have been a number of ground breaking research papers exploring the role of social networks and obesity based on the findings of the epidemiological data from the half-century and counting Framingham Heart Study.  This research showed how close relationships between people, particularly women, can predict incidence of obesity.  If most of your close friends are obese, there is a good chance you will also be obese, even when controlling for other factors such as income.

As I look around my town, it seems the opposite is also true.  If all your friends are skinny, you want to be skinny too.  There is an old expression/truism that women dress for each other,  not for their spouses.  If one lives in an affluent town, one wants to be able to rock a Chanel dress because one's friend can rock a Versace dress (in the case of Fairfield County, maybe the a Lily Pulitzer dress).  It's how affluent people maintain a sense or order in their community.  In the case of my town, the affect of peer pressure seems to be an issue for virtually all the women and maybe 10% of the men -- it seems that golf fashion does not require an innate level of fitness or thinness.  Even the women of my town who do not count themselves as "thin" are frankly completely healthy from a BMI/health risk factor perspective.  Most of the women who live in my town are way beyond worrying about weight for health reasons.  Looking good and feeling accepted is the driving consideration.  I suppose in this sense, Fairfield County, CT is no different than the upscale parts of Manhattan, LA, San Francisco or Dallas, TX.

Again, I'm not judging this kind of motivation as good or bad.  I'm merely making an observation.  From my personal point of view, health and well being has always been by far the biggest reason to drive toward a healthy lifestyle.  It is what gets me motivated to come to work each day.  Yet, vanity and acceptance have played a role (for better or worse) when it comes to weight management for decades.  

There are of course, the extremes.  From Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe did an excellent job describing and categorizing what he called the Social X-Ray woman (Urban Dictionary definition:  a very thin/anorexic female socialite).  I recently heard a new label for it:  the lettuce and Chardonnay crew.  It is a lifestyle of perpetual hunger, combined with hard hangovers resulting in a certain base level of harshness in social interactions.  From what I can see this is much more stereotype/anecdotal than reality, even in my crazy little town.  Most of the women I know in my town seem to strike a reasonable balance.  They are definitely careful, but they haven't gone off the deep-end.

So what defines the lifestyle of a woman in my town?  First off, they workout like convicts.  They scoff at the US Physical Fitness Guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate activity per week.  This crowd does a brisk business in yoga, pilates, spin classes, bootcamp death classes, personal training, tennis, etc., etc., etc.  They pretty much work out every day, and they often workout hard.  They are competitive and intense when it comes to their exercise, and they take no prisoners.

From a food perspective, they eat 90% clean.  Fish, chicken and salads are their mainstays.  They watch their portion sizes (even when they claim to be gorging -- "I ate a whole sandwich!  I'm so bad!").  They keep their deserts in check.  Just a few years ago, we had people in town with "Bring Whole Foods!" bumper stickers (a few eventually came).  If they have one source of caloric vice, it's probably in their wine.

Again, is this bad?  It's easy to make fun of this crowd ("Eat a sandwich!"), but allow me to re-characterize their lifestyles:  they exercise a lot and they watch what they eat.  Not a bad way to go as long as not taken to the lunatic (and potentially dangerous) extreme.  In fact, if the entire country exercised a lot and ate clean, we would not have the runaway train of rising health care costs.  Obviously, I fully recognize that affluent communities have access to any and all of the resources to help them stay on a healthy lifestyle.  Gaining access to healthy choices is a much more difficult process for the great percentage of society, and it borders on nearly impossible for the impoverished portion (see next week...).

One interesting possibility from this little anthropological survey is the hope that adopting a healthy lifestyle could become a population-wide trend.  A moderate amount of peer pressure to make healthy choices could help.  I'm not advocating for a nation of Social X-Rays and Hollywood celebrities.  I'm advocating for a society where people take a vested stake in their own health.  What if healthy became fashionable and the thing to do?  I'm also not advocating where peer pressure is used as a stick or source of punishment.  A balancing act is in order, and focusing on healthy choices, not six pack abs is a good place to start.  

What about me?  I exercise all the time, and I also try to eat clean.  I go for the salad (dressing on the side thanks!), not the steak.  I kind of like to buy pretty clothes (flat front trousers rule!).  Holy smokes.  Have I become a Fairfield County mom?  Well, one male friend has started calling me Skinny Bitch (SB for short).  If I can be healthy and fit as a result, I'm OK with that kind of teasing.

Next week:  Part 2.  The very real (and obviously much more important) issue of obesity and poverty.



Friday, August 13, 2010

Man meets bike. On vacation. Man loves bike. On vacation.

My last post outlined my excellent game plan to stay in shape on vacation.  I laid it out with outstanding diligence and detail.  And I was gently mocked, both on this blog and outside of it.  I think the gist of the message was:  lighten up (no pun intended), it's a freaking vacation.  Sound advice, I must admit.

Yet, not posting on this blog is making me feel unfulfilled.  Either that or I am needing to satisfying my OCD-like need to publicly navel gaze about, well, my navel.  So at the risk of attracting more derision and teasing, here's my vacation week so far.

Eating:  not bad, far from perfect, but far from descending into the ninth ring of eating Hades.  As promised, I am keeping it together on breakfast and lunch.  Dinner, as always, is not bad while not perfect. I have tried to snack on fruit, with many apples and peaches consumed.  I am still a bit prone to mindless grazing on salty, refined, nutritionally bankrupt snacks, but it hasn't been at extremely disgusting levels.  And I've been sneaking ice cream (I know, what mid-40's person really needs to "sneak" ice cream -- sad).

Exercise:  hit the gym for weights three mornings this week, and I've only completely blown off exercise completely one day.  I've done a good bit of running around on the beach with the vague notion of keeping up with the kids.  Walks on the beach have been reasonably frequent.

But the best news on the exercise front has been my new/old friend, my bicycle.  I am an early riser by nature, and I'm often up at least one to two hours before the next biped stirs.  The last two mornings, I've hit the bike trails with a nice little vengeance.  The joy of outdoor exercise cannot be understated, particularly at the crack of dawn. At 6:30 in the morning at a beach town, there is hardly a moving vehicle to be found (in stark contrast to an August afternoon).  Going fast in peaceful silence is an amazing, almost meditative experience.  Further, the pleasure of blitzing through a long bike trail, and to then emerge on a brilliant, blue ocean is almost surreally beautiful.  It's all a nice reminder that exercise does not have to be a chore, but can be a form of unabashed amore.

My bike.  Is it weird to love an inanimate object?

I don't know what I'd do now without my exercise, and I'm grateful that I found it and made room for it in my life.  My navel is equally grateful.



Monday, August 2, 2010

Getting activity POINTS by evading sharks. My pre-vacation check list.

All good things come to those who wait.   After a hectic summer, I am finally getting geared up for VACATION beginning this coming weekend.  Two weeks at the beach with family is really all a guy can ask for.  Accordingly, it's time for me to write-up my pre-vacation check list.  I know I've done these on this blog before, but truth be told, I write these check lists as much for myself as for anyone reading the blog.  There's nothing like a little bit of forced accountability through public disclosure.

As I've noted in past pre-vacation posts, this special time is often a nutritionally perilous time.  Most significantly, clicking on the "I'm on vacation" neon sign in my brain is tantamount to turning on the "I can do and eat anything I want" sign.  Therefore, it's useful and helpful for me to remind myself that respite does not have to equal nasty fried food.

So here I go.  Let's start with Danger Zones to manage/avoid:

  • Evil snacks:  it's pretty easy to load up the rental house and beach bag with enormous bags of chips and assorted food rubbish.  Unless I don't.  
  • Fried food:  my beach zone is in Massachusetts, home of the fried clam.  Fried food always looks awesome pre-mouth entry, tastes OK, and feels terrible post-mouth entry.  Why continue to repeat the sins of the past?  Stick with the grilled fish.  
  • Ice cream:  it's a danger zone, but one worthy of partaking on some sort of semi-reasonable basis.
  • Slothdom:  in theory, vacation creates the risk of non-movement.  However, I'm far too hyperactive to not exercise, so it's not a terrible danger zone.  
Moving on to my I-don't-want-to-gain-10lbs-in-two-weeks Action List:
  • Find a gym:  I have already worked the interweb to find a local gym that will sell a two week package.  I agree that it's sad that I find this so awesome.  Nonetheless, I find this awesome.  I wake up before the rest of the family anyway, so why not jam in a solid workout.  
  • Find a bike path:  I also looked this up online, and there are lots of trails where I'm going.  It's not mega-death hill climbing, but there are plenty of flats for a nice 45 minute semi-sprint.  Also makes for a good family activity.  
  • Try something new(ish):  I found a local surf school that teaches standup paddle boarding (SUP), which I already tried and liked this summer.  This plus body surfing and swimming is both fun and active.  Which is good.  
  • Pre-scout healthy food options:  Again, I've worked the web to find some good fresh-stands, farmer markets and organic food options.  I plan to load up on having a ton of good, fresh food kicking around.  
  • Plan on a healthy breakfast and lunch each day. 
  • Don't go crazy at dinner, but don't over-think it either.  Nuff said.  
Said differently, when entering a new environment, a little research, planning and mental rehearsing goes a long way.  As always, I don't expect to fully adhere to the above guidelines, but hitting at least 75%-80% will make for a healthy, un-gross vacation experience.  

Scanning the recent local news, I recently learned that Cape Cod is now having an outbreak of both rip currents and Great White shark infestations.  This should make for some vigorous swimming.  It's nice when the survival mechanism can also benefit the caloric equilibrium.  

I'm guessing this guy doesn't count POINTS, 
but I'm still curious how many POINTS I would be?

For those who did your vacations already, how did it go?  For those still planning, anything to add to the list?