Sunday, November 20, 2011

My mother had my back

In the backdrop of all of the discussion about the rising obesity rates is the recognition that the environment around us has changed fairly radically since the 1970s.  There has been a lot of research and analysis over the past number of years to better understand why we have suddenly become so much heavier.  Why is it that obesity rates in the 1970's were about 15% of adult Americans while today they are over 30%?  Is it our increasingly sedentary lifestyle?  Is it the food supply?  Is it both?

In an interesting bit of research from the Lancet (The Lancet, Volume 378, Issue 9793, Pages 804 - 814, 27 August 2011) in their obesity special this past summer, a team of researchers performed analysis that looked at trends over the past 100 years, considering both our relative activity and food consumption as a society.  They suggested that obesity rates stayed in check from the period of 1910 to 1970 despite the fact that our society was becoming more mechanized and motorized (i.e., more sedentary).  Their theory was based on the observation that amount of food that was available during this time actually decreased somewhat.  During this time, Americans started eating less wheat due to there being fewer manual labor jobs, and foods with lots of added sugars and fats had not yet begun to proliferate.  Starting in the 1970's, the food supply in American began to swell with the introduction of new food items in the grocery store resulting in a commensurate increase in food consumption and ultimately obesity.  Below is a chart that makes their point...

To put a finer point on it, the amount of food available in the American supply chain has increased by the equivalent of 600 calories per day since the early 1970's (source:  CNPP Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010).  To be sure, it is not the case that we have dutifully eaten all of these extra 600 calories per day as some of that food goes to waste and other ends.  However, other research does suggest that actual energy intake is up roughly 200 calories per day for the average adult American.  It doesn't seem like much, but those extra 200 calories per day are the difference that can create an obesity epidemic.

Smart people can have smart debates about the causal factors of the obesity epidemic today, but my own personal experience leads me to believe the authors of this Lancet study.  I would certainly suggest that all useful knowledge of the universe can be properly derived from my own personal sample size of one, so please allow me to further enlighten the discussion.

It all comes back to my mom.

When I think back about my own weight progression, it comes in three fairly distinct phases:

  1. Being held prisoner in my home (age 0 to high school graduation)
  2. Getting a sailor's shore leave in the brothel of endless food (ages 18 to 34)
  3. Getting a grip (ages 35 to date with periodic shore leaves interspersed)  
In phase 1, I was disturbingly skinny.  At one point I was 6'3", but I only weighed 170 pounds.  That's a BMI of 21.  For my frame size, that was incredibly thin, bordering on entirely too gaunt.  I then promptly gained 40 pounds my freshman year of college, and I then ultimately went on to pick up another 30 lbs in the years that followed.  

I've spent a lot of time thinking about what got me heavy, but I haven't spent so much time thinking about what kept me so skinny in those early years.  Certainly some of it was the fact that I was growing and had a still fast metabolism -- one that I would gladly sign a multi-year deal with the devil to get back.  However, I think it has had much more to do with the way that I was fed during all those years, and in the environment of my house.  

I had the food fortune of growing up in a non-obesogenic environment.  I didn't binge eat or graze much as there was no suitable food stuffs to fulfill the ecstasy.  To give a better sense of what this meant, I have tried to reconstruct a typical meal plan was I was growing up:
  • Breakfast:  cereal and skim milk (reconstituted powdered skim milk at that)
  • Lunch:  cheese & mustard sandwich, banana, and 6 ounces of chocolate milk.  No extra treat.
  • Dinner:  normal portions of whatever my mom cooked that night served on a plate that would seem laughably small by today's standards
What about dessert?  I got it once per week.  Even then it was usually low-fat ice cream (then known as ice milk) served with a single 12 ounce soda.

What about restaurants?  We went to McDonald's about 4-6 times per year, and every single time as a spectacular, glorious event.  I was also taken to a nice restaurant on my birthday (kind of a family tradition), and every once and a while we would get chinese food or have pizza.  We loved restaurants, but frankly my parents couldn't afford to take all four kids to them too often on the salary of a hard working government scientist.  

What about the great big drawer in the kitchen filled with all manner of chips, crackers and cookies?  It literally did not exist in my house.  Sneaking in my house was about as fun as sneaking in a Siberian gulag commissary.  Short of thawing frozen meat and preparing it, there just weren't a lot of options.  

As a result, I just didn't have a lot of options to make spectacularly bad food decisions.  The available calories per capita member of my family in my house was roughly on par with that of the Great Depression.  I never had to deal with temptation, because it simply did not exist in any meaningful way.  

So what did I do about food as a young lad?  Simple.  I ate at meal times, consuming normal and healthy portions of food.  I didn't snack much between meals, and eating out was a special occasion, not a four times per week ritual.  Hence, I stayed really skinny without much deviance in weight until I left my perfectly controlled anti-obesogenic environment and landed in the free-for-all known as college.  

I think about this because I find it to be a useful way of reframing the manner in which I manage my eating and my health.  I can focus my energy on developing mental muscle power to withstand the attack of my food-dense environment, or I can focus my energy trying to re-engineer my environment so I won't be so constantly tested.  I can't always fully control my environment unless I'm willing to never leave my house, which feels like a bad career and social decision.  Therefore, it is still useful to learn ways to master temptation when it comes.  That said, I can certainly help my plight greatly if I do seek to control that in my environment which is controllable.  

It's simple:  if there is little temptation, that is little to tempt.  I guess my mom had it right all along.  




  1. It was largely like that in my house, too, but I didn't learn to handle treats in moderation because there was never anything to practice with, and so many things were never-ever, that when access to them appeared (parties and the like) I did not know how to handle it. I knew there wasn't going to be a "next time" for that stuff, or at least felt that way because it was few and far between and out of my control. My grandmother was better at treats in moderation, I wish I'd pay more attention to the modeling she was doing when I was younger, because at 92 she's never hungry. I think single-serving packets of some things would have been great for me as a child and my relationship with treats. As my mom was a WWer in the days of exchanges, she'd probably be a fan, too.

  2. My mother use to say " I am not going to buy cookies, if your just going to eat them". I remember wondering what else they were for. With 4 kids in the house we all grabbed before they were gone. Cookies were not abundant line today.

  3. We didn't have treats in the house in great quantity, and eating out was unheard of. I think this made treats hard to handle later on, because there is a "grab it now before it's gone" mentality.
    Grandma (who just died at 94) is who you went to see for treats. She alwasy had pop,chips, cookies, but she and my grandfather didn't over indulge. I remember being there once when I was about 8, and being told to make a sandwich for my school lunch the next day. White bread (unheard of in my house) butter (delicious, better than the margarine we had at home) and baloney (yes, I like it, and no, I don't want to know what's in it). Of course this resulted in a double decker baloney sandwich where both the bread AND the baloney were buttered to make sure I could cram as much as the forbidden "fruit" in as possible. Scary the habits that we can trace back that far....

  4. What an interesting perspective, David. My own paternal family was one that always had a homemade dessert available, and we carried an extra 10 - 20 lbs to show for it. But there was no spiraling out of control obesity, either, just a little uncomfortable extra weight.

    I suspect the free-flowing soda today is a big part of the problem. So easy to take in so many extra calories that way.