A quest to make sense of it all. Or a sense to make a quest of it all.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Let them eat corn.

I bounded into work this morning, all chipper and stoked over having lost three pounds over the last week, one pound more than the two pounds I had projected in my plan to get the last of this nonsense off my body. Happily, I spooned my organic Greek yogurt into my bowl, mixed in a little stevia, sprinkled in a generous tablespoon of ground flaxseed, and sliced up a banana on top. I chatted with my coworkers as they prepared their breakfasts: peanut butter on whole grain toast; yogurt similar to mine; plain oatmeal doctored up with stevia, cinnamon, and apple. We ate, scanned the newspaper, got set up for the day.

Soon after we opened, one of our regulars wandered in. She approached the counter and got to chatting with one of the girls she's friends with. I went about pulling reports and such, and half-listened. She was talking about a doctor's appointment she had had last week, wherein she was told that it was imperative for her to lose weight because she was borderline diabetic with high blood pressure. The teller she was talking to said, "You need to talk to Sarah! She knows about losing weight!". The customer looked at me hopefully and I confirmed that I've lost about 80 lbs but that my way is very different from the way most people do it, and she might not like it. She said she'd do anything, and added that she had already switched to skim milk and turkey bacon. I asked her about how much sugar she takes in and she said, "Oh, not much! I only drink diet cokes!" Good grief. Where to start? This lady is really big. She's on a very limited budget, and she clearly has no concept of what healthy food is. It would be basically impossible to help her, right? Obviously she doesn't have the common sense to eat more vegetables and get some exercise.

WHOA. I mentally bitchslapped myself. Aren't I still arguably overweight? This past winter and into late spring, I got within seven pounds of my final goal and then fell into a vat of Cheez-Its and Coca-Cola and re-gained some weight, didn't I? Even though I knew better? And wasn't I once enormous and confused, wondering why I was eating sugar-free, fat-free, lite, low-fat, low-carb, no-carb, whatever, and not losing weight? I was immediately ashamed of myself. I smiled really big and told her that's a great start, and that I don't have it all quite right either, and how hard it can be to figure out what's actually good for you with brand name, doctor, and government entity telling us different things. She nodded and asked what she could do. I told her the best thing to do is read labels. Not the parts that are trying to catch her eye, like "low fat!" or "natural!" but the only part that matters: the ingredient list. If it has any kind of corn syrup or anything that isn't harvested, fished, slaughtered or milked, it shouldn't go in her mouth. I suggested she stop drinking any kind of cola for a week and see how she felt. And that's it. Baby steps. That's how I started. I didn't kick off my journey into clean-eating by reading comparative studies of CAFO beef vs grassfed beef, based on Omega-3, Omega-6, and CLA content. If anyone had suggested that, I probably never would have even tried. But no corn syrup? That, I could do. No dyes or obvious preservatives? Easy enough. I read a little more, and understood why eating a food in its whole form was better for you than anything that's been tampered with; whole milk is healthy food, skim milk is as nutritionally bankrupt as a Capri Sun. A little later, I started learning about the differences in grains and why a 120-calorie slice of whole grain bread is actually better for you than a 35-calorie slice of white made with "enriched" flour.

What didn't occur to me then, or for a long time, is how damn hard it could be to eat clean on a super-tight budget.

Now, I'm not a wealthy girl. But I've almost always been reasonably comfortable. I've never known real hunger or had serious doubt about how I would buy groceries, and for that I am hugely, truly grateful.

I started paying attention to other people's shopping carts. At the time, I worked at a financial institution inside a Wal-Mart, so this was an excellent place for observing what kind of people bought what foods, and specifically what people on the lower end of the payscale spectrum bought. It didn't take long for me to make a huge observation: the poorer people were mostly fat. The people who seemed to have more money were definitely fitter. That was a very uncomfortable realization, and it felt funny, like ill-fitting shoes. I thought about how throughout history, wealthy people leaned toward fat, while poor people were skinny. It was a pretty simple equation: If you have less money or have to actually work to produce your food, you're going to eat less. If you have the means to buy food and don't have to procure it for yourself, you're going to eat more. You also have more time on your hands. It's always been that way, even in times when it was fashionable for certain parts of the body to be small. The cinched, corseted waists that were so popular for centuries were always offset by padding to the hips, butt, and bosom, and in some eras cosmetic tricks were used to make the face and arms look even plumper, as this was a sign of wealth (and, more subconsciously, fertility). This look set one apart from the peasants, crackers, and laborers. This cannot be better illustrated than in the popular paintings of the Renaissance period, which depict women in the ideal state for the time. They is some big ol' girls. Curvy, with wide hips, soft tummies, thighs that met at the top, and long, wavy hair. A far cry from today's standard for ideal, which is basically a dead-eyed, androgynous, waifish thing with hollow cheeks, thighs with three inches of space between them, and ruts so deep between their ribs you could keep spare change in them. Some of them do have long, wavy hair. The only element these vastly different ideals have in common is that they both represent an image that's largely unnatainable for the socioeconomic majority of their eras.

Our models grow more emaciated as obesity rates skyrocket...and income levels plummet. That's...freaky. Isn't it?

Not when you consider what's actually making us fat, and it isn't just calories. A calorie, after all, is just a measurement of energy. Where your calories come from is more important than how many calories you take in. And the very sad fact is that it's getting more and more difficult not only for lower income families to distinguish between good calorie choices and bad calorie choices, it's getting more expensive. In some cases, it's not even about expense, it's about availability. What about the food deserts of inner cities, where there is no access to fresh produce but there is a McDonald's on every corner? Is it really reasonable to expect low-income people to drive or take the bus several miles to load up on foods they will have to haul home, wash, chop, and cook, when they can have a hot meal for a few dollars within walking distance? Probably not. Convenience and availabilty have hampered my own efforts many times in the past, even though I'm able-bodied, own a car, and live only a short distance from a semi-decent grocery store. Sometimes rather than go to the store and gather my breakfast necessities the night before, I'll sit on my tail and then grab a bagel from the coffee shop across the street in the morning. There's a degree of accountability in every bite we put in our mouths...but when we fail to educate and provide options to our less fortunate neighbors, there's more accountability on us than on them.

The fat-judgment has got to stop. A few decades ago, yeah, ok, maybe being fat meant you were lazy and too fond of sweets. In many, many cases, it still means that. It did in mine. I got little physical activity then and had an unfortunate addiction to fresh french bread. I had options, though, and chose to pick some better ones. There are a lot of people who don't have many options.

After that customer left, I asked a little about her and thought about her situation. Without going into too much detail here, I learned that she has physical ailments that prevent her from vigorous exercise. She has a sickly baby and no job, and limited transportation. She and her baby live entirely on government assistance. Because of my job, I know exactly how much or how little people can draw, based on several factors. I see who benefits from the system and who abuses it in ways that make you feel like punching them out into the parking lot. This lady is in a bad way, and I don't begrudge her a dime of the money she receives. It's not much. It's a fraction of what I make in a month, and I only have to support myself. I sat back, and the pieces all fell together. Her kind of obesity is the result of a skewed system. It's government created, government encouraged, and now that it's become an epidemic, the government wants everyone to have a part in paying for it. According to www.cdc.gov, about 33% of Americans are obese, or about 104,000,000-ish. About 50,000,000 Americans are uninsured. You know that bumper sticker, "AIDS: Nobody's fault, everybody's problem" ? Yeah, obesity is a lot like that. It's hitting hard, and the costs aren't just impacting the fatties anymore. It's hitting the poor and the uninsured the hardest, and someone will be forced to pick up the tab one way or another. That knowledge should get the attention of even the worst of the elite; if you can't bring yourself to care about the wellbeing of your fellow humans, maybe you can care about the blow to your wallet.

I don't mean to say that a person has no responsibility or accountability in their own supersizing. Anyone with a Doritos bag in his hand knows he can make a better choice. I mean to say it's probably not just their fault...especially if they're poor. Poor people eat what's cheap. The cheapest foods available are the ones made with corn products, soy products, and wheat...which are also the top three crops to recieve subsidy money. At least one of those three products is in pretty much every processed food, even stuff where it's totally not needed. Corn syrup is in crackers, salad dressings, canned soup, bread, sausage, deli meat and a million other things where there doesn't even need to be a sweetener, let alone one that's been shown to cause 48% more weight gain than table sugar (at least in rats...who, like us, are mammals and, like us, also dig Doritos). To me, these connections are beyond obvious. I'm not getting into what a mess subsidizing has made economically; that's another post entirely, but to deny that it's played no part in America's expanding thighs is just blind and silly. It's a pretty direct chain from growing massive amounts of corn, to artificially manufacturing a sweetener from it, to artificially lowering food prices on the products containing it, to the poorest people eating the most of it, to the poorest people getting fattest.

So, mix up the FDA *gag* telling everyone that corn syrup is no different from table sugar, a health care system that benefits best from keeping you just sick enough to keep coming back for more pills, and a decrease in availability of healthy food to begin with, and you've got a recipe for a lot of tankasses. Broke tankasses. And we/they need changes, to the ways we're educated about food and in the ways our food is produced and distributed. Not more judgment.

At least it's not like corn is also tied up in, say, fuel. That would just make this all seem so sinister.

Wait, what?

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