Stop Blaming the Lettuce: When Systemic Problems Outweigh Individual Responsibility

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A public dispute about obesity and bullying has led to more conversations about why people are fat. However, once again, instead of addressing the systemic problems we have with food and exercise, we’re still concentrating on individual responsibility.

Wisconsin news anchor Jennifer Livingston is having a good month. What started out as a hurtful email about her weight has morphed into appearances on Good Morning America, The Today Show and The Ellen DeGeneres Show (where they gave her a free vacation), and generated an avalanche of support and goodwill. The situation has also turned obesity into a national conversation but, as per usual, it seems that we’re having the wrong conversation.

Here is what happened. Ms Livingston received an email from a viewer who said, “I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn’t improved for many years. Surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain.”

Instead of ignoring the criticism, Ms Livingston chose to devote four minutes of air time to her response. She called out the emailer for his cruelty and ignorance of her personal situation stating, “I am much more than a number on a scale.” She went on to equate his email to bullying, and used it to bring attention to October as National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. She concluded with the inspiring words, “Do not let your self-worth be defined by bullies. Learn from my experience, that the cruel words of one are nothing compared to the shouts of many.”

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As a result of all this, people are discussing if the email fits the true definition of bullying (while it may not fit the technical definition, it certainly is a type of bullying called body shaming), speculating about whether Ms Livingston truly suffers from a medical condition that makes it difficult for her to lose weight, and talking about why overweight people don’t just go ahead and lose weight. How typical. First, it’s no one’s business what Ms Livingston’s situation is. Second, when are we going to have a meaningful discussion about the true culprit behind our obesity problem? As usual, we’re blaming individuals when we need to look systemically.

One of the biggest (pun intended) issues I have with all the discussions about being fat is that, with few exceptions, we focus mostly on the individual nature of obesity. The problem is that it’s not the real problem. While I agree that people ultimately are responsible for how they live their lives, none of us lives in a vacuum. Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh really sums it up: “When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into the reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.” In a nutshell, what he’s saying is that our culture gets a lot of mileage out of blaming the lettuce when it’s really more of a systemic problem.

The cost of food is a major culprit in obesity. The food we are constantly told we must eat for good health and weight management are things like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean cuts of meat. Try pricing these things at the store and you will quickly realize that the healthier something is, the higher the cost, and that’s even forgetting about organics. If you are trying to buy food that is filling, the cheapest alternatives would be things like rice and beans, with which you can easily gain weight. Even fast food restaurants price healthier fare higher. If you are trying to feed a family of four on a fixed income, which are you more likely to buy: four hamburgers for $1 each or one salad that costs around $4?

The type of food available is another major player in the fat epidemic. It used to be that we ate food we raised ourselves, or was at least raised locally and without major chemicals. This is no longer the case. Large agricultural producers tend to use a lot of pesticides and other chemicals so they can produce as much as possible for as cheap as possible. Cattle are given hormones and fed with food that is not conducive to their health or ours. Being treated humanely is important to the health of their systems and, unfortunately, many of them are not treated well. Much of our food is raised elsewhere and has to be shipped to us. In order to keep it sustainable, it is loaded with preservatives. Then we have genetically modified crops. And all that is just the “fresh”‘ food that we eat. That doesn’t include anything about the chemicals, additives, sodium and just plain bad-for-you stuff that is in much of our canned goods, frozen foods and other types of fare that sell cheaply at the grocery store.

Convenience is another factor. Americans live a very fast-paced lifestyle, in which time to eat is a real luxury. Many people have 30-minute lunch ‘hours’ and have to smuggle any snacks they eat on the side. Thus, things that are difficult to fix, carry, store or eat quickly (you know, food like fruit, vegetables, and lean meat) are quickly ruled out in favor of things like chips and candy bars. Moreover, having enough time to fix a healthy dinner at the end of the workday can be a real challenge. It’s much easier to pick up something on the way home from work, or eat something that’s quick at home — and we all know that food that’s quick tends not to be as healthy. Now I can hear some of you insisting that people can make an effort to eat better, and I agree with you. It is possible, but it’s difficult, and my point here is that society does not promote good eating habits. It tells us we should have them but then does nothing to help foster healthy eating. Our culture jacks up the cost of healthy food, makes eating a catch-as-you-can activity and encourages excess. The supersizing by fast food restaurants mostly stopped following Morgan Spurlock’s excellent documentary Supersize Me but portion sizes are still way too big and many restaurants offer all-you-can-eat buffets for a low price. So, the soil is nutrient poor and there is not enough sunlight, yet we’re still blaming the lettuce when the results of this show up in its size and health.

And then there is exercise. Americans in general have a very weird relationship with exercise, as we tend to live at the extremes. We either don’t exercise at all or we exercise too much. Moreover, a lot of people don’t seem to understand just why it is that we should exercise. While we hear some lip service about the general health benefits of exercise, most of the cultural emphasis about it is on how exercise influences weight management. Thus, one of the first things people do when they decide to lose weight is start an intense exercise program. As a result, it’s very tough not to buy into this mentality that exercise is mostly about weight management. I’ve actually had people tell me that they don’t exercise because they don’t need to lose weight. The message that gets lost is that weight management is only a small reason why regular exercise is so important for good health. Exercise also plays a role in mood, disease prevention, energy, sleep, memory and concentration.

Another problem is with how exercise is portrayed. Many people get conned into thinking that ‘serious’ exercise (i.e., exercise that is difficult and not enjoyable) is the only type that counts. While there are benefits in doing things like elliptical machines, treadmills, free weights and exercise machines, the vast majority of people will not consistently do something that isn’t fun, and the tragedy is that exercise can be. People often forget that swimming or biking with the family is exercise. Briskly walking while you enjoy the sunshine or walk the dog is exercise. Playing a sport for fun is exercise. Rock climbing, hiking, playing a game of tag, roller blading are all good forms of exercise that can be fun, and you don’t have to spend hours or a lot of money doing them. Exercise doesn’t have to be a chore or done for long periods of time. In fact, exercising a lot can be detrimental to your health. Exercising too much can lead to injury, obsession and loss of time that could be used in other ways. Thus, there has been either a drought or a downpour, yet we’re still blaming the lettuce for not being crisp and firm enough.

In short, our relationship with food and exercise is quite complex and unhealthy. So much of it rests on the messages we’re receiving (eat healthy and exercise), who is sending the messages (the dairy industry, the cattle industry, big agricultural businesses, and perhaps even the weight loss industry that is earning billions per year), and the reality of our lives. We find it much easier to mock and chastise overweight individuals, instead of doing the hard work of activism on behalf of ourselves and our fellow Americans. If we truly want to be a healthy society, we need to stop disparaging individuals, and start placing the blame squarely where it belongs. The lettuce is not the problem.

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