I’ve been thinking again…

Losing weight is something that the vast majority of people in America are trying to do – whether they in fact need to or not.

Well, let me qualify that.  It is something they want to do; they may not really be trying.  More on that later.

There is  multimillion-dollar industry built around this desire, from pills and powders to gyms and clinics, online programs, books, videos, exercise tools…it’s all part and parcel of the desire of Americans to be slim, svelte, and sexy.  You can turn on your television at any hour of the day and night and, if you are willing to invest a few minutes of surfing, find a program, commerical, or infomercial discussing weight loss and how the product/program/facility advertised is the only way you are ever really going to “lose the weight and keep it off”.

(The second half of that statement is fairly important, because most of us have, at some point in our lives, been successful at losing weight.  Unfortunately, we have also been very successful at finding it again.  But that’s a topic for another post.)

So why, if we are so consumed with the desire for slim, shapely bodies, are so many of us so fat?  (Yeah, I said the F-word, get over it.  I don’t pull punches, sorry.)

There are a lot, a LOT, of excuses for why we cannot be a slim, healthy society.  Lack of time and too much stress are probably the biggest offenders, according to popular wisdom; lack of willpower and temptation-bombardment by the advertising industry run a close second; and then of course there are a lot of us who find more scientific-sounding reasons, like bad genes or glandular issues or medications we are taking.  And the truth is, most of those do, indeed, play a part in our recurring failures.

But I have to wonder – we are not, as a whole, a stupid, lazy, weak people.  We have not built an amazingly complex society and one of the richest, most powerful nations in the world by being any of those things.  Sure, we have our moments, but generally speaking we are intelligent, inventive, resourceful, and strong.

Even individually, you look at your average person who is overweight.  Yes, you may be looking at someone uneducated, someone who is subsisting at the minimum level because he or she is “shiftless” or unmotivated – but the chances are better that he or she is none of those things.  Chances are good that he or she is gainfully employed, probably well-educated, successful at his or her job and with his or her relationships and family life.  He or she probably has a good paying job, a spouse, and children who are fairly happy and well-adjusted.  None of those things come from being lazy and weak.

So what is the problem?  If we are smart enough and strong enough to educate ourselves and succeed in other areas of our lives, why can we not build a healthy lifestyle and stick to it?

I think one answer (one of many) is that weight loss is a process of deferred reward.  We, as a society, have become conditioned to expect immediate results from everything we do.  Touch a button, and your TV comes on; another button, and it’s on the station you want to watch.  Even better, it will record the show and, with another button-touch, play it back for you.  A couple more buttons will give you last night’s lasagna, reheated and ready to enjoy. (And that lasagna may well have started out frozen, or came from a local restaurant.  We won’t even talk about the chemicals it contains.)  A couple of mouse clicks, and you’re reading messages from your friends around the globe.  Immediate, easy, tangible results, with very little thought or effort on your part.

Hop in your car, drive a mile or so, and you’ve got a lovely meal right there in your hot little hands.  It isn’t a healthy one, but it tastes great, all greasy and salty and…

Weight loss, however, does not work that way.  It is a process of consistent, thoughtful application and effort.  You can afford to slip a little every now and then, but for the most part you must remain on task consistently for not hours or days, but months and even years.  You must build a new lifestyle – and you aren’t going to get great feedback on a daily basis.  Many of us who are trying to lose weight become “scale junkies” – stepping on the scale daily or even several times a day – searching for that immediate feedback, that instant gratification.  “Look, I ate a grapefruit and some peanuts for breakfast, and I did 100 crunches!  Time for some feedback from Mr. Friendly Scale!”  Only that never works, NEVER.  “Mr. Friendly Scale” all too soon becomes “Evil Purple Scale” or some equivalent thereof, because he NEVER cooperates!  Which is why most weight loss programs recommend weighing once a week; usually you can expect SOME kind of results in that time, though they probably won’t be what you’re hoping for.

We are trained, taught and conditioned to expect immediate results for our effort, and with weight loss you simply don’t get it.  We are not trained to patience and persistence, because most of the time in our society they simply aren’t needed, and therefore are not usually rewarded.  For the most part, that doesn’t cause us much grief, but when it comes to losing weight, it will cripple you and take you completely out of the game.

I think it would be a great idea if someone set up a retraining program to educate people about patience and persistent effort, before they start losing weight.  Maybe that would be a good component of a weight-loss clinic.  The only problem is, I don’t know if it’s possible.  How do you overcome a lifetime of mental conditioning?  We all know children absorb conditioning like this much more easily than adults, so the deck is stacked against us to begin with.

What also scares me about this is that this particular problem is only getting worse.  Our children are exposed to more and more immediate gratification every day, as technology becomes more advanced and refined.  In addition, we are not teaching them healthy habits and are feeding them the same kinds of foods that made us fat to begin with.  Even when we think we are giving them a healthy alternative, often it is not much better.  (Sugar, even disguised in a fruit roll-up or a tube of “portable yogurt”, is still sugar!)  Whole foods are healthy, but not generally as convenient as the processed alternatives.  I don’t think this augers well for the battle against of our nation’s “obesity epidemic”.

Individually, we need to start taking responsibility for changing this, NOW.  We need to start teaching our children not only what is healthy and what isn’t, but WHY.  It isn’t enough to say “chips are bad for you” – you have got to give them the reason behind it.  Dumb it down as far as you think you need to, put it in terms they can understand, but get the information to them.  Don’t wait until they’re “older, and can understand”.  Kids can understand an amazing amount, and you’re teaching them constantly whether you realize it or not.  Make sure you’re teaching them the right things.  And we need to find some way of teaching them the value of patience, persistence, and consistent effort.

Yeah, I know, I sound preachy, but this matters.  The battle is hard enough for us; I desperately don’t want it to be even harder for my children.  And they may be slender and healthy now – but so was I, at that age.