We are all born free and to be fat or thin is to eschew or embrace health and well-being as a conscious choice throughout our lives. In 2016, 64 per cent of adults in Australia are overweight or obese (27.9 per cent) while 25 per cent of those under 17years are likewise. Moreover 70 per cent of children 5-11 years do not meet the recommended levels of physical activity while that figure jumps to 91.5 per cent of those aged 12-17 years. News reports reveal fat is famously or more apt, infamously, international, and according to a Time magazine article in 2004, two-thirds of US adults were officially overweight with half of those graduating to full-blown obesity. The figures were similar in Britain, where a parliamentary health committee that year reported the rate of obesity had quadrupled over the past twenty five years. In New Zealand, the percentage was 52 per cent 12 years ago.
Time emphasises that these obesity rates wouldn’t “be such a big deal if the problem were simply aesthetic”. Excess weight affects physical health, significantly increasing the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, infertility, gall-bladder disease, osteoarthritis and many forms of cancer. At that time, the World Health Organisation launched a global strategy against obesity as these illnesses accounted for around 60 per cent of the 56 million deaths each year deemed to be preventable. In the US and Britain, experts claimed obesity would soon supersede tobacco as the greatest cause of premature death.
In 2016, University of Sydney academics predicted that obese adults would outnumber the healthy or underweight by 2025, based on a model prediction of 12 million adults from 1995 to 2014, at which year the prediction held. A Fairfax-Lateral Economics Index of Australia’s wellbeing calculated that obesity is not just a health issue, but that the economic cost is massive, leaping by 84 per cent over the past 10 years to $130 billion a year. It showed the annual wellbeing cost of obesity had risen by $60 billion since 2005-06.
A media report just eight months ago on research published in the British medical journal, The Lancet, cited that “global overeating has become a bigger problem than world hunger with more people now obese than underweight”. Obese numbers of people have blown out from 105 million in 1975 to 641 million in 2014 with nearly 13 per cent of the world’s population overweight compared to 9 per cent who are underweight. Almost 20 per cent of the world’s obese adults and more than a quarter who are severely obese live in the five high-income countries of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the US.
Personally, I find it harrowing and disturbing as I experienced my own battle of the bulge nearly 40 years ago. Overweight rather than obese, I shed 20 kilos over about 18 months and have never gained it since. My BMI is just 18 but I do smoke. One of my sisters who was obese most of her adolescent and adult life died at just 58 nearly 12 years ago of diabetes, a stroke and cardiac arrest. Her 40year something daughter is similarly obese. A couple of months ago, an old female friend, aged 65, obese for more than 30 years, had a heart attack; fortunately a mild one and she lives to tell the tale. A male cousin aged in his early 50s, also obese as was his mother, had a serious stroke and is now in care in a nursing home. Both of them didn’t smoke. My sister was a high school teacher, her daughter is a tertiary educated professional working in aged care and my male cousin was a surgeon. My girlfriend was a journalist, though not tertiary educated. Many people I have known during my life have been obese for decades, concerned about their weight but apparently unable to expend more than expand. These people include not just family and friends, but too many health care professionals including my own male GP who over the 25 years I have consulted him has become obese as well as many other specialists I have seen. Doctors, gender irrelevant, and those supposedly entrusted to care for us, seem incapable of caring for themselves so who is actually responsible for our own health and wellbeing? Moreover, who should be? And why has global over-eating become so prolific?
The explanation is obvious and simple: people eat too much high calorie food and don’t burn it off with enough exercise. But why are they eating that kind of food to that extent? What choice are they making? At the same time as indulging in over-eating, Time magazine in 2004 reported that Americans, Britons and Australians pour scores of billions of dollars every year into weight-loss products and health-club membership and liposuction. In the US, there were 100,000 gastric bypass operations in 2003. Indeed, my sister’s daughter had one too, initially losing 20 kilos which I hardly noticed but then stacking it back on again soon after. I learned my male cousin’s mother also had the operation too and it’s been successful. As well as individuals parting with vast amounts of money to lose weight, food and drug companies spend billions trying to find a ‘magic’ food or pill to melt the fat away. Weight involves mega billions.
My perspective is simple: popular concern about weight is askew in its focus on losing weight rather than on health and wellbeing. The priority is the wrong way around, too often about the aesthetic more than the cost, both socially and economically. I always enjoyed eating tasty and interesting good food as well as drinking but had always realised that my indulgences were excessive and inimical to my health. By the time I bloomed to size 16 jeans at age 26, I was disgusted and horrified at myself. My appearance was certainly part of it, but it was my health I was more concerned about, believe it or not, understanding there was something profoundly psychological manifesting as excess poundage. I recognised the problem was in my mind not environment or anything else and blaming external factors did not enter my frame of reference. Yet, The Australian Health Policy Collaboration (AHPC) director, Rosemary Calder, recently dismissed the prevalence of chronic diseases as “NOT one of poor behaviour by individuals (but)…a problem of contemporary environments and working and living styles that put us all at risk and that most affect those with the least resources”. She concludes this rationale demands “national leadership”, urging state, local and federal governments to collaborate and implement 10 priority policy actions on risk factors that are effective and affordable as detailed in its report, Getting Australia’s Health on Track. At least it got the word “health” right.
My own experience invalidates her assertion that it is environment, work and lifestyle which affects those with least resources. I made a conscious choice to become healthy, denying my environment, work and lifestyle power to control what I ate, how often I ate and what I drank. I had scant financial resources at that time as I didn’t have a paid job. When I first embarked on my health regimen, I was still employed, though half of my net earnings went to rent. I earned a pittance. I do not believe I was so different to others except that I accepted responsibility for my own health without needing to blame extraneous factors. It is no more than an abdication of personal responsibility to expect others to ‘control’ one’s own health. That’s not to say people don’t need help and support to implement changes in their lives about food, but the impetus must emanate from them not imposed by governments. Governments of course have legislated about smoking, increasing taxes ad nauseum and introducing plain packaging but they haven’t banned cigarettes and I exercise my free will by choosing to continue to smoke. Sugar in food and alcohol should be similarly taxed so ultimately it is personal choice that’s in control. To ensure choice is the pertinent control mechanism of eating and drinking behaviour and discarding over-indulgent habits to the past, one needs to isolate, clarify and unravel the complex nexus between what’s impelling those habits and that all starts with one’s mind, like so many other aspects of our humanity.
I first became aware of mind and body as one when I began studying Latin and attending the football on a weekly basis at 11-years-old. My Carlton team motto was “sano mens en corpore sano”: a healthy mind in a healthy body. At that age, I was a very skinny, young girl who loved eating and often ate more than my two, older sisters as well as my mother and father. However, while I ate chocolate biscuits, my mother only allowed me one, sometimes two at the most, so mostly I ate dry, vita-wheat biscuits smothered in butter with vegemite and often cheddar cheese too. I drank Milo milk drinks with sugar. Meal times were often fried chops, sausages and fish. Vegetables and fruit were part of the meal and watching TV at night after dinner, I chomped on a Granny Smith apple. I loved them, sometimes grating them finely and adding cream or ice-cream on top. My diet was a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly in a health perspective, yet I walked heaps to school from home and back though couldn’t really play sport as I suffered from exercise asthma after ten minutes exertion. I stayed thin.
At 17 and a half-years old, I left home to live in a residential college at the university I attended and to my dismay, started gaining weight. It was the beginning of a ten-year war about my weight. With my loved image as a slim young woman, I berated myself constantly about my increased fleshy torso, engaging in all manner of diets successfully in the short-term but failing in the long term. Thin for a month or so, fat for months afterwards, with two sets of clothes hanging in my wardrobe for my duality. Recognising my weight problem was ‘all in my mind’, I resolved to change my eating patterns despite my environment, work and lifestyle remaining unchanged. Analysing why I was over-eating, I understood there were a complexity of reasons but enjoying good food was the least of them. More overwhelming was loneliness, sexual frustration, anxiety and boredom, seeking solace in food for emotional comfort. My sexuality and appearance were important issues, too. I was also physically lazy at times, taking taxis for ease of travel instead of walking. There was also a dearth of wholesome, healthy food in my fridge as I was too busy with work and uninterested in shopping at the supermarket. Understanding these reasons was my first step to change how I ate, what I ate and how much I drank. It wasn’t easy.
Appreciating that I unconsciously ‘de-sexed’ myself on one level by being overweight and uncaring about my appearance raised many complicated contradictions and confusions about the nexus between looking sexy and weight. Occasionally I was told in my ‘fat’ decade that I looked better without my clothes on, making me aware that for some men, my physical appearance could be a turn-off or turn-on. I came to realise that being perceived, consciously or unconsciously as a ‘sex object’, also contributed to my weight gain. I rebelled against this label, believing my mind should reign sacrosanct over my sexiness, refuting the stereotype only to be regarded as ‘strange’, indeed, lesbian too. Once I understood it was others’ problem of perception, not mine, I never looked back. My weight gain however was symptomatic of my inability to reconcile my sexuality and my mind as part of my humanness, denouncing my sexuality as responsible for inhibiting others’ appreciation of my mind. It was a conflict that took a few years to resolve and understand but once I clarified the problem for myself, I never again renounced feeling and looking sexy, too. My sexuality was, and still is, part of who I am as much as others might want to decry it, revelling in being sexy though finding the right men to live that out with is another problem.
Losing about seven kilos in the first month of my new regime, I moved cities to a new job and put on a couple of kilos again but never returned to a size 16, hovering at size 14 for a few months. At about 167 cms I wasn’t that fat, but still very discontent with my body and lack of wellbeing. Over the next twelve months, I introduced ‘exercise’ into my life, making a practical choice based on what I enjoyed, eschewing the gym routine to take up dancing which I had always loved. I also started shopping more as well as curtailing dinner outings at restaurants. Later unemployed and working on my own at home, I wrote to my own schedule. Eating three healthy meals a day and dancing nearly every day for an hour pushing my body so it initially hurt as muscles were forced to work for the first time in years, I shed about another 10 kilos over the following six months. It was damn hard to resist copious chocolate biscuits, rich and savoury food and Irish coffees with cream which I sometimes craved. There were occasions I went to bed hungry but my emotional determination transcended my hunger pangs. It became easier as my stomach shrunk, needing less food to feel full and managing to maintain calm without anxiety driving me to the cupboard for excess chocolate biscuits. I rewarded myself with a sweet biscuit with a cup of tea after dinner. My pantry and fridge were replete with loads of fresh vegetables, fruit and some meat. Living in London then, meat was expensive, but I also invested in an assortment of spices to augment the flavour. I also learned to eat when I was actually hungry rather than for psychological comfort. With little money, I couldn’t afford taxis anymore either and rediscovered the joy of walking, endorphins giving me a ‘high’ no food ever could. Dancing provided a similar sensation, my body enlivened by my new eating patterns and exercise routine. There was one common denominator in my choices of food and exercise; that was, to enjoy myself eating and dancing, discovering the creative art of culinary indulgence and the beauty of my own body. Over the decades since, I never gained that weight, shedding another three kilos so I’ve maintained myself at a size 8 into my late 60s.
Obesity is all in the mind, though too many people do not and cannot acknowledge that reality. Health must be the priority and with another nexus between feeling good and looking good as they play into each other. I still have limited resources as I’m on a pension but buying healthy food is at the top of my list when I get my fortnightly pay. I still smoke too, but have an annual chest X-ray as well as blood tests for cholesterol, glucose and iron et al. I have my blood pressure taken about every two or three months, inheriting some problems so I need medication. Suffice to say they’re all under control and I’m alive, feel reasonably good and can still walk well, indulge in sex when I have the feeling and opportunity and enjoy cooking new meals of my own creation. The fact I’m still alive and thriving reflects my commitment to health and wellbeing and an unforeseen spin-off is I receive heaps of compliments about how great I look, too. At least I’m not a member of the ‘invisible’ age brigade as Germaine Greer and other elderly women bemoan.
No one can predict death as the afflictions that might bedevil us can be out of our control but the most we should all do is to ensure our health and wellbeing are top of the agenda to engender a long life worth living. It is a choice we can all make, should moreover all make, irrespective of government, environment, our work and lifestyle. It is our life to enjoy and protect as much as is within our control. There are no quick fixes and overnight success, but the benefits long term are incalculable.