Dear Readers of Society Present and Society Future,
In a college creative nonfiction course I took a few years ago, there was a discussion about how blogs can be used as documentary evidence, to record the thoughts, feelings and societal attitudes at a particular moment in history. That being said, I felt compelled to start a blog on one of the most pressing issues in society today, the fact that despite having access to more high-quality nutritious food than at any other time in human history, the majority of adults in the United States are overweight. I am not a doctor or scientist or any kind of expert like that, but I think I am qualified to write about this issue because that majority of overweight adults includes me, although that will soon be changing!
Before I tell you how I plan to end my status as an overweight statistic once and for all, I want to start by sharing my story. I was born a healthy baby in 1990, weighing only seven pounds six ounces. When I was about seven months old, doctors discovered I had a brain tumor. I won’t get into the long story of that scary medical time here, but in a nutshell, the tumor was successfully removed and never came back, but it had destroyed my optic nerve leaving me totally blind.
When children become old enough to eat solid food, it is not unusual for them to be very picky eaters, but I have been told I was an especially difficult case. My mom speculates that perhaps this was because my blindness meant that the rest of my senses were more attuned, and so I had an aversion to many textures and tastes in food. I am told that for my first few years of life, I pretty much subsisted on nothing but SpaghettiOs (which I now think have a disgusting smell), and applesauce (which I still love and eat most days). I remember my parents and therapists at a special pre-school for the blind which I attended spending countless hours trying to de-sensitize me and broaden my horizons. But sometimes I wish I hadn’t learned to like any other foods. Sure, both of these are processed foods. SpaghettiOs are high in sodium and most applesauce is high in sugar. But they certainly were more nutritious and less caloric than the cookies, fried chicken, candy and donuts I would grow to love later. I don’t think I had a weight issue those early years. The weight issue must have started around kindergarten, illustrated by the fact that while going through a box of precious mementos one day recently, my mom came across a project in which I stated my favorite food was M&Ms.
I am not blaming my parents for my weight issue at all. My mom did say that in the beginning, they were so relieved to see me eating a better variety of foods that they were a little more lax about what I ate than maybe they should have been. But I remember them trying their best to get me to eat fruits and vegetables. I have a memory of sitting at a table with a bowl of squash, the thought of which (or maybe just the sound of the word) was unappetizing and made me wan to puke. If I just ate five little bites of it, five because I was five years old, Mom would be proud of me and I could be excused from the table.
Like most typical American kids, perhaps influenced by advertising or my peers at school, I despised pretty much all vegetables (except potatoes) and most fruits, and until middle school, ate with no regard for my health whatsoever. It didn’t help that I also much preferred books over exercise. My one and only saving grace was that one aversion I never overcame was an aversion to sugary beverages. To this day, I only drink milk and water. If I had been addicted to liquid sugar, on top of the solid sugar I had become addicted to, I would probably be a full-fledged diabetic right now.
My first wake-up call was the Christmas I was in seventh grade. We were at Granny and Papaw’s house for our annual gathering on my mom’s side of the family. I was sitting around the big round table having a great time chatting with my aunts and cousins, and absently eating one piece after another of fudge one of the aunts had made. That night, for the first time in my life, I experienced heartburn, and it mortified me. I had heard of old people complaining of heartburn, but never any of my 12-year-old peers. I hadn’t yet matured enough to make any sweeping change to my lifestyle, but I took a baby step in the right direction by resolving to never graze so mindlessly again. Since then I have occasionally had an acidy stomach, (I started to notice that fried foods and meals with large amounts of cheese made my stomach a little queasy) but nothing even close to what I experienced that night.
I decided to take a second baby step about eight months later, just before I started eighth grade. There was no incident this time. I remember it was a Friday afternoon and I was sitting outside on the patio swing enjoying the sun when my mind started to wander. I think at that age, I was starting to become more aware of things, paying more attention to news stories and adult conversations. It seemed everyone was talking about the obesity crisis in America, and how it was killing people prematurely and it occurred to me that my lifestyle was pretty unhealthy. There were still many days when my mouth didn’t bite into a single fruit or vegetable. I was on the path to a short life. I still wasn’t mature enough to commit to sweeping change, but I resolved to make sure I at least choked down fruit and vegetables every day, even if I didn’t really care for them. The funny thing was, some vegetables, like broccoli, and even canned green beans didn’t taste as disgusting as I remembered them tasting when I was younger.
I also started showing more interest in exercising. Where we live, the weather is usually too nasty to take walks outside, so I would do jumping jacks until I was out of breath. To encourage this greater interest in health, my parents surprised me with a treadmill for Christmas that year, so I could walk every day, regardless of the weather. For the next few months, I walked on my treadmill diligently every day. I also decided to give up chocolate, which was still my biggest vice, even after the heartburn incident. I still allowed myself to eat chocolate-free cookies and candy, which my older brother said made no sense as skittles and peanut butter cookies are not healthy either. I knew that, but giving up chocolate made sense for me because while of course skittles are terribly unhealthy, I am content to just eat a few and stop, but when it came to M&Ms, the similarly shaped chocolate counterpart to Skittles, I could not stop eating them once I started. So by allowing myself only sweets that I don’t love quite so much, I found a way to not feel deprived of pleasure, yet significantly reduce my excessive consumption of sugar. I didn’t make any other changes. My decision to incorporate more fruits and vegetables back in August was still holding, but I still ate fast food, enjoyed pizza parties, enjoyed huge portions of bread and pasta and didn’t worry about red meat. But yet, I started losing weight! I had never tried to lose weight before, so when clothes which were once tight started to get baggy, and family and friends would compliment how thin I was, I remember feeling on cloud 9!
But unfortunately, like many people do, I fell off the wagon. I got tired of missing out on my mom’s chocolate chip cookies and treats in social settings, so I returned to eating chocolate. High school, especially Math was very hectic and some weeks I only managed to get on the treadmill on weekends. At various points, such as if I read another scary article about obesity, or felt especially guilty after a social setting in which I overindulged, I would re-dedicate myself to small changes. I even gave up chocolate for Lent again my senior year of high school. But all through high school, I kept gaining weight, and the doctor even said I was on the cusp of being in the obese category.
The next year, the college cafeteria where you swiped your meal card once at the door and then got an all-you-can-eat buffet didn’t help my situation. Sure enough, January of that year, I received another wake-up call. I went to my doctor for a routine check-up and received a call a few days later saying that my Hemoglobin A1C level was borderline diabetic. The doctor wanted me to come in for a glucose tolerance test, and if the results were abnormal, I may need to go on diabetes medication. Fortunately, the test came back normal and I did not need diabetes medication, but the experience shook me to the core so much that I re-dedicated myself to living healthy. I resolved that I would walk on the treadmill every day, no excuses, and I set strict limits on how much I ate at the cafeteria buffet. Ag, I lost a lot of weight and for over a year and a half received compliments for how thin I was. I felt awesome too!
But then around Christmas of 2011, strange things started happening. When I used to only get headaches one or two days a month, I was starting to have headaches all the time, and severe ones that my typical treatment of Excedrin wasn’t helping. I was also very tired all the time and could fall asleep at the drop of a hat. But the most distressing thing of all was in 2012, I really started to notice that I was always hungry. My meals were gradually getting larger and larger and I would barely finish one meal when I was already thinking about the next one. I still managed to get on the treadmill every day, but I had to drag myself down to the treadmill when it used to be something I looked forward to. I didn’t tell my doctor about these symptoms, because in hindsight, they were so gradual I didn’t notice them myself. I felt like I was eating more than I should and getting more headaches, but I was trying to finish my last semester of college. Maybe I was just stressed. After graduation, I would take some time off, catch up on sleep, rein in my eating and I would be fine again. But it so happened that I had to find a new doctor because my former doctor left the practice, and this new doctor wanted to do a full work-up to get a complete baseline medical history. Just a week and a half after college graduation, the doctor called with some alarming news. One of my blood tests showed elevated liver enzymes. Additional tests revealed that I had Celiac Disease, an autoimmune, genetic disease in which the body reacts to gluten, causing damage to the villi in the small intestine. This damage leads to malnutrition because the damaged villi are unable to absorb nutrients from food, which manifests itself in symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, and insatiable hunger. Some people experience weight loss when Celiac Disease surfaces, but I experienced sudden weight gain. I guess I was eating and eating trying to give my body the nutrients it wanted, yet while my villi could not absorb the nutrients, my body was holding onto all the fat. The only treatment was a strict gluten free diet, for life. I had actually always had a fear that one day I would have to give up food I loved and life would never be the same since food is such a big part of our culture as a society, and in our family, and now that fear had come true. I would say that overall, I am now very well-adjusted to the gluten free lifestyle now. Sometimes I am a little sad when I have to go to an event where everyone else is enjoying something wonderful like cake that I cannot have, but my mom learned to bake so many wonderful gluten free alternatives that I can console myself by reminding myself that we can bake a cake that is just as good (or better) than what they are having. But in the early days, I coped with this diagnosis by sampling all the gluten free junk food on the market. But while I stopped using junk food to cope relatively quickly, somehow I never got back on track with portion control. I feel satisfied after meals now that I have healed and am absorbing nutrients, but at meals for some reason, perhaps out of some lingering anxiety my body has about not getting enough nutrients, I still just eat too much. I do eat more fruit and vegetables than I used to, but I also eat way too much bread, dairy, sugar and oil and this was showing in my waistline. You don’t need to be a sighted person with a mirror to notice you are a little big around the middle. As I write this, I don’t know exactly how much I weigh. We have a scale but I refuse to stand on it fearing the high number will only make me frustrated, ashamed and depressed, and I dread standing on the scale at the doctor’s office.
Then last Monday January 12 came the final straw. Because I am blind, I am eligible to receive services from a job developer, paid for by the state to help me find employment. Part of the service they provide is a mock interview which took place last Monday. I answered the questions well, but it was indicated that my attire, especially the fitted shirt and jacket that went over it wasn’t the most suitable outfit. When I got back to the car, it occurred to me what they were talking about. It was tight on me and when I sat down, my stomach stuck out grossly. Then I realized with horror that all my professional clothes are this way. The only clothes that really feel comfortable are sweatpants. On the car ride home, I made up my mind that I was tired of being fat, tired of feeling ashamed of myself, tired of not having professional clothes that fit comfortably, and not interested in the humiliation and expense of going shopping for a bigger size, tired of dreading visits to the doctor’s office, tired of talking about how I need to eat better but not taking action. This led to another realization. Unlike past wake-up calls, this time I felt ready to make a major lifestyle change, which in my next post, I will explain.