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{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, as “Obesity is not a disease; neither is alcoholism“, August 31, 2011}

weight loss exercise class

weight loss exercise class (Photo credit: ninahale)

This week, I achieved a personal milestone: 20 lbs of weight lost in six months. How? I’ve discovered this ancient Zoroastrian dieting secret long thought lost to mankind. It’s the mystical ELEM plan: Eat Less and Exercise More. It sounds crazy, I know, but I’m convinced it’s the next big thing. I’m going to write a book about it and make a jillion dollars.

Seriously, can someone explain to me why obesity is considered a public health problem?

I know all the usual answers. We live in a society of affluence, saturated with fatty, sugary food. That’s because we have an evolved desire to eat fatty and sugary food. No argument here.

I also know that, because I’m an upper middle class educated white male, I’m not supposed to talk about discipline, willpower, and taking responsibility for your own health. That makes me an insensitive jerk who understands nothing about poverty, oppression and social injustice.

Finally, I understand that genes and environment matter, and that everybody is different. But we all live under the same laws of physics: If you burn more calories than you consume, you lose weight. Period. Yes, losing weight is harder for some than for others. How exactly is that a public health issue?

I love pizza, ice cream, hamburgers, French fries, fried chicken, and soda. But I decided weight loss was more important than food pleasure, so I stopped. That was hard, I missed junk food a lot. But after a few weeks, the cravings went away, just as all cravings eventually do. What’s the big deal?

Public accountability was also important. I put a chart of my weight outside my office door and publicly announced my weight loss goal. Whether my current weight was up or down, I updated it every week. Any week I didn’t lose weight was embarrassing, so I had a lot of incentive to keep at it.

(Some authors suggest drawing up a contract where the KKK or the American Nazi Party gets $1,000 of your money if you don’t meet your weight-loss goal. That’s a little extreme for me, but if you need a little extra motivation, go for it.)

I committed to regular exercise, running three miles every day. Yes, I’m rich enough to own a treadmill, but running outside is always an option. So is walking, for that matter. Any exercise is better than none.

Was I able to lose weight because I was rich? It’s a common argument that eating healthy is more expensive, which is why obesity rates are higher among the poor. To find out, I compared my food expenses for the past six months to the same six months last year.

The result? I spent 10 percent less on food during my weight-loss program. True, I switched to a more upscale grocery store that had more health-conscious products. My grocery bill was definitely higher. But I also ate out a lot less, and that saved me even more money. It’s only one data point, but I think it ought to count for something.

The phrase “public health” used to mean diseases people were susceptible to through no fault of their own: cholera from contaminated wells, influenza from airborne transmission, food poisoning from unsanitary restaurants. Now it means “the health of any member of the public,” regardless of the role of personal behavior. In fact, in a world where everyone pays for everyone else’s health care, “private health” as a meaningful concept is rapidly disappearing. And that is a terrible tragedy.

I know I’m just one person, but based on my experience of the last six months, calling obesity an “epidemic” is a terrible idea. Ditto with alcoholism, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and a host of other societal ills. Only diseases can have epidemics. Individual behavior and personal responsibility play an enormous role that “epidemic” brushes aside.

Would it be so terrible if people took more responsibility for their own health? If we as a society think that’s a good idea, taking those concepts seriously would be a great start.

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