Obesity in America is considered epidemic, and I have personally witnessed the impact of this. As a child growing up I was witness to the struggles of my parents to find their way to a healthy weight. This can be a great difficulty in Central Mississippi and the American South, where the traditional foods contain too much sugar, fat, and preservatives to maintain nutritious eating habits. My parents chose different routes; my father changed his lifestyle habits, including regular exercise and avoiding unhealthy foods. My mother, like so many Americans, had a great deal of difficulty with such a change, and today contemplates gastric bypass surgery. As an adult I have had a front row seat to the difficulties that obesity creates for the population, as I work as a nurse. For many years, working on the Bariatric floor of a hospital, I have been able to see firsthand the lengths that people will go to in order to “cure” obesity without changing their lifestyle through gastric bypass surgery. This surgery takes a toll on these patients, as the multiple factors that contributed to their weight gain were not surgically removed; the result is that the weight returns when they return to their old habits, and non-compliance after such surgery results in new health problems rather than bringing them the glow of health and fitness that they thought would accompany weight reduction. I myself had my own struggles with weight, but given the insights that I have gained over the years I came to the realization that
I must be extremely conscious of the food that I eat. I have lost roughly 100 pounds over two years through dietary changes and regular exercise, and this has helped me to realize how maddeningly simple the solution to the obesity problem is. The issue is that Americans, much like my mother, are not willing to give up their poor lifestyle choices that result in obesity. Cleary there is a psychological factor that is extremely important in being able to make such a change. To some extent, the wish for a “quick fix” represents a barrier to lifestyle change, and given the example of the bariatric patients that I have seen fail in their quest for fitness; it can be a dangerous one.
Two preventative measures that might assist Americans to avoid such weight gain in the first place is healthy eating habits and regular exercise that become daily habits from a young age. While this would likely result in a dramatic reduction in the risks of becoming obese, it requires more than simply learning healthy habits; it requires not learning the unhealthy habits in the first place. This requires a change on the level of the family, rather than the individual. A family which eats unhealthy food and does not role model a lifestyle which integrates exercise is teaching children the habits which will increase their risks of obesity while growing up as well as later in life. When parents are unable to be the role models with regard to healthy eating and exercise, it can hardly be expected that the children will learn to do things differently.
Social learning runs deeply. This learning occurs through watching what those around us and closest to us do. While social learning can have many positive impacts, in the case of widespread problems with nutrition and exercise, it can be difficult to understand how to take a different approach. The wider context which the family lives in can be a cause for concern; the family that eats healthy and exercises regularly, in a population where most people eat fast or fried food and values watching television and other sedentary activities, can be an isolating. Still, despite going against the grain in a community, making the change at the family or household level may be the only way to break the cycle which is resulting in a new generation that is unhappy with their weight and health and yet unwilling to take the steps necessary to correct this.