Watch any talk show today, turn on the nightly news and it is nearly impossible not to hear something about the state of America’s health, particularly those segments concerned with the highly publicized obesity epidemic. With the increased awareness has come more health conscious products marketed to the public, healthier food products such as baked lays, whole grain crackers, pro-biotic enhanced yogurts, vitamin waters, health drinks. Fast food places have even altered their menus to add healthier items to kids meals that include fruit and milk for kids and for adults, grilled chicken and salads; there is Subway’s famous Jared advertizing their low calorie sandwiches to the nation. In addition to the myriad of books on weight loss and new found nutrition information, people like Oprah’s now famed doctor OZ or weight loss specialist Bob Green try to bring their medical and nutrition expertise to both warn and aid the public in changing their food and exercise habits. Shows like “Shaque’s Big Challeng” and “Honey We’re Killing Our Kids” try to showcase ways children and families can change to more health centered lifestyles. It seems that everywhere we turn there is a push for this country to get fit including court decisions that have mandated that all fast food restaurants in selected large cities post calorie counts next to all menu items. While this all may sound like many positives for a nation fighting the battle of the bulge and losing, there is a possible backlash, negatives that could be just as harmful, if not more harmful, than the current trends in American health. It goes beyond someone seeing the calorie count on a fast food item and thinking twice, it goes beyond families making healthier choices for themselves. One of the negatives is that thanks to all of the media awareness and documentaries like Super Size It, people now feel guilty for eating one meal out at a fast food place; parents are becoming hyper vigilant with what they put on their children’s plates, one parent going so far as to start an after school program for six year olds to teach food label education. Not only that, the issues surrounding this type of behavior may be larger than many realize. No one should be made to feel guilty for eating one fast food item or meal, eating one cookie.
While parental vigilance may sound like a good thing in this supposedly fast food crazy society, too much rigidity in food choices can backfire in any number of ways; if parents allow no junk food in the home they may be creating a cult like atmosphere around those foods causing kids to find creative ways to get them or when they become adults, going overboard on junk food with no moderation, leading to the very obesity they were trying to prevent. Possible results of this can be seen from an informal study done by the John Tesh Radio Show in asking listeners if and why the drink soda for breakfast a significant number stated their reason for doing so was rooted in not being allowed to have it as a kid. One cannot help but wonder if we are, in our crazed attempts to rid our nation of obesity, creating the millennial generation of eating disorders. This has already been seen in the famed 12 year old who was watching “America’s Next Top Model” and began eating paper instead of food. According to a Today Show segment there is now an informal disorder in the medical community called orthorexia to describe those who are hyper vigilant about what they put into their bodies, only allowing themselves to consume foods deemed healthy, getting a rush out of the praise they receive for eating healthy, but this obsessive type behavior often leads to eliminating whole food groups from ones diet causing malnourishment. Food label education is great for adults and older teens but not for 6 year olds, not when, particularly girls, as young as 9 report being on a diet, not when a 9 year olds new years resolution was to be healthier, and the truth is most of us are still fighting the battle of the bulge with little or no success.
Further, when looking at the media’s roll in all of this, the fallacies and potential dangers of shows like “The Biggest Loser,” “Honey we’re Killing Our Kids” and so on must be brought to light; no one should watch a show like this, see themselves and have a panic attack because they fear a laundry list of health problems in part because the show is on the air and in part because the nightly news has statistics about the ever changing risk factors for things like diabetes and heart disease. Likewise what happens when someone having viewed the show does not see, or ignores, the disclaimer and does not consult a doctor before, or while, beginning an exercise routine and subsequently gives himself a heart attack? I wonder what will happen when even Oprah’s famed Dr. Oz discovers at least one person trying to get that recommended female 30 inch waste or male 35 inch waste either developed an eating disorder while trying to achieve it or after getting an essential high from surpassing the goal. The probabilities are there. Moving on to shows like “Honey We’re Killing Our Kids”, there are several things that can go wrong here and several things wrong with the show in general; first, what can happen when a parent sees this show is they freak out remove all junk food causing kids to get creative and likely become obese adults from being deprived, second, a kid flipping the channel could see this and develop anxiety around food, leading to an eating disorder or anxiety disorder over what will happen to them or other family members if they continue on their current path. All of this leading to another type of unhealthy American and possible death. Not only that, but the show is inherently flawed; for example, the aging software used to show parents what their kids could potentially look like in middle age if they continue their current lifestyle, is really only an over blown scare tactic because, any parent who sees there 6-10 year old child at 40 is going to be shocked and somewhat frightened. Along those same lines, many of these kids are far from the age of, and have yet to reach puberty, meaning no one has any idea how puberty could effect them for the positive or negative; many times puberty causes kids to gain height and slim down, particularly for kids who are short. The show then goes on to implement all kinds of things at once advising parents to remove all junk food, cook healthy meals and implement exercise; all good ideas but really done entirely too quickly. Experts say that gradual changes are what work best in changing ones lifestyle; parents would be better off sitting down with a calendar and saying ok this month we are going to cut out this junk food, this month we are going to add X fruits or vegetables to our diets, this month we are going to exercise more, slowly making changes everyone can stick to without feeling deprived. Some experts and amateurs who have made successful life changes recommend eating healthy 5 days a week and eating whatever you wish on weekends rather than banning junk food all together.
On the converse side of what could happen if people make ill advised health plans, who stroke out or have heart attacks from over exertion? After viewing these shows, people can also get scared when they see, for example, the 63 year old man who passed out when he began exercising or the man who was hooked up to oxygen while exercising on “The Biggest Loser.” Following the model of these shows can have serious other physical consequences such as stress fractures, a condition suffered by one of the contestants just last season, and unlike most of America they saw the top doctors and got the best advice to facilitate proper recovery. Imagine what could happen to someone seeking to improve their health who does not have insurance, a primary care doctor or only uses the free clinic. You endanger some people’s health; while in other instances, you, in essence, make people afraid to engage in physical activity It is the same premise with the short lived show “Shaque’s Big Challenge” only this time in terms of exercise technique; you see kids in the gym, a mom scolding her son onto the treadmill in the early morning rather than them being put into sports or fun physical activities like paint ball. We teach people that exercise and getting fit is just another chore, that the only way to get healthy is to be in a dull boring gym lifting weights, working on machines; we also make people equate gyms, exercise, the trainers and personnel there with screaming drill sergeants that are there to break you down. You can terrify people away from professional exercise instruction when they see a trainer screaming at someone who says they cannot breath and the trainer is calling it histrionics, when the person is gagging and coughing and the trainer is screaming get on the treadmill. It makes getting healthy look like a one size deal; to be healthy you must do it this way and only this way, rather than encourage people to find the gym, the trainer, the program that is right for them. The fact is there are many physical fitness programs and activities out there to make exercise both effective and interesting; people can join a spinning class, there’s swimming and water aerobics. Classes in tybo, kick boxing and dance that incorporate muscle toning movements and the cardiac elevation needed to improve health with these activities. And, if exercise is fun and interesting, it is far more likely people will stick with them.
“The Biggest Loser” has perhaps the biggest strike against it in that it takes these people away from their lives, turns them upside down then makes a competition out of weight loss; the turmoil isn’t over yet, when the person who losses the least amount is then eliminated. What this does is forces people to juggle exercise, diet, confront whatever emotional issues they may or may not have, causes them to bond with each other then puts them through the emotional stress of loosing a teammate. Often times these contestants are put in impossible choices between those that are viewed as need to be there to prolong their lives or possibility of eliminating possible competition for themselves. All that aside, even just the wrenching decision to vote off a friend can take a tremendous toll. The competition element itself can be detrimental; even if they are in the competition for a significant amount of time, if they constantly seen their teammates loosing more weight, doing better in challenges than they are, being able to do more in the gym it can give them a sense of failure. For people who may have been overweight all of their lives, it can be the final nail in the coffin of their weight loss goals, as this failure just becomes another in a long list. Other things that have huge strikes against them are the public awareness or news campaigns done by so called medical professionals in the last 20 odd years that have made the public so confused on what is healthy and what is not that it isn’t any wonder our kids keep getting fatter when the author of Eat This Not That is on, again Oprah, shattering every myth about healthy eating, shocking lady O herself by telling everyone that a cheese smothered roast beef sandwich is better than a turkey and Swiss because of the bread used. Other eye-popping facts to behold were that at Dunk’n Doughnuts you are better off with a glazed doughnut rather than a bagel or that eggs and bacon are better for you than a simple bagel and cream cheese. I’m sure no one would readily believe that tatter tots are a better choice than French fries but they are according to the expert being quoted this week or should I say this decade.
Thanks to shows like this and national news littered with dooms day statistics we now have a mindset that eating one meal out will cause us to be 300 pounds, eating one cheeseburger or one cookie will do the same, allowing your child a soda or happy meal or a dessert item will make them obese, we have parents who allow no junk food and see it as the enemy. We have schools that think it is ok to show the documentary Super Size It in a health class to impressionable teen minds and a whole country creating anxiety about food, we have given frazzled parents something else to worry about and made the poorer sections of our nation feel like bad parents if they cannot afford fresh or frozen vegetables over canned, Swiss cheese over cheddar, we have people like Oprah’s Dr. Oz calling it a paradigm shift when what it really is, is a matter of dollars and cents. It has gone so far that one school lunch lady in the midst of railing on the state of school lunches she called chocolate milk soda in drag, and we have the aforementioned mom, from New York teaching 6 year olds how to avoid trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils before they can say it never mind spell it, and last but not least, what tells us we have really gone too far in our extremes to win the battle of the bulge we now have the beloved Sesame Street character cookie monster saying that cookies are a sometimes food. When the reality is, despite the rise in obesity, despite the nightly news screaming epidemic, most kids between roughly 9-19 today and for the past decade and a half are somewhat conscious of what the do and do not put in their bodies and trying to convince their parents to be healthier. By that same token, it is only a small percentage of parents who let their children over indulge in junk food, fast food and soda. And what have we actually gotten out of pro biotic yogurt, whole grain crackers but another informal eating disorder another obsession to add to the list. While on one hand we throw the size 0 and size 2 models out of fashion shows, we have diet program ads and TV shows making us think it is normal to go from a size 24 to a size 2 from a size 18 to a size 4 and a doctor saying what waste size we must have to be healthy, on the other we try to promote self-acceptance with the things like the Dove campaign designed to help give young girls self-esteem. We are feeding the nations extremes to the point everyone will be unhealthy.