Having been a teacher as well as a fat guy, I’ve noticed some parallels between education and weight-management.
I taught middle-school science for a few years after graduating from Drake University. My classroom was in the lowest performing school of an inner-city district that’s earned a reputation for chronic underachievement. As you might imagine, this presented some unique challenges.
It’s not just that I’ve had countless objects thrown at me, been shoved into a desk, been told to “fuck off” more times than I can count, or that I was forced to devote large portions of instructional time to managing the behavior of a small number of students at the expense of the rest.
The problem was that every day was a battle against the effects of issues beyond my control. Things like generational poverty, inept and ineffective district leadership, and deeply-ingrained norms of behavior that were hostile to the learning environment.
But despite the challenges, I always demanded the best from both my students and myself.
I worked hard to bring my “A” game and to find ways to help my students succeed. When they struggled to understand kinetic and potential energy, for example, I opened Rollercoaster Tycoon and “hired” them as consultants to fix my faulty theme park rides. When it became obvious that there was little to no money for classroom supplies—even though the district had plenty of money—I used my own. I was also the only teacher in the district who sent students to the Greater Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair.
I held everyone to high expectations. That’s because no matter where my students came from, what they dealt with at home, or how little support we received from the school and the district, I knew they could succeed in the classroom.
What kind of teacher would I be if I didn’t?
But appeals to individual effort aren’t particularly useful when discussing the systemic, root causes of the problems that my students faced. Nor do explanations like “lack of effort” explain why low-income students have lower educational outcomes than their wealthier counterparts.
That’s why we have very different conversations when discussing solutions for groups and individuals.
With groups, we focus on large-scale, systemic problems, and we propose solutions that will ideally influence individual outcomes. That’s why folks who work in public policy focus on generational poverty, the lack of access to quality medical care, and improving crime-ridden neighborhoods. It’s why they seek ways to ensure parents have access to jobs with good pay and benefits.
But just as individual solutions have limited utility for group concerns, systemic concerns aren’t particularly useful when discussing individuals. It’s not that they aren’t relevant; it’s just that there’s no realistic reason to dwell on them since they’re beyond our control.
I couldn’t control what happened to my students at home, and I couldn’t change how poorly managed the schools were, but I could try to influence behaviors and mindsets. I could also focus on mine. To toss in the towel and point the finger at systemic problems was to admit a defeat that, although probable, was not predetermined.
And that’s what bothers me about the discussion surrounding weight management.
If some best-selling books and supposed experts are to be believed, obesity isn’t a lifestyle-induced state of affairs that we can change by modifying our behaviors, but rather a condition that’s predetermined by issues outside of our control. And it’s not the individuals who spin a narrative of partial truths and blatant nonsense; even some of the best, most well-regarded experts write about this issue in a way that conveys a sense of helplessness.
An uninformed individual might conclude that it’s silly to even attempt to try to lose weight. Why bother, right? You’ll just gain it back.
But this is no different than telling a low-income student he’s wasting his time trying to better his life. Why go to college? Don’t know you know that your future has largely been determined by the income of your parents? Oh sure, there’s exceptions, but they’re just that: exceptions. There’s a good chance that you’ll arrive at college in need of remedial classes, and if you do manage to graduate, you’ll probably earn less than your wealthier counterparts who have the exact same degree.
Thank god that’s not the strategy we take!
But it sure is a popular approach when discussing weight-management. We point to the overwhelming failure of diets, misrepresent metabolic adaptation and its layman phrase—starvation mode—to suggest that regaining weight is inevitable, and we point fingers at the addictive nature of certain foods as if we’re helpless to resist. We stretch the truth and find every excuse to rationalize why we’re doomed from the start.
Take a look at this passage, for example. It’s from a new weight-management book that I noticed at Barnes and Noble yesterday.
When one of my students arrived exhausted after staying up late babysitting her teenager sister’s newborn child, I didn’t let her use that as an excuse. It was an obstacle in her way, for sure; but I refused to let her sleep through class. She’s better than that, and I told her so.
Which is why I’m not impressed when people play the excuses game.
They cite statistics about the failure of diets as if they’ve unearthed some groundbreaking kernel of wisdom, but the teacher and cynic in me knows it’s not that simple. Many diets are laughably absurd in the first place, and many folks who attempt more-reasonable plans don’t even stick to them. I’ve watched friends and family members do this.
More importantly, however: dieting has never been a wise strategy for anything other than short-term changes. Of course it fails! Dieting is to weight-management what ‘drill-and-kill’ test preparation is to education: a temporary solution that fails to position people for sustainable, long-term results.
But our choices aren’t limited to “diet or remain overweight“.
If you want to see results, then change the way you live your life.
Instead of living a lifestyle that causes weight-management problems, learn to live the healthiest life that you can comfortably sustain. Critique your behaviors: identify bad habits, unproductive mindsets, and determine which changes will produce the most benefit. Learn about nutrition. Work to develop a healthier relationship with food. And as for exercise? Explore various types of physical activity until you find one that you actually enjoy—even if it’s walking. We’re born to move, and I believe our lives are better when we do.
I don’t deny that there’s challenges. If losing weight was easy, then obesity wouldn’t be an issue. The rapid increase in nationwide obesity rates beginning in the early 1980’s also suggests that there’s more to the story than a sudden crisis of willpower.
But there’s always people who will turn challenges into excuses.
That’s nothing new.
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