With First Lady Michelle Obama’s spotlight honed on the issues of childhood obesity, access to healthy food choices and exercise as an issue of “national security,” perhaps we should ask why this continues to be an issue plaguing Americans. Not only is the United States home to the greatest number of obese people, the second most obese nation, Mexico, has 20 percent fewer overweight citizens and the majority of European countries have one-third the number of its citizens who are overweight. (OECD Health Data) How is it that a country with a multi-billion dollar health care budget has so many unhealthy people? Perhaps that is why our health care spending is so great?
As Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank, somewhat humorously points out, “In the late 1970s, before the government began telling us what to eat, 15 percent of adults and 4 percent of children were obese. Now, after 30 years of Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines, 34 percent of adults and 20 percent of children are obese. This means one of two things: Either we are not eating what the government is telling us to eat, or the government is telling us to eat the wrong stuff.”
I have a different theory on why this problem has risen to the epidemic proportions it is at today and it will come as no surprise that it is related to the way in which we areleading in our lives. In the 1970’s, and the decades before, life ran at an easier pace. Work and school were much less demanding. People engaged with their communities and their natural environment at greater levels. Food and eating were a part of the way we socialized and connected with one another; both its preparation and consumption were integral parts of daily life.
As women freed themselves from limited life choices and entered the workplace, the time to focus on meal preparation dwindled and along with it, the capacity to lovingly prepare balanced, healthy meals. Without hesitation, an immense industry grew to supply harried families with prepared and easy-to-cook meals—and in them lurked the ingredients, additives and preservatives contributing to our obesity challenge today. There are clearly a host of issues related to the lobbying and subsidization of these ingredients and their producers that I will leave aside to focus on the leadership choice everyone is making on this issue in their lives, right now.
If we want to significantly change the health of American citizens, we must examine the choices people are making about what we value in our lives. Driven by the desire to be triumphant in the world, i.e., having a good job, big salary and material goods that reflect success, we have sold our quality of life for the quantity of things we can acquire. We created lifestyles that require two-incomes, long work days and constant contact with a myriad of electronic devices instead of cultivating communities that place value on connection, being in nature and leisure time.
Interestingly, the focus on slowing down, spending time with others and being attune to our environment are all the factors that lead to healthful eating habits. First, preparing healthful food is not something that can be rushed. How many of us recall delicious food served to us by, usually, an older female family member who spent hours lovingly preparing the meal? When those wonderful meals occurred, more often than not, it was because a group of people gathered to unhurriedly share the experience—after all, who wants to put their full attention on a meal only to have people rush through it? Finally, for generations, the food we ate was connected to our surroundings and to the seasons of the year, which not surprisingly are the foods that our bodies need as the seasons shift. Do we need heavy root vegetables in the summer and can anyone grow a tomato that tastes good in the winter? As an added point, being connected to nature and the seasons gets us outside and moving . . . allowing our bodies to naturally regulate our tastes and consumption.
The industrialization of our food supply means that our eating has become homogenized and through our lifestyle choices we have lost the art of not only nourishing our bodies, but also our souls. America’s obesity problem is not simply one of consumption, it is deeply entangled in the detached way we are living life. If, as a nation, we are serious about addressing this issue and the enormous impact it is and will have on our society, than examining the leadership choices each of us are making in our lives is vitally important.
I am not suggesting that we return to a patriarchal model where women are subservient and relegated to second-class status. I am suggesting that the value we place on providing the essentials of life, such as food, have been grossly undervalued in our culture and it is time for us to embrace our power to shift this phenomenon by examining our conduct. How often do you sit down to a home-cooked family meal? Are all members of the family, male and female, playing a part in meal preparation? Where are the opportunities to connect with your food supply through your local community? Is there openness to regularly sharing the eating experience with family and friends?
By even taking the time to shift one meal a week into a quality eating experience you will find numerous changes occurring in your life beyond a healthier diet. Interest in eating a wider variety of foods, creativity that stems from the cooking process and bonding that occurs around the entire experience is just the start, as healthy choices at home mean healthier people in the workplace and beyond.
Reversing the obesity issue will never happen by focusing on the problem of obesity. The issue will resolve itself as each of us lives The Leadership Choice, becoming aware of the sanctity of nourishing our bodies and the great joy that comes from healthful eating with family and friends. The result will be a leaner, healthier citizenry—and happier people enjoying a much higher quality of life.