My best tips to get out of debt

As described in the About page, I am on a journey to get rid of the debt, clutter, and excess weight in my life, as well as to look at these issues in the broader social, political and economic context in which they occur. When something is happening on such a massive scale, it’s not a matter of individual weakness. It’s a matter of a profound change in people’s environments and cultures. Unfortunately, in individualistic societies like the US, Canada, and the UK, these matters are seen as individual problems with only individual solutions. And that’s why people in these countries are among the fattest and most indebted as individuals.

Despite the changes in our environments and cultures that are necessary to create healthy societies, we do also need to take action in our own lives as individuals, before we go bankrupt, drown in hoarded clutter or develop preventable diseases because of unhealthy living. We owe it to ourselves, our families and friends, our communities and countries, to be the healthiest we can be in mind, body and finances.

On a personal level, I feel I am doing the best on tackling debt out of the unholy trio of debt, clutter and weight. We reduced our debt from over $21,000 to the current $4,000 in three years. At the rate we are paying down debt, we will be debt-free in five months. During that time, I have made only marginal improvements in terms of clutter and weight. I have at least not increased the clutter. I have lost a few pounds and made it out of an obese BMI to an overweight BMI. I am currently maintaining this weight.

I feel that part of my success in dealing with debt is changing my mind set about what gives me a sense of control over my life. I have experienced five episodes of clinical depression, beginning at age 12. During one of these periods, I dealt with the depression by over-spending. I felt like I had very little control over my life, and being able to buy whatever I wanted gave me a sense of control. In fact, studies show that buying things can set off the reward centre in our brains, which gives us a jolt of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is also implicated in addiction. This article discusses spending as an addictive behaviour.  This article is about help for compulsive shoppers:

Gail Vaz-Oxlade was a profound influence on me in terms of reframing my views on spending and debt.  I am an avid fan of her TV show Til Debt Do Us Part. Gail helps people regain control over their finances by looking at their spending, debt and income, and putting them on budget. Here is Gail’s interactive online budget.

I tried budgeting software, namely YNAB (“You Need a Budget”). Although I found that it worked well as software can recommend this for people who want to use a budgeting application, I did not stick with it. I found that it took a lot of time, and my husband was never on board with it. If you are in a live-in relationship, you really need to tackle spending together.

I tried carrying around a little book with me and writing down expenses. I abandoned this within days. I realized during my daughter’s assessment and diagnosis with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), that this largely hereditary way of being was also a good description of me. I become easily bored. I am interested in everything, and distracted by everything. It is very difficult for me to control impulsive behaviour (but I do). I bet there are a disproportionate number of adults with ADHD who are in debt.

I tried the Mint.com application for my Android phone instead of writing things down. I do not recommend this application. I found that it was not versatile, and eventually abandoned it too. There are other money management apps out there. No doubt some of these are useful, but I’m not sure that any would work with my personality type.

Gail Vaz-Oxlade recommends using cash only, and putting all the cash you need for the week in jars marked “food”, “transportation”, etc. We do not do this.

So, how have we brought the debt down? My husband grew up in poverty and has an eye out for prices. He is a good comparison shopper. I ask myself before buying anything: Do we really need it? How often will we use this? How long will it last? Where will we put it? The fact that our place is cluttered is a strong incentive for me not to buy anything other than food. I buy clothes only when something I need wears out (like a winter coat, pantyhose or plain black shoes), or my daughter outgrows her clothes.

Our biggest challenge in terms of spending is eating out. All of us love food, and we like variety. Because our apartment is cluttered, we often eat out to socialize rather than inviting people over. However, we can limit how many times we eat out per month.

We do not spend much on entertainment. We have a cable subscription. We rent about three videos per month for $5 each. We take our daughter to a museum occasionally. We take advantage of free community events. We sometimes go to local beaches. We go to the park. We accompany my daughter while she cycles down the Rideau Canal, which is close to our home. Eating out occasionally is the bulk of our entertainment spending. We go on one one-week vacation every year, usually somewhere we can drive to. Last year, we had the use of someone’s cottage near Westport. This year, we have the use of someone’s trailed in Nova Scotia.

Our car is a beat-up 2004 Toyota Echo. It is fuel efficient and completely paid for. We ensure that we maintain it carefully, with regular oil changes. My husband uses it to get to work. I live a seven minute walk from work, and my daughter is a ten minute walk from school. We save a lot of money by walking whenever we can. This is a major reason why we still rent a downtown apartment.

We have saved enough money for a down payment on a house, but have resisted buying until all our debt is gone, and until we can save $10,000 for closing costs, moving costs, any repairs or furniture we might need. We may bump this up to savings of $15,000, because we may need a down payment on buy a second car if we move. When we do buy a house, we will not splurge on the biggest one the bank would be willing to give us a mortgage for. This would leave us unable to save for retirement or our daughter’s education. We would like to buy a modest house, when the time is right.

Whereas spending money made me feel like I was in control, now I realize that it is just another way to dig yourself into a position in which you have fewer choices. It helps to have a spending goal, such as buying a house is for us. That way, I can forego buying little things, knowing that every penny will be put toward a house. Gail Vaz-Oxlade is excellent at showing people how very small but frequent expenditures can add up considerably.  Because of her, I bring my lunch to work more often, or go home for lunch, and do not spend as much in coffee shops as I used to. Some of what I do anyway for health reasons, such as drinking tap water instead of pop or juice, also saves money.

Learning more about ADHD has also made me change. In the past, I would get bored with jobs and frequently change. I established and ran a research and communications business for 15 years, which was perfect for me because it gave me interesting projects to work on and the variety I craved. However, when I went back to school to do a Ph.D. and had a baby, I was lured by a job with a regular pay cheque and a health plan. Whenever I feel like quitting, I restrain myself. The loss of the income and benefits would have a major negative impact on my family. To avoid feeling trapped and becoming depressed, I have put a life plan in place. It is more than an exit strategy from my current job, it is an entrance strategy to the rest of my life. This helps me deal with anxiety and frustration. Having a goal to work toward makes me feel like I am taking positive action.

Charitable giving in a situation of debt has been a challenge. When not in debt, I make sure I give away a portion of my income to people who need it more than I, and organizations who serve people in need. While in debt, I reduced my givings. I still give to people on the streets in my community. I support friends who raise money for causes, depending on the cause. I have given money for earthquake and tsunami disaster relief. I am looking forward to getting out of debt not only for my own sake and my family’s, but so I can afford to contribute more to charity. That is also a motivation for me not to buy stuff that will simply clutter up my home. Not only do I not need it, the money I spend on it could represent a meal for someone who really does need it.

Not spending money on things I don’t really need gives me a sense that I am in control of myself and my life. Being debt-free will give me many choices. When I decide whether to buy something or not, what goes through my head is NOT “I can’t afford it”, but “I choose not to spend money on this, so that I can save it for something more worthwhile.” “I can’t afford it” makes me miserable and makes me feel out of control, like I have few choices. “I choose to save my money for some other purpose” (becoming debt-free, buying a house, making a more substantial contribution in my community) makes me feel in control, and like I am making the right choices. Instead of feeling miserable, I can feel good about what I’m doing. I am trying to take this approach with making the right eating choices too.

Some web sites share useful tips about living frugally and simply. The best tip I can give you is to feel good about simple living, rather than jealous of what other people have, or feeling like you need objects to prove your worth as a human being, or succumbing to pressures from family, friends or neighbours for a bigger place to live or a grander means of transportation or the newest electronic gadget.  No matter who you are in the world, someone will always be better off than you in some way. No matter who you are, someone will always be worse off than you. Your challenge, should you accept it, is to develop a sense of self that is separate from spending and objects.

Please feel free to share with me any tips that have worked for you.

 

Mmm… what are those chemicals you are eating?

This is the list of common chemical additives to foods, drawn up by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It lists which are considered safe, and which to avoid: http://www.cspinet.org/reports/chemcuisine.htm

Notice that most food colourings are not considered safe, and yet they are particularly common in foods that are marketed to children.  The Center is petitioning the US and Canadian governments to ban these dyes from food: http://www.cspinet.org/fooddyes/

Among artificial sweeteners, sucralose is considered safe, but more common sweeteners such as Saccharin, Aspartame, and Acesulfame-K are not.

However, sugar itself is no better. Here’s an article entitled “Does Sugar Make You Stupid?” (http://www.livescience.com/20329-sugar-stupid.html) describing a recent study about how sugar consumption interfered with the memory of rats. The article states:

The average American consumes more than 40 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some scientists even think sugar should be taxed the way alcohol and tobacco products are.

Considering that cereals marketed to kids, and even those that are not, have significant amounts of sugar in them, are kids starting school with the best nutrition for their brains?

This article is about how some scientists believe sugar should be regulated as a toxin: http://www.livescience.com/18244-sugar-toxic-regulations.html

A lot of people think concern about sugar is over-rated, because it is so familiar and so much a part of our everyday lives. Companies can say their ingredients are “all-natural” because sugar comes from sugar cane. Our sweet tooth comes from our evolutionary biology. Our ancestors were attracted to sweet tastes, because in the natural environment, this made nutritious fruit a sought-after part of the diet.

The trouble started when humans developed the technology to refine sugars. We stripped out a lot of the nutrients and fibre from raw sugar from sugar cane and other sources. We refined it so that it wouldn’t stick, and would last a long time. We concentrated the sweet taste. And some humans sold these products to other humans for millions of dollars.

We come by our sweet tooth naturally. It helped our ancestors survive and choose the right foods, foods that would give them nutrients and energy for the hard physical work they did all day. Today, the ever-present nature of refined sugars in conjunction with largely sedentary labour is a health time-bomb.

I often read food labels at the grocery store. However, since I am busy, there were some types of foods that I didn’t read labels on. It was only one day when a friend with a mushroom allergy was coming over for dinner that I read the labels on the pasta sauces I often bought. These pasta sauces billed themselves as healthy. I often bought the Florentine (spinach) or the vegetable garden sauces. Combing the ingredient list for mushrooms, I found added sugar instead. I could not find a single pasta sauce in that grocery store that did not have added sugar.

Make your own pasta sauce, you may say. I often do now make my own pasta sauces. But at that time, I had a full-time paid job at which much overtime was required, and a small child at home. My husband worked long shifts. Like many people, particularly in the US and Canada where workers get less vacation than in most of Europe, we were constantly exhausted. At home, the priority for spending time and energy was in caring for our daughter, not cleaning, decluttering, or making food from scratch.

I believe there should be a tax on sugar which would drive the costs up for food processors who use sugar, thus nudging them toward using less sugar, and drive the costs of sugary products up for consumers, thus making healthier choices look like a better deal.  As humans, we have turned our environment on its head, making a sweet tooth that was once good for us into a major health concern with the ubiquity of cheap, refined sugars. We need to restore the balance in our environment. Since we can’t turn the clock back on the availability of refined sugars, what we can do is use policy to create a healthier food choice environment.

It’s not all diet and exercise: The importance of joie de vivre

The other day, a Facebook friend posted pictures of two 51 year olds: Gillian McKeith and Nigella Lawson. To be fair, he used an awful picture of Gillian (the first one pictured below), and an airbrushed one of Nigella. I have also included an airbrushed picture of Gillian (the second one below), for which she was clearly better prepared for the photographer. Gillian McKeith is a nutrition guru who had a British reality show on which she chose obese individuals to live with her and undergo a diet and exercise boot camp. What I liked best about the show was that she would show people what they were eating in a week by putting on one table everything they said they had eaten in the past week. It turned out to be a huge mass of mainly brown and white foods. Then she would show them a table of foods they should be eating in a week. It was a colourful rainbow of mainly vegetables and fruit. What I didn’t like about the show is she often belittled the individuals in her care, and showed an unpleasant autocratic streak. She also didn’t care whether these folks enjoyed their meals or exercise. At one point, she gave her charges some vile concoction they could barely swallow.

In contrast, Nigella Lawson is a TV cook. She does not shy away from meat, butter or dessert. I have no idea whether she gets cosmetic help or can afford a personal trainer. My Facebook friend’s point was that Nigella looked a lot happier.

Through my research and my own life, I know that people can become obsessed with heath, like Gillian. They can focus on what not to eat, what not to do, forcing themselves to do the right thing, even though they would rather do something else. It’s the “no pain, no gain” mentality. Sooner or later it can lead to falling off the wagon, and a scathing round of self-blame that can actually jeopardize your health plan (“I can’t do this,” “I have no willpower,” “I’m such an idiot,” etc.)

Enjoying life is a very important part of keeping on track with a healthy lifestyle. If you don’t enjoy your eating and exercise plan, you will probably not stick with it. All around us, we are bombarded with messages that reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is all about diet and exercise. However, factors such as stress, sleep, and social life are integral too.

Enjoy healthy pleasures in moderation, such as red wine, dark chocolate, nuts, full fat yoghurt, and smoked salmon. I am lucky that I live close to two bakeries. I can buy very fresh, still warm whole wheat bread on occasion. I try to focus on what I can eat, rather than what I can’t. I can eat as many vegetables as I want, in fact, the more the better. However, I have to retrain myself to think of vegetables as a yummy treat. I grew up with overcooked mushy vegetables that had no taste. I discovered the scrumptiousness of vegetables roasted in olive oil, and the simplicity, ease and refreshing qualities of eating raw cucumber alone, with a bit of salt or with hummus.

I still have a ways to go. During a time in my life in which I had very little money, I bought starchy foods because they filled me up for little cost. I still think of starches (rice, pasta, breads, etc.) as the main part of the meal. I bought one of those portion control plates recommended for diabetics. There is a small place on the plate for starches, a small place for protein, and half the plate is for vegetables. I am on my way to retraining myself to think of food this way, but years of habit are hard to undo.

The social aspects of eating are important for a healthy life. I have always insisted that my husband and daughter and I eat dinner together as a family. For breakfast, my husband insists on eating with headphones on with his computer plunked right on the dining room table. At least I succeeded in getting him to put the computer away during dinner. I found that often, we have little to talk about once we have all answered, “How was your day?” So I purchased a series of family dinner table questions, which not only gets us talking, but also discovering things about each other. This means we talk and linger at the dinner table, rather than wolfing down our food as quickly as possible and taking off.

Many people live alone, so unless they go out often with friends (which can become unaffordable) or invite people home (which some people are embarrassed to do), they may eat by themselves in front of the TV. Research has shown that people eat more and faster when they do this. If you have the equipment and live alone, would you consider virtual dinner parties? You could Skype a friend or a faraway family member and eat dinner together.

I have tried applying the enjoyment principle to moving my body too. But I have a hard time viewing exercise as anything but a chore. Even exercise that I enjoy, such as walking or dancing, feels to me like a waste of time. Of course it’s not. It helps me stay mentally and physically healthy, which in turn allows me to help my family and community. However, carving out time for my own exercise remains a psychological challenge. The other psychological challenge is that human beings have evolved to conserve our energy. When food was scarce and labour was hard, as it still is in some parts of the world, we needed to eat as much filling foods as possible, and only use energy when necessary. Now many of us live in the opposite kind of environment. Food is more than abundant, it is ubiquitous. Many of us have sedentary jobs, and use labour-saving technology. Many of us are still stuck in the survival mode of our ancestors, and have not adapted well to this new environment.

I don’t just want to be healthy, I want to be happy. Research shows that what makes people happy is good relationships with others, a sense of belonging, and a sense of meaning in their lives. Being psychologically well will help you feel worthwhile enough to do the things that will make you physically well. A healthy weight and a healthy life are much more than an eating and exercise plan. They require a happy life plan. Investing in healthy friendships, in a healthy community, and in projects that are meaningful to you will help you be the healthy person you can be.

Enjoy!

Emotional blocks to decluttering

Here’s a good article that explains many of the reasons holding us back from dealing with clutter: financial guilt, emotional burden, sentimental attachment, etc.: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/home-and-garden/spring-cleaning/the-secrets-to-throwing-out-your-excess-stuff/article2393489/

I am very good at dealing with financial matters. The first time I was in debt was when my mother died and I inherited a dilapidated, hard-to-sell house in a fishing village everyone was moving out of. I had to invest in repairing the foundation and paying off the debt my mother incurred on replacing the roof. After a year and a half, the house sold, and I recouped the costs and was completely debt-free. The second time I got into debt was when I was doing a Ph.D. and had a baby in the middle of the program. My income was low, and expenses were high. We are just coming out of that debt now – there’s $5,000 left.

So I do not experience the financial guilt the article talks about which drives some people to accumulate unopened bills, etc.. However, the emotional burden is a different matter.

My parents accumulated a lot of stuff. When my mother died, I had to sell or give away almost all of it, as there was no way I could fit even a quarter of it into my little apartment. I still have a few things my parents left me, such as paintings, knick-knacks, and boxes and boxes of slides full of family pictures. I am an only child, and have one daughter. I feel like I am the guardian of my family’s history, and it is my job to preserve it to pass it on to my daughter.

The other things I do not know how to deal with is old letters and cards from people I love. As someone who is deeply interested in history, I know the historical value of items such as this that can give one insight into how people lived their lives. I also have the same attachment to objects from the past. I have two old typewriters from the early 20th century, full beer bottles in the original case from the 1950s, an old washboard, etc. In fact, one of my typewriters was even featured in the historical re-enactment scenes of a TV documentary, because my friend who was involved in the documentary’s production knew what a treasure trove of historical objects I had and borrowed some.

Giving historical objects to a local museum might be a good answer. That way, they are preserved and many people get to enjoy them. The more personal historical objects and documentation are more of a conundrum. I’m sure someone will suggest photographing or scanning this stuff so the substance can be preserved, without taking up physical space. But I do not have the time to do this, and I do not have the money to hire someone to do this. Therefore, I live with piles of cards from people, piles of my child’s artwork, and a locker full of letters and slides dating back before my own birth.

Some of my clutter is related to my thesis research. Since I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation two years ago, I no longer feel the need to keep this stuff, and I toss it into recycling when I find it. I do feel a twinge of guilt, because I think I should be writing articles or books based on my research.

I am good at getting rid of my old clothes. If I don’t wear it, or can’t fit into it, I give it away. I have a strong sense of obligation to giving back to the community. There are many people in my community, and communities around the world, for whom buying clothes is a financial hardship. I usually now give clothes to a local drop-in centre used mainly by homeless women. In the past, I have also donated clothes to a shelter for abused women. Many women have had to flee their homes with little or nothing. Many of these women also do not have clothes that are suitable for job interviews.

Children’s clothes are easy to deal with – but must be gone through frequently. I have given away some of my daughter’s old clothes to Better Beginnings, Brighter Futures, an organization in my community that helps out families living on low incomes. I have used children’s clothing consignment stores. I give them my daughter’s old clothes, and then use the proceeds to buy her second hand clothes from the store.

I used to find books very difficult to give away, because I consider books to be my friends. What helped me immensely is the call for donations to an annual book sale at my daughter’s school. Now, I donate books that I do not think I will read again, so that other people can read it and it can financially benefit the school. I’m not totally on top of book giving, though. I do keep books in my areas of research expertise. I keep books I think might be good for my daughter to read later on. And I can’t seem to part with my collection of Canadian fiction.

One of the major obstacles I faced to dealing with clutter was a sinking feeling that it was too overwhelming, I didn’t know where to start, and no matter what I did didn’t seem to make a dent. Now, I have changed my outlook. I don’t declutter because I think I can be clutter-free within days. I know that’s impossible. I actually engage in decluttering as a weight management and de-stressing tactic. I am slowly and steadily losing weight because I try to be active in cleaning or decluttering, even for just five minutes, as soon as I get up in the morning, and also when I come home from work. Taking action is a great way to counter anxiety and depression. Instead of worrying about the clutter, I am doing something about it, no matter how small. And it gets me moving around, which is all the better. I feel like I am doing something positive for my mental and physical health. So will the clutter be gone tomorrow? No. But one day it will, if I keep taking steps toward that end, no matter how tiny. Part of this endeavour is also committing to bringing nothing into my home that is not necessary. And that saves money too.

Clutter issues are widespread in our society. If you are living with clutter, you are not alone. Most of our ancestors have never had to deal with this much stuff. We are charting a new course as human beings, in a post- mass production world. It is difficult to go against the tide of the consumerism that surrounds us. It’s a two steps forward, one step back kind of process. That is why we need to support each other in this process, and to publicly challenge those who judge others by what they own.

Make healthy choices easy choices: Promoting healthy societies, healthy cultures

This article is about how cancer rates have started declining in Canada: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2012/05/08/cancer-statistics.html These are the paragraphs that caught my eye:

About half of cancers can be prevented, said Bromfield. The society advocates for governments to pass policies “to make healthy choices easy choices,” she said. Tobacco use, along with unhealthy eating habits, physical inactivity, excess body weight, alcohol consumption, overexposure to the sun, and exposure to environmental and workplace carcinogens account for a “substantial number” of cancer diagnoses and deaths each year, the group said.

A significant factor in the decline of cancer in Canada is due to reductions in smoking. Canada has experienced 30 years of anti-smoking activism which has resulted in warnings on cigarette packages, higher taxation of tobacco products to keep them from being inexpensive, restrictions on who can buy cigarettes (only adults), restrictions in the way cigarettes can be displayed to the public, restrictions on tobacco advertising, restrictions on where people are allowed to smoke, and decades of public education campaigns about the hazards of smoking. Smoking has not been eliminated, and the changes did not come quickly enough for my chain-smoking parents who both died in their early 60s. However, this intensive campaign is now saving lives, saving unnecessary suffering, and saving health costs.

This is what we need to do for junk food.

Are you a hoarder?

Squalor Survivors (http://www.squalorsurvivors.com/squalor/hoarding.shtml) defines hoarding as follows:

3-part definition of clinical hoarding:

  1. The acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value (Frost and Gross, 1993).
  2. Living spaces are cluttered enough that they can’t be used for the activities for which they were designed (Frost and Hartl, 1996).
  3. Significant distress or impairment in functioning caused by the hoarding.

According to this definition, I am not quite a hoarder, but dangerously close.

My mother would not have met this definition of hoarding, but yet I consider her to have been a hoarder. She was born in a rural area of Canada in the middle of the Great Depression. She could never bring herself to throw out broken things. She would try to meticulously glue things back together. However, I believe she really began to hoard her possessions after my father died.

I was 12 when my father passed away. My mother had grown up at a time and place in which she was encouraged to be a stay at home mom for life. When she got married, she quit her job and devoted her life to being a good wife and mother. This was her profession. When my father died, I think she was shocked to learn that her widow’s pension was in the order of $14,000 CDN per year and that her job skills were considered outdated and she could not find work. She financed herself by moving to smaller and smaller towns, living on the proceeds of selling the house. By the end of her life, she was living by herself in a six bedroom house in the fishing village in which she was born. The house was full of things, but it was clean, tidy and carefully decorated. Behind the closet doors, however… She used to save everything. She would wash the Styrofoam that grocery stores sell meat on and stack them in a cupboard. When I had to go through everything after my mother’s death, I found electricity bills going back to the late 1970s, from houses that were several towns away. My father had died in 1977.

I believe my mother saw her stuff as her security. She overestimated the value of many of the paintings and knick knacks. All her furniture and possessions brought in only a few thousand dollars, less than I currently earn in one month.

I was once closer to meeting the definition of hoarding. I was doing a Ph.D., and would bring home, clip out, collect any material I thought I could use in my doctoral dissertation. I ended up with so much stuff, it was impossible and counter-productive to look at it. I became a researcher in the time before the internet. When I grew up, you had to physically look in filing cabinets through index cards to find library books. The internet made a huge difference to what I now feel I should keep and what I am willing to let go of. If I can find it electronically, I can throw it out or give it away.

The experience of having to plough through my mother’s things also made me rethink the value, or lack thereof, of keeping so much stuff. I also have an only child, and I don’t want to inflict the same experience on her. I want us all to live in a healthy environment now, and to die with only what I need. I am still trying to force myself, day by day, to implement this vision.

Weight of the Nation fact sheets and infographics

The Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the US National Academy of Sciences, is launching an awareness and action campaign on obesity called the Weight of the Nation (http://www.iom.edu/About-IOM/Leadership-Staff/Boards/Food-and-Nutrition-Board/TWOTN.aspx). The following page contains share-able fact sheets and info graphics: http://theweightofthenation.hbo.com/digital-assets/

According to the research, much of the obesity epidemic is laid in childhood. Most people’s knee-jerk reaction is to simply blame the parents, and do nothing at all about the unnecessary life-long suffering inflicted by poor childhood nutrition. According to the Institute of Medicine, of the 10 states with the highest obesity levels, nine are among the poorest states in the US. Junk foods are cheap and easy,. Not only to buy, but for corporations to make. You use the cheapest ingredients, extensively use preservatives to lengthen the product’s shelf life, and add substances that are essentially addictive because they are geared to natural human tastes that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to enhance our survival in times of scarcity. Blaming parents and doing nothing entrenches health inequalities between kids whose parents have the education, interest and resources to learn about and take action on information about healthy foods, and those who don’t.

Almost half of kids’ calories come from food eaten at school. According to the Institute of Medicine, the availability of junk foods in schools is a significant factor in the rise of obesity in American teens. There is no US federal law mandating physical education in schools. Portion sizes of snack foods have ballooned since 1983, and so have people. The Institute of Medicine also documents the skyrocketing increases in portion sizes of children’s food.

Although people may be aware that junk foods are fattening and that exercise is necessary, most people are completely unaware of the full extent. For example, how many people know that it would take a 150 pound adult over an hour of running at 5 miles per hour to burn off a single average serving of French fries?

What’s missing from the info graphics?

  • The cost of obesity-related disease
  • The cost, in billions, of food industry advertising
  • The amount, in billions, of food industry profits

Public health lawyer Michele Simon is not going to be watching the Weight of the Nation series when it appears on HBO on May 14 and 15. Simon is the author of Appetite for Profit: How the food industry undermines our health and how to fight back. She finds that the series is too focussed on the individual obese person, who is already publicly vilified and discriminated against, rather than on the food industry’s role in creating and maintain obesity. After all, when did people started becoming obese? Did they suddenly and mysteriously lose willpower just when increasingly processed unhealthy foods were beginning to be created and heavily marketed? Here is Simon’s blog: http://www.appetiteforprofit.com/

I also believe the food industry should be more heavily regulated to ensure that no carcinogens are used in food products, and that junk foods should come with warning labels like cigarette packages. Why do I think this is necessary? Almost every day, my child is plied with junk food by well-meaning people who consider it a treat, almost a childhood rite of passage. Other kids bring it to school and give it to her. Her after-school program’s “cooking” time is about making some god-awful confection. My choice is to tell the staff she can’t have it, and to let her watch all the other kids eat it and feel deprived, or to just let it go. I let it go because I don’t want to create some mystique around the junk as a forbidden food that every other kid can have and she can’t. Her dad and grandmother see nothing wrong with frequent visits to McDonald’s. They know I don’t like it, and their response is to try to hide it from me. However, I can tell because all of a sudden, we have a new useless plastic toy about the place that came from a Happy Meal.

I grew up in a household in which I was fed on formula on a schedule as a baby. Both the formula available in the 60s and feeding babies on a schedule rather than when they are hungry have both been shown to contribute to obesity later in life. Later, I was admonished to eat everything on my plate, whether I was hungry or not. I was told that eating everything on my plate would make me strong and healthy. I was told I had a moral obligation to eat everything on my plate because there were starving children in Biafra. I didn’t know where Biafra was (it’s now a part of Nigeria), or how my eating would make a difference to the starving children there. Nevertheless, I was a good girl and learned to override my body’s natural hunger and satiety signals. I learned to eat when food was there. Unfortunately, in our society of overabundance, food is always there.

Others also have developed unhealthy relationships with food based on childhood experiences. Dr. Nick Yphantides , author of My Big, Fat Greek Diet, was told to eat everything on his plate because not to do so was an insult to his father who earned the money to buy the food, and to his mother who cooked it. I think mothers in certain cultures and places also ply their kids with food because there really is a belief that it will make them strong and healthy. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out for Dr. Nick. He gained over 400 pounds.

We need a culture change. Whereas many of our parents and grandparents grew up in a culture of scarcity, for those of us who are middle class or well-off in industrialized countries, we need to learn how to ensure our own abundance doesn’t kill us. For those living on low incomes in industrialized countries, particularly those with little or no food security, the current outlook is grim. When you are living on what is given away at food banks or soup kitchens, or the cheapest things in the grocery store that can fill you up and keep you full, you are unlikely to have a balanced diet.  I remember living on a low income and eating primarily pasta. When your food budget is a couple of dollars a week, you learn to spend it on very high calorie foods that will keep you full for the longest period of time. Vegetables don’t cut it.

There are other modern practices that contribute to obesity, apart from the highly processed unhealthy foods that are ubiquitous. Whereas most of our ancestors went to bed shortly after sundown and rose at dawn, our bodies are off track. Lack of sufficient sleep contributes to obesity. So does shift work. So can anxiety. There is an awful lot to tackle, and few of us can do it alone. I am managing to lose weight now, but during periods of high anxiety and low income, this was not possible. We need to work together as a society to fight the obesity problem that is making so many of us sick. We should not try to do this by attacking obese people, or by pretending it’s all a matter of individual willpower, but by together working towards healthy environments in which everyone has access to healthy foods, healthy work schedules, and everyone feels safe walking, running or playing in their own neighbourhoods.