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Obesity affects more than a third of Americans, complicating health, relationships and, sometimes, happiness. All of those Americans have their own stories about how they gained weight and what role it plays - or doesn't - in their lives.
As part of Here & Now's weeklong series, America On The Scale, host Jeremy Hobson speaks with three people who all have dealt with obesity in different ways: one is struggling to lose weight, one has succeeded in losing weight and one has decided not to lose weight.
On how weight became a central issue in Maura's life
Maura: “It started for me when I was in college, trying to get ready for exams. I would start eating a lot of carbs, candy, Cokes – I would drink a lot of those, just in order to be able to stay up late and complete tasks and basically I gained about 100 pounds.”
Nine years ago, you decided to get back to your original weight. How did you do it?
Maura: “At that point in time, I had some very bad medical news. I had gone and seen a new doctor and found out I had diabetes and all these things that were the matter with me. And what I decided to do was to do something kind of drastic, so I began a program that was a liquid diet and then eventually I moved on to a food-based diet and that lasted for about eight months and I was under the supervision of a doctor during the entire time. I also met with dietitians to come up with a food plan when I moved completely back to food and I lost a hundred pounds.”
Ronald on struggling with weight for most of his life
Ronald: “At my peak I think I was about 600 pounds. And ever since I started my diet to now, I’m down to 360. I’d been morbidly obese my entire life. I was just never taught moderation growing up and so I could kind of snack or binge on whatever I really wanted. It wasn’t until last year when I hit my peak weight that I really just decided that I didn’t like this quality of life and I kind of wanted to feel healthier and I wanted to be more active and so I actually just completely cut out all processed foods from my diet. It wasn’t really like a special diet, it was just eating whole natural foods and then drinking as much water as I could a day. At 600 pounds, I was drinking two gallons of water a day because that was what was recommended to me. For the first month of my diet, I lost 20 pounds a week with that - just doing that – no exercise.”
Was there pressure on you to lose weight or was this something you wanted to do?
Ronald: “I wouldn’t really call it pressure. I had a lot of friends and family who really wanted – they had known me my entire life, and they didn’t want me to, you know, kind of succumb to heart disease or anything. They wanted the best for me and I guess I didn’t really pay attention to that until this last year, because I started last year on my diet, and I just decided that I needed to be healthier.”
Tolonda, what’s been going on with you?
Tolonda: “I was thin as a child and started I guess not being thin when I was in adolescence. I sort of kept growing outwards even though I stopped growing upwards. And when I was just out of college, I joined Weight Watchers and lost about 70 pounds, and then within three years, had gained twice as much back. And then, in a conversation with a friend of mine who’s also fat, just got into a whole different way of thinking about it. You know, what if you do all the right things and you don’t lose weight, what does that mean? What if there’s something that’s impacting your weight and your health that’s neither, that you can’t see because of some odd correlation that we just don’t know about just now. She really got me thinking about the way that studies about health and weight are generally funded by the diet industry, which profits off of people believing that losing weight is the most important thing. And I just got to a point – I went to one last Weight Watchers meeting and really had no interest in the level of self-loathing and left the meeting, canceled my membership, went to the public library and picked up Paul Campos’s “The Obesity Myth” and haven’t really looked back.”
If a parent or a friend says they’re worried about your health, is that offensive to you?
Tolonda: “It is. It’s funny, I had to come out to my mother as fat because she kept expressing concern about my health. For me, it’s more a matter of do I have a sedentary lifestyle or an active lifestyle? Am I paying attention to what I’m eating, or am I just kind of going with whatever happens to be in front of me? And what’s important for me is that I can pay attention to those two things and not have a scale in my house. So I’m measuring my happiness and my health not by a number on a scale.”
On reclaiming the word ‘fat’ and turning it into a good word
Tolonda: “I mean, I would describe myself as fat, so does the friend I was describing earlier. To me, it’s like describing myself as queer. It’s a word people have used in a pejorative way, that it’s just like you know what? Let’s just be honest. I could call myself fluffy, I could call myself heavyset. I don’t like the phrase ‘overweight,’ because it assumes that there is a normal weight that I am over. I just prefer to say what it is, which is that I’m fat.”
What do you think needs to be heard as this conversation goes on across the country?
Tolonda: “I think what people often don’t hear is something called the obesity paradox. There are more and more studies coming out finding protective effects of obesity, so you have a group of people who are classified as obese and then they’re living longer than other people in the same study. And so it’s not as simple as saying being obese is bad for your health.”
Ronald: “Now, I agree that you can live a long life while being overweight. I do think we really shouldn’t try to say that because nothing has happened, that nothing will happen and that it’s healthy. With how we’re trying to figure out ways to tackle the growing amount of people who are obese, like we should really bring to the front stop trying to make these advertisements where, you know, the goal of losing weight is to try to be attractive. I think we should start making these commercials about quality of life. When I lost weight to try to be attractive, I was doing it for other people, and I think at the end of the day, it didn’t make me happy because I didn’t feel like even at the end of the day, if I lost like five pounds that week, I didn’t feel like I’d done enough. But I knew that when I tackled the same problem and I did it for the sake of me being healthier, it didn’t matter how much weight I lost. The fact of the matter was I lost weight and therefore I was taking a step in the right direction, you know. And I think that’s what we should be promoting more: less losing weight to be attractive, more just losing weight to have a better quality of life.”
Maura: “The one thing that I think is missing a lot is there is this stereotype of people who are obese as being fat and lazy, and all of the people I’ve met that have been obese at the National Center for Weight and Wellness, they are incredibly hard-working people. They’re frequently the most devoted colleagues and family members. And really what happens is, at the end of the day, they don’t have enough time or energy to devote to themselves. So really, to me, it’s that people are overextended and they are just not able to take care of their health.”
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