The World Health Organization (WHO) defines environment, as it relates to health, as “all the physical, chemical, and biological factors external to a person, and all the related behaviors.” Environmental health consists of preventing or controlling disease, injury, and disability related to the interactions between people and their environment (healthypeople.gov).
My family has been greatly affected by food and the way that it has been utilized. Poverty and its long term effects on health and food scarcity became the root of an obesity epidemic in my family. My grandmother, growing up came from a large family with an alcoholic father and suffered food shortages and a lack of nutrient dense food. The diet that my grandmother subsisted on was pig intestines and brains, bread, fried dough and eating the dust off of cars. Her lack of food as a child turned into an obsession for food as an adult, in an era where convenience foods, processed foods and the empty promises of fulfillment through these things were highly publicized on the television and across all media forms. Obesity, heart disease, and diabetes all became terrible problems in my family as they did for so many others.
My family became entrenched in an unhealthy pattern of eating and dealing with physical issues with food that the food industry promoted as comfort, ease, convenience and cost effectiveness. Even though financially, they had escaped the depths of poverty, the impoverished feelings never went away and became pacified through modern food industries.
In and during the great depression, although malnourishment was common and poverty was vast, people still relied on mostly local sources of meat, dairy, vegetables and grains. People stretched this food but it was still grown and processed in a way that was helpful to, not harmful to humans. My family, as well as many others struggling in and out of poverty have been fed misinformation, have been given access to things that will not help the problem, and have been tricked into believing the mass marketing of processed foods. Agricultural practices moved from small farms producing foods for local people toward large scale farming operations that run massive amounts of food all across the United States. Not only does food lose its nutritive properties through this process, but the fuel used to transport the food, the pesticides and fungicides and chemical fertilizers needed to replenish the soil have health effects on consumers as well. Foods have been genetically modified to be bigger and more resistant to pests, animals have been given massive amounts of antibiotics and growth hormones to produce more meat and milk and contamination of meat products is more common because the majority of meat consumed has come from a very few places.
I first became hyper aware of the effects of marketing in my own family when my daughter was two and we drove past a McDonalds and she asked for French fries as we drove by. We did not frequent McDonalds and I realized that she recognized the symbol because of television. Although I did not understand the terminology of environmental health I had become increasingly aware of the plague that marketing, packaging, and processed food had played in my own life. Obesity has plagued my family. I was born into a life of constant dieting and binging. Food was abundant, but not healthy. The most common foods of my childhood were fast food, pasta, pizza and fried chicken and mashed potatoes and on Sundays my family would go to a buffet. I was obese as a child, an obese teenager and became morbidly obese as an adult. My grandmother and grandfather both developed health problems as a result of their obesity including diabetes, heart disease and my great grandmother developed Alzheimer’s. I did not connect food as the root cause of the problem, I always thought that the obesity was a result of a hereditary trait. My obesity affected every area of my life and still does, although I do not appear to be obese any longer.
Obesity affected the way I relate to food, it affected the way I approached exercise and affected my health. I had sleep apnea, asthma, and lower back problems. More than any of the physical problems obesity created though was a mental problem. A problem of low self-worth, of failure to achieve, and the belief that I was never going to succeed. This low self-worth was fueled by the empty promises made to me on television about food. Comfort and joy were wrapped up in Twinkie wrappers and town club soda. I was promised fullness and fulfillment in the marketing ploys of coke and Pepsi, little Debbie and lays. I was promised an escape. Those promises had an ugly backside. Food became an obsession for me, I always thought of what I would eat next to satisfy my “craving”. I didn’t recognize that the craving and emptiness I felt could never be filled with food. The promises of fulfillment and fullness, lasted for a fleeting moment, until the guilt of adding more weight to my body ran rampant. I was on an endless cycle of denying cravings, indulging cravings and feeling ashamed that I could not control myself.
I had also been fed another lie, by the large food companies and their affiliates. That dieting, and weight loss can be achieved through a quick fix solution. That I could take some magic pill, or drink a diet soda and eat loads of chemically enhanced sugar free food and that I would just magically be able to shed all of my unwanted pounds, which, of course were all the result of me not having enough will power to overcome. I was unaware that fast food, packaged food and sodas are chemically engineered to make a person desire more of them. I was unaware that large companies had researched for decades, the way to entice young children into believing their promises. I had entered into an endless cycle of guilt and shame.
As an adult I became obsessed about getting bariatric surgery. I was convinced it would change my life forever. I was convinced that I had tried every way to conquer this problem on my own. I did try very hard to lose the weight on my own. After I had my first daughter, I tried many forms of weight loss, most of them still connected to quick fix programs, but for the first time I tried exercising. I never even tried it before as a child. I didn’t think fat people could play sports. I decided to try to run and joined a local running group. I weighed 296 pounds. There was a woman who promised to stay with me and walk when I needed to walk. The first time we met I ran from the door to the end of the parking lot, which was probably half of a football field. I cried. She told me that everyone has a hard time running at first because our lungs need to be trained. She told me that everyone, even skinny people get out of breath at first. No one had ever imparted me with this knowledge before. I believed her. It made sense. She taught me to focus on the number of minutes I ran, not the distance. On thanksgiving morning, of the year 2000, my 287 pound body ran one full mile without stopping and completed a 5k. I completed my first triathlon in June of 2001 at 267. I was dead last, but I experienced something else that day that I had never thought I would experience. A crowd was cheering for me. It began a turning point away from all of the lies that I had believed to be true, but not quickly enough to appease me.
I underwent bariatric surgery in 2008, what I thought would be my savior almost killed me. I had a tear in my bowel, I aspirated into my lungs and became septic. I was rushed into emergency surgery to repair the tear, but my body began to crash. All of my organs began failing. My lungs completely filled with fluid and my brain went without oxygen for seven hours. I was put into a medically induced coma, chest tubes were placed in my lungs. I gained 47 pounds in two days. I was in a coma for 35 days. I had a tracheostomy. I was put on paralytic drugs. My husband was told that the chances of survival were less than 20 percent. I had a pulmonary embolism. I was put on a fentanyl drip, a chemical 100 times more powerful than morphine. Slowly though, through the experimental use of an oscillating ventilator (a ventilator made for infants that delivers 300 breaths per minute), and several miracles. I lived through the coma. The effects of this surgery on my body were both negative and positive. I have neurological damage, loss of brain function and memory especially short term memory. I have constant tingling and simultaneous loss of feeling in my right leg that is painful. Yes, I did lose weight as well. And, at first, it was the easy way out. I physically couldn’t eat much and weight came off quickly. However, I had not unlearned the reasons I was obese, the lies and empty promises quickly returned and my relationship with food was still unhealthy.
In 2009, on Thanksgiving morning I found out I was pregnant. I was at my lowest weight of 157 and scared to death of gaining weight and also found out that the trauma of child birth could possibly retrigger ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome). I started researching everything I could about nutrition and pregnancy after bariatric surgery and uncovered more lies and secrets that the health industry keeps from you. The knowledge that having this surgery can affect a child’s health. Malabsorptive in nature, a child cannot get all of the nutrients it needs from its other. Prenatal vitamins are not able to be broken down with the lack of stomach acid in the pouch of a gastric bypass patient. This realization forced me to begin researching real, whole food solutions to my eating. I began really looking at the nutritive value of everything I ate. I was able to experience completely natural childbirth with no medicine. My son was born, small but healthy, but suffered from anemia, which I also suffer from as a result of the surgery, and still has low iron counts. The research I did brought me to watch the documentary Food Inc.
In the documentary, Food Inc. the exploration of the food industry and its effect of our environmental health really started me onto a journey that I have been taking baby steps into since I saw the film. To see how at one time there were over thirteen thousand butchers and now most of the meat in this country is butchered at only 13 plants around the country. I also began to think more about my carbon footprint and trying to reduce the fuel and issues that come from transporting food. I began to seek out farm to table food. I began educating myself on farming subsidies and the corn industry, I began researching food additives and ingredients. I began paying attention to how processed food actually made me feel. My second pregnancy post-surgery went much better and my daughter was normal size with good iron levels and I had much more breast milk.
After the birth and weaning of my last child at age 1, I once again started letting old patterns come back. Obesity is a disease of the mind and there is a powerlessness that one feels with the inability to control weight. What I gained from the surgery and all of its complications though was the will to survive, and thrive. I completed two marathons and I have learned healthy habits of goal setting and perseverance.
My relationship with food is permanently flawed, but I see healing for my body and mind in carefully selecting food choices. I do not want to develop diabetes or heart disease or Alzheimer’s like my family has. I want to advocate for true educational reform of our food system. Like in any other area of advocacy, the fight against environmental food injustice begins with myself. I need to continually research what information has been given to me in the market about food and how I can change it. I am empowering myself to make changes for myself and my children. I rely heavily on cookbooks from the Mennonite Missions called, Simply in Season, and More with Less. These cookbooks have educated me on what types of vegetables and fruits to buy locally in every season and how to cook them. They have also educated me on how to use less meat, which allows me to purchase some higher quality, local, organic meat. I cannot make these choices all the time because I have five children and limited income, but I desire to eat this way all of the time because I have five children. I want to teach them to have a healthy relationship with food. I want to prevent them from the debilitating diseases of the body and the mind that obesity causes. On a macro level, my advocacy turns to my community. I am very entrenched in the local movement to sustain our community from the inside out, small food, small business, local, sustainable living. I stopped shopping at big box stores, I do not participate in fast food for the most part. I am not perfect, but I am being perfected. I am committed to change our community through educating my peers, teaching women, especially women in poverty how to stretch their food budget without relying on ramen noodles and hot dogs. I teach women to cook ad prepare healthy meals that are sustainable. I make mistakes daily, and I learn more about environmental health each day.
I am confident that through advocacy, education and making one small change at a time, we have the ability to change environmental health and eradicate the Western Disease Cluster of obesity, hypertension, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. We have the ability to stop malnutrition as a result of processed foods and reverse obesity in this country.
Policy changes that address the reliance eon corn products, sugar and white flour must continue to grow. Policies that continue to address hunger and poverty need to address food deserts and malnutrition. Food stamp programs need to encourage healthier eating. Americans do not like being regulated, but if this nation does not address these issues through policy changes and lessening the ability of marketing to influence children, more children will struggle, just as I did, as I am, as I will always struggle with environmental health issues.
I am consistently revisiting my toxic relationship with food, developing self-worth that is not interconnected with a number on a scale, which is another essay entirely, and not allowing myself to fail. That being said, I have regained approximately thirty pounds. I am determined to solve the problem of my food relationship issue in a way that is whole and healing. I finally understand that I cannot change quickly, but that change is slow and deliberate, choice by choice and that self-worth and obesity mind as I call it are mental health issues that I need to seek treatment for and do the careful work of self-care required to adequately restore my health and my environment.