Obesity: the Disease of the mind and environmental health justice

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.

Praying the kingdom

God my parent, you are kind, compassionate, tender and loving- holy is your name! I cannot wait for you to restore your kingdom here and in my heart according to your plan, not mine.

I pray that you help me desire only what I need for today and nothing else…provide for me!

I know that I have hurt others in thought, word and deed and that in their brokenness they have done the same to me, forgive me God and help me to forgive.

Bring full restoration to your earth through your redemptive and perfecting work in our lives as we move toward your return when perfectness will be complete.

Give me eyes to see what grieves you God and the ability and strength to confront oppression, bondage and enslavement, in my own life and the lives around me. 

Relieve my spirit from the relentless pursuit of  human nature in my heart so that I may be a more effective servant.

Quench the thirst in my heart with your overwhelming mercy and grace and continue to fill my heart with love so that I can bestow that love on others.

Awake a passion in my heart that will not be quenched until restoration is complete and my work on earth is done.

Speak truth to me and others through your word. Show me the promises that are there for me and give me the courage to speak and act and grow in obedience and love.

Use me to upset the balance of power, greed and inequality. You have called me to cast out fear and bring love. Bring your kingdom in my life.

Your kingdom is bursting through like mighty Rays of light all around me, pierce the darkness with the light of love.

Forgive me for not believing enough, not wanting enough and being too afraid to act on your will.

Let those with ears hear your voice, whether in a calling bird, a mossy tree, a rushing wind or the sound of the uprising all around us.

Let us feel the tension of all the earth crying out for redemption and give us the desire to proclaim the freedom we have been given.

You are the author and creator of everything. You deserve all the glory for any accomplishments and strength we have. You will reign forever- give me strength for today!

Amen

dissonance

i crave a resolution to the chord progression of racial tension, oppression: staccato depravity 

i long for the finale of the work of redemption

this constant turmoil, the melancholy minor melody drives my heartbeat faster, adrenaline anticipating the fight 

each violent crash of the cymbals of white and black reaches the recesses of my heart with a violent and abrupt crescendo

in lonesome solidarity i wait patiently

to sing the resolving chord…. Together

I am Israel

You have freed me from slavery

Yet I still walk in shackles

You have lifted the burden of oppression

Yet I walk with it strapped to my back.

I am Israel.

You have called me out of Egypt

In my wilderness, wandering I long to return.

You feed me with the manna from heaven

Yet I long for the delicacies of my past.

I am Israel.

You have adopted me as your daughter

Yet I feel abandoned becoming the prodigal child.

You delight in me as your precious treasure

I feel buried, lost, unknown;

I am Israel.

You tell me I am the child of the revolution

Yet I am a victim of the crimes of war

Your declaration to me is freedom

Yet I cannot escape my self captivity.

I am Israel.

You say I am ENTITLED, an heir of your power

In my doubting weakness I cry out.

You show me everyday the family way,

I am watching, learning, be patient.

I am Israel.

You intercede for me in my brokenness

I do not feel treasured, I am hurt, untrusting:

You cover my shame, pain and rebellion anyway.

I am unworthy and grateful.

I am Israel.

Walls and Windows

Please excuse my dust.
I am in renovation.
I have been instructed, since I was a child, to begin building.
Small hands, muddy with plaster beginning to build the encapsulation.
Molding, mudding, with hands to small to keep out and shield myself from the cruel existence of shaming and fear.
Imperfect bricks, placed together by imperfect hands.
The cold dark walls surrounded me, protecting me from the outside, insulating me but isolating me from vulnerability.
I felt secure, though lonely. Safe, yet scared, walled in, alone in my protected place.
One night, the one who destroys sent an agent with powerful tools of destruction.
Cracking and fragmented pieces fell all around me and I was left in my nakedness, afraid and alone, with no wall to protect me.
You swept in, covered my nakedness, hid my shame, and surrounded me with love, mercy and protection.
You told me I no longer needed the wall, to trust you for protection to allow the light come in and shine on my pallid skin.
I grew and became nourished and healthy in the light.
Somewhere along the way I saw others building their walls, they asked me- where is your wall, why aren’t you protecting yourself?
I began to wonder, and began to start building again.
The more I build, the more isolated I feel, but I keep building, faster, tighter and thicker walls, surrounding me safely in my own cornered existence.
What are you doing? You ask so gently, kindly patiently awaiting my answer.
“building my wall, protecting myself, so no one can hurt me again.”
“Child,” you say, your voice just a whisper, “the wall was destroyed for a reason, remember, I know what is good for you, here, let me make it better.”

The One who loves begins to change my framed in security, to change my opaque and muddy walls to shining windows. Mirrors are placed inside as well to reflect the light and I look away from them, avoiding the dagger-ed looks I give myself.

“Child,” the soft voice serenades, “I placed the mirrors for you to see your beauty, and the windows to allow others to see it to, I will let you have your wall, your security, but share your light, show your love, I never meant for you to be alone in your walls- in fact- I never meant you to have them at all. One sweet day, Love- they too will be gone, and you will all love and live perfectly without walls. Or windows.”

Some Days

Some days.

Some days sadness seeps upward sprawling into my heart spilling out of my eyes.

Heaviness that lays dormant comes alive and torments me with lies.

Oh wretched soul, how dare you love, how dare you dream of living free?

I will keep you prisoner, loneliness is your captivity.

“Oh God, I cry- can you be enough, be enough to fill these empty vacancies left open by the wounds of imperfect humanness?”

Unspoken tragedy and melancholy hidden behind a shining façade of tranquility,

While inside, fissures of anger, rejection, misunderstanding meet behind the illusion of happiness and create havoc…

The cracks become deeper, the lies become louder, the pain unbearable; and I withdraw.

The façade is broken, can’t hide my emotion, pretending it doesn’t hurt only goes so far.

So I retreat to solitary places, sparing myself from honest relations with those that know my heart is a mess.

The crunch of sticks and twigs and brush receive me and refresh my soul, they bear the full brunt, the weight, the strain of all my pain.

The call and response of the birds carry my pain far away, hiding it amidst the trees, the new life springing up absorbs my tears and tilts upward toward the light.

For today, I cast away enough fragments of my lonely soul to return to the brokenness of my experience.

I turn away, continue to pray- Oh God return and redeem my existence.