Let’s talk about the feeling of failure parents feel when they realize their kids weigh too much – or too little. You’re in the doctor’s office and she announces your child is overweight, in the red zone and a feeling of failure quickly follows. I’ve heard exactly the same feelings from parents who are told their child is underweight, malnourished, etc.
Yes, it is the parents’ responsibility. Sometimes it is a moral failure on the part of parents. A form of neglect. Sometimes.
Most of the time it’s not.
It’s a side effect of prosperity.
In America we’ve had some good times. Food and access to it, is more abundant than it’s ever been and we have to do far less work to get it.
We’re not simply fatter people. We’re larger boned and taller than the average person in developing nation. We’re larger boned and taller than Americans one or two generations ago – we also weigh more. Our nutrition – through access to food, plus our education and knowledge about food – is better now than ever in the history of civilization.
I spoke to Dr. Teresa Knight, Ob/Gyn, who is deeply concerned about what early puberty and childhood obesity means for this generation of girls. One of the things I had trouble wrapping my brain around was why girls would begin puberty earlier when, in fact, women are having children later rather than sooner and the need for more children to work fields is no longer a driving force for women to have children early and often. Why aren’t girls going through puberty later instead of earlier?
“What if we were wild animals and we take away our thought process,” Dr. Knight asked, meaning the thought process of the late 20th Century, that women should wait longer to have children and work it around their careers. “All wild animals if you give them more food and make them healthy then they reproduce more. The goal of all of nature is to reproduce more, bloom more, same thing. In nature, females are either pregnant or breast feeding their whole lives because that’s what they do.”
Put like that it does make sense that prosperity would equate to early puberty and larger bodies in mammals, and humans are still fundamentally mammals.
To get some perspective on how differently we eat today, as a result of prosperity, talk to your grandparents and parents about how they ate as children. This is a very enlightening exercise.
My grandparents grew up in the depression. Meat was a very rare luxury. They grew their own food in their own giant garden. When the crops came in they spent months laboring to store the fruits and vegetables for the winter and lean times. The meat, eggs and milk they had – they grew themselves. As they became more prosperous they sent the cow to be slaughtered and the meat was cut and stored at a butcher. The meat from that cow would last them the year. Maybe there was a pig and surely there were family chickens. My grandmother, now 85, stopped growing her own vegetables only last year. I was sorely disappointed.
Growing up, my mother remembers the men who went out to work were the only ones who ate the precious little meat they could afford. My grandfather went to work at a factory and provided a stable living, but they still ate mostly from their garden. As they became more prosperous they slowly started buying their meat from the grocery store instead of raising it themselves. Still, there was not meat at every meal. Sunday roast was a big deal. My grandmother often made dessert for after dinner, but processed sugar and sweets were a very rare treat.† My mother was a mere 100 pounds when she graduated from high school.
When I grew up my parents gardened a little, but most of our food came from the grocery store. More of our entertainment began being food-oriented. The generation before them used food for entertainment, but only after the women toiled in the kitchen for hours, days even, to make it for their social occasion. My family had pizza on a Friday night. We went out to dinner for special occasions like birthdays and graduations – but it was so infrequent that it was special. We very rarely went to McDonalds or Burger King, except when traveling when we’d stop for the 50 cent hamburgers. No fries. No soft drink. The far majority of our food was still prepared at home, now with more packaged and processed food, like fish sticks, to quicken the process. I was around 115 pounds when I graduated from high school.
Our family doesn’t eat out much either. I say that, but it’s in comparison to how often other people of the 21st Century eat out rather than a comparison to how often my parents or grandparents ate out. I don’t actually consider stopping at the McDonalds for a $1 chicken sandwich because we are too busy to stop between appointments “eating out” because it lacks nuance. My children have never known, and God willing, will never know, the feeling of true hunger. They eat for fun. It’s their hobby. They still eat tons of fruits and vegetables, but I’m not sure standing in line at the grocery store compares to weeding a garden for 5 months. We can’t afford organic so their fruits and vegetables aren’t as healthy as they once were. At least once a day they have meat, sometimes it’s twice. (My kids are fine with vegetables only for dinner – it’s my red-blooded American husband who will get up and make some chicken if I don’t plan a meal around it.) The animals we eat are caged and therefore get no exercise so the meat we eat is fattier, less nutritious and full of hormones and antibiotics. Eating for us, as we raise this generation is more “conscious choice” and “resolve to do better” and less “burden of economic necessity.”
Put in perspective – the weight issue our family has – is not so much moral failure as a side effect of prosperity.