I was always a chubby kid and for me, to be chubby was to be ugly. I struggled with this physical and emotional burden over the first 19 years of my life before I realized I needed a change.
Almost all Americans are aware of the obesity epidemic that is overwhelming this country. However, many people do not realize the extensive and constant internal struggle that overweight and obese Americans go through as they try to lose weight.
In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a component of the U.S. Department of Health, found that 17 percent of U.S. children and one third of U.S. adults were obese. They also found that those living in the Midwest and South were struggling with obesity more than the rest of the country. Their findings provide an outline of the obesity epidemic, defining the problem for everyone; however, they are unable to show us how we got here or how to overcome the situation.
ObesityinAmerica.org, an obesity communications operation, defines the disease as “an excessive amount of body fat in relation to lean body mass or a body weight that is 30 percent over the ideal weight for a specified height.” Overweight is defined as “an increased body weight that is between 25 and 29.9 percent over an ideal weight for a specific height. May not only be due to increases in body fat, but lean muscle as well.”
As a teenager and adult I always had a hard time with my weight and body image. I was never obese, but still endured teasing from friends and struggles in gym class throughout my youth. These instances felt like a hammer, nailing my small amount of self-esteem to the ground and crushing all hope for a thin, carefree lifestyle. I was fat and I felt like it defined me.
Eric Villhauer was a regular freshman at Iowa State University in the spring of 2006. He was walking to class, like he usually did, but this day brought a realization that the others hadn’t.
“I used to walk to class, so even though I was big I could function physically,” said Villhauer. “But one day after I’d been at school for six or seven months, I got winded walking up a flight of stairs and I…realized it was because I was so overweight.”
Villhauer’s weight struggles surpassed mine. The now 25-year-old cannot remember a time in his life where he wasn’t “fat.” At six feet tall, his weight maxed out at 320 pounds when he was just 21 years old.
He defines his relationship with food as a product of his “addictive personality,” filling any emotional voids. As Villhauer describes his eating habits, his voice takes on a hard and serious tone and he stares into the distance.
“I would eat for any reason, if I was left alone I was pretty much eating,” said Villhauer. “Whether it was boredom or stress or excitement or because I was sad.”
Villhauer’s weight frequently limited his physical abilities as a teenager. He played baseball and pick-up basketball games with friends, but he recalls his weight preventing him from moving quickly and playing as much as he’d wanted to.
Being overweight or obese comes with more baggage than many realize. People with weight issues are more likely to develop Type-2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and high blood pressure according to the CDC.
In fact, although the American Psychiatric Association does not consider overeating or excess weight to be a psychiatric disorder, it can have damaging psychological effects. A 2003 study found that obese children rate their quality of life as low as children who were undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer did. This problem isn’t just a matter of getting tired more quickly or not looking great in your clothes – this is an extreme health risk.
Villhauer talks about his obesity like a habit that needed kicking. For him it was a more personal issue than public. But Lauren Jones*, 16 does not feel the same way about her own weight issues. For her, the problem is dealt with out in the open as well as inside her home and herself.
“I’ve never really been happy with my body,” said Jones. “I never feel like I look pretty and that doesn’t help with my eating at all.”
Jones is a tall young woman with large, soft waves throughout her dark brown hair. She is 5’ 8’’ and weighs 190 lbs. She’s yo-yoed at that weight since she reached her full height at 14. Her BMI puts her in the ninety-fifth percentile for her age group, classifying her as obese.
Jones played basketball and attended dance lessons until she was 13. However, her inner monologue was always the same and the adolescent continued to eat through her boredom and stress.
“I just enjoy food more than anything else,” she said. “It isn’t like I’m thinking about eating all the time, but I just don’t end up limiting myself…”
I see a bit of my old self in Jones as she describes her dilemma. She wakes up every day wanting to be thinner and healthier, but feels trapped by her weight anyway. I remember feeling undesirable and yearning to be petite – the kind of girl that appeared almost lighter than air. That desire makes you melancholy, which leads to more food intake. It’s a vicious cycle that some people never break out of.
Joan Brown*, Jones’ mother, talks about her daughter’s weight issues in a soft voice. Her love and sadness is written on her face as she listens to her daughter describe her self-image.
“I want her to see how beautiful she is,” said Brown. “I just never knew how to reach her [as a kid.] We would go to the doctor and all I would do is cry because they wanted me to help her and I couldn’t figure out how.”
Brown’s sentiments are not uncommon. In fact, the Hy-Vee grocery store chain has a resident nutritionist at most of their locations to help individuals who want to change their eating. Kym Wroble, the resident nutritionist at the Iowa City Waterfront Hy-Vee works with customers on their nutritional needs and helps many people on their weight loss journeys.
“Food is a very personal thing. Eating is not just about satisfying hunger. It is a huge part of any culture and a huge part of every person’s background,” said Wroble. “When I work with people on their food choices, I am touching and affecting deep parts of their lives. It can be a very sensitive and emotional thing.”
Midori Beachy, the resident nutritionist at the Coralville Hy-Vee explained that Jones and Villhauer’s problem is not uncommon. Two out of every three Americans are either overweight or obese, she said.
“The first thing is realizing it’s an issue and secondly, deciding what one is going to do about it,” said Beachy. “I always commend customers for coming to talk to me because they are taking the first step in the right direction just by setting up an appointment. They are taking the issue into their own hands and working on doing something positive for themselves.”
Wroble and Beachy both stressed that portion sizes are a key area that many Americans struggle with.
“Dietitians have been preaching for years to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish and less red meat and added fat and sugar,” said Wroble. “That’s a simple message and if you follow it, no matter what health concern you may have, it will benefit you and you’ll see results.”
Villhauer’s road to weight loss began with portion control and exercise. He has lost over 100 pounds by combining cycling and running with healthy decreases in food intake. Villhauer said the key thing for him was making his diet sustainable. He didn’t want a quick fix; he needed a long-term lifestyle change.
“I lifted weights as my main form of exercise for two years,” said Villhauer. “At one point I started riding a bike and eventually started running as well. That in combination with a slightly smaller diet helped a lot.”
My own weight loss experience was similar. I picked up jogging and tried to separate food from entertainment and emotions. I made a conscious effort to only eat when I was hungry and drink lots of water. My weight was at a normal level for my height after six months of the new behaviors. However, I still battle that old body image that’s tucked away in my mind. That is the part of my experience that will stick with me forever and the one Jones can relate to most.
“I just want to stop fighting [my weight],” she said. “I want to wake up one day, be thin and know I’m beautiful. I’m just not sure I’ll ever get there, even if I do lose it all.”
*Sources’ name has been changed for privacy