“Ouch,” that hurt, I said last Sunday. It was not a reaction to the Grizzlies’ Game 7 loss to the Clippers, but Chris Peck’s scathing must-read commentary on Memphis being the national hub for obesity and our lack of concern about it.
I will not pain you with many statistics like: one in three white women and one in two black women in Memphis are obese. Rather, I will share some stories about the Memphis culture.
Recently, a woman in her 30s, with diabetes and high blood pressure, who was as wide as she was tall, came in with an infected toe that likely needed an amputation. After suggesting antibiotics, I asked her about her diet. “Fried chicken and pork chops,” she replied without hesitation.
And then I asked, “When was the last time you ate fruits or vegetables?”
She strained to recall, and finally said, “maybe two months ago.”
I told her, “At this rate, you would likely be on dialysis before the age of 40 and likely die before 50, in large part due to the obesity, if you do not change your diet.”
It was on the same day I went to the doctor’s lounge and noticed our salad bar, which is supposedly the healthful section of the menu selections. Four of the 10 items were high-fat, high-cholesterol meats and cheeses. Yes, in Memphis, even the healthy fruits and vegetable choices have meats and dairy.
When the hospital celebrated its health workers’ appreciation day, guess what was served? Barbecue. If hospitals can ban smoking, then I believe they can ban unhealthful foods in their cafeteria and lounges. “The hospital should be the epicenter of the healthy diet,” a doctor told me as he skirted the meats and put salad on his plate.
Food selection and food placement matter. One study at a school lunch line found sales of healthful food increased by 20 percent and grams of unhealthful food consumed dropped by 30 percent with changes in placement. In another study, some 25 percent of the kids switched to white milk when it was moved 6 inches ahead of the chocolate milk, which has 50 extra unnecessary calories.
In addition to work and school, culture change needs to happen at home. A few weeks ago, while enjoying a veggie sandwich with potato chips (my favorite food, which I eat in moderation), the conversation drifted to food labels and calorie counts. “How many calories does one potato chip have?” I asked.
My seventh-grade son did the math: 13 chips in a one serving, 150 calories per serving. “About 12 calories per chip.”
Then my father-in-law, who exercises at the YMCA each morning, said, “Did you know you have to walk 10 minutes on a treadmill to burn off three chips?” I restrained myself from putting the next chip in my mouth. We also calculated that it takes 45 minutes, or more than 2 miles of walking, to burn off a can of soda.
Connie Binkowitz, who is the project leader of the Million Calorie Reduction campaign at Healthy Memphis Common Table, a local nonprofit group, is working to bring the awareness of culture change to Memphis. She began by changing the menu at all the meetings, because she was too embarrassed to be talking about healthful diet and not serving healthful foods.
Though obesity is a simple imbalance in intake and output, where calories consumed is greater than calories expended, there are nuisances such as heredity, metabolic rate and baseline weight. Yet the most significant factor is the availability and marketing of high-calorie-dense foods.
Marketing of foods matters. Yes, it would be unimaginable to stop McDonald’s or Sonic from marketing their unhealthful foods in attractive ways on television or billboards and even at the London Olympics, but we can limit marketing of unhealthful foods to children. We do this for cigarettes. And one day soon, when the pain and burden of obesity will be on the verge of crushing us, we will be ready for the change.
I don’t expect my or Peck’s articles to change anything in Memphis. Culture change at work, at school and at home will take decades. But, it can be done.
It took the Grizzlies five years of hard work to get back into the playoffs, and maybe 10 to clinch the title. Bending the obesity curve will take the same effort, if we believe and act on it.