Obesity, Stress and The Politics of Eating

photo: jparadisi 2012

Last week I attended a two-day chemotherapy and biotherapy course. I wasn’t worried about sitting through 16 hours of lecture, nor about taking the open book test. Instead, I was preoccupied with wondering what to eat for lunch during the two days. I watch my calories, which means I don’t usually buy lunch on days I am unable to fit in a run to compensate for the extra calories, as was the case on the two days of classes.

I track how many calories I’m eating, just in case overweight nurses are someday prohibited from working. You never know. Precedents are set daily, what with the proposal to outlaw extra large sodas and sugary beverages in New York. This will force the sugar addicted to quench their thirst by buying two large sodas instead of one super-sized one, creating an extra container for the landfill, and they will still be too fat for the skinny nurses allowed to work to wheel around in the super-sized wheelchairs hospitals are now purchasing for transportation to the super-sized MRI machines for images of the damage to overweight bodies.

I pack my lunch on workdays, knowing a refrigerator and a microwave are available. Even as a kid, I have not enjoyed sandwiches like peanut butter and jelly, bologna, turkey, etc. As an adult, I bring frozen meals, leftovers, salads, and yogurt, stuff like that.

Since I didn’t know if a refrigerator and microwave were available at the class, I wandered the aisles of a grocery store the day before, looking for something healthy, and low in calories, which did not require refrigeration or microwaving to bring.

I may as well have been on a snipe hunt, traipsing through a forest of shelves loaded with foods from around the world, none of which met my criteria. With the exception of fruit and vegetables, if it was fresh, it needed refrigeration. Prepackaged salads started upwards from 500 calories or more; I couldn’t believe it.

If it sat on a shelf, it was processed, embalmed in sodium or sugar. Nothing fun to eat was even in the ball park: chips, “fruit snacks,” and cookies earn their title ‘junk food.”

Fortunately, there are other choices, such as investing in a lunch sack that accommodates ice packs or is thermal lined to keep food cold. Salads can be made at home, controlling amounts of fattening ingredients like cheese, and salad dressing. I wonder, however, how do working parents with two or three kids make nutritious lunches five days a week, given the available choices? During childhood, how many thermoses did I break; how many lunch boxes did I lose, before my lunches were carried in a simple brown paper sack, and I had to eat the sandwiches I can’t stand as an adult?

Limiting the size of sugary drinks to 16 ounces is perhaps a good idea, but I suspect, as a method of weight control, it’s akin to spitting in a bucket to fill it. Our society is surrounded with the food of our own demise. Restoring children, patients, and nurses to normal weight takes rethinking the way most Americans live. There is evidence overeating is an addiction of self-medication: children and adults eat to control feelings of discomfort and stress. For instance, understaffed at work, you may fear you will not get a lunch break, so perhaps a super- sized soda and bag of chips seems like a plan that will take you through your shift.

I’m a nurse, not a dietician, but I wonder if outlawing overeating is a form of treating the symptom, not the disease.