Many people believe that choosing a healthy lifestyle is a personal, individual choice, and that, likewise, choosing an unhealthy lifestyle is a personal, individual choice. The problem with this belief is that it overestimates the power of free will. Overestimating free will is unrealistic, because real people are constrained by their resources and situation. Overestimating free will is harmful, because it puts too much pressure on the individuals themselves to change instead of looking at the situation collectively. In this myTake, I will explain why I think a healthy/unhealthy lifestyle as one's personal, conscious choice is bullshit.
Culture and Tradition
I argue that humans are mostly cultural beings. They behave according to culture and tradition. When I was a toddler, my father found a job in the States. A year later, my mother and I joined him. My parents continued to live according to their cultural background, because they were familiar with it, but they nevertheless learned how to adapt to American ways. If you want to learn more about life with Chinese immigrant parents, then you should watch Off The Great Wall on YouTube. The channel is a satirical take on the behavior of Chinese immigrant parents and their offspring. Of course, individuals in any culture have idiosyncratic differences, but it is the similarities that trigger the generalizations.
- Big money savers . . . to the extreme
One big running gag in the Off The Great Wall channel is that Chinese immigrant parents don't use the dishwasher. The dishwasher could be used for anything but its intended purpose. My parents are no different. My mother once complained that the dishwasher was useless, because the grease and food particles were still there after washing. She maintained that only people have eyes and can wash dishes efficiently.
While grocery shopping, my parents are expert bargain hunters. They have a collection of grocery stores and the average prices of fresh produce in their heads. On top of that, they check their mailbox for the weekly ads of their favorite stores. Sometimes, what's advertised on a weekly ad is not really on sale, and they know this, because they have memorized the typical price at a specific store. Prices for fresh fruits and vegetables tend to fluctuate among different stores and seasons of the year. When the price seems like a good bargain (and they'd know this by mentally calculating the unit prices), they would buy more of that fruit or vegetable. Therefore, we always had various kinds of vegetables and fruits throughout the year. This behavior of bargain-hunting for cheap fruits and vegetables is more of an effort to save money than an effort to "vary your veggies" (a recommended USDA and FDA guideline in the new Food Pyramid, not the one I was taught in the mid-to-late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s).
When I was in primary school, my parents gave me just enough money to buy lunch. $1.25. Indeed, that was just enough money to buy lunch, not the slushie or the cheesy nachos. At the time, I really wanted a slushie or cheesy nacho, but I didn't have any extra money. So, the only thing I could do was watch my classmates enjoy their nacho bowl or slushie cup. The unintended consequence was that it reduced my portion size of eating processed food.
- Semi-literacy of English words
As non-native English speakers, my parents tend to avoid foods that they do not recognize and tend to place more value on the overall product than the brand name or even the Nutrition Facts label. This usually means not buying foods that seem unnaturally colored. I remember going to the store with my parents and pointing my little fingers at the Snack-Pack Jell-O, but my parents gazed at the chocolate and vanilla pudding variants and went for the white vanilla pudding one. I didn't like vanilla pudding. I thought it was too sweet for my liking. I never asked for Jell-O again. However, their semi-literacy skills could only offer a limited level of protection of buying healthier foods.
As a more English-literate and health-literate person, I read the Nutrition Facts label and check out what's exactly in the product they are buying. Sometimes, they would buy a certain type of dried tofu, and I would pick the low-sodium, low-monosodium-glutamate variant.
My parents had a habit of shopping at Asian supermarkets in addition to mainstream American supermarkets, because Asian supermarkets provided familiar-looking food products. They could recognize a big Napa cabbage or Bok Choy. They knew what the vegetables tasted like, and they knew how to prepare the vegetables.
- Peculiar folk beliefs regarding health
My mother may be educated as an ophthalmologist in China, doing reparative and cosmetic surgical operations on the eyes, but somehow she also retains some knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine from who-knows-where. I am not sure whether that is learned in families or in university, but here are some things I've learned from her.
* Never mix warm foods and cold foods together. My mother would always tell me that after you eat a warm supper, you have to wait a while before you can put in something cold; otherwise, you will get an upset stomach or even diarrhea. That's as far as my mother would go in regards to warm and cold foods. Like I said, she practiced modern medicine, so she's somewhat skeptical of traditional Chinese medicine herself.
* In Chinese medicine, the sick body must be cleared of internal heat or detoxified. Eating celery is believed to do that. Though, to be honest, I am not sure if that means Western celery or Chinese celery. My father told me that he once suffered from high blood pressure as a child. So, a friend recommended his barely literate parents that he should consume Chinese celery. I think my mother also has the belief in celery to lower high blood pressure. Consuming mung bean soup is also believed to clear internal heat. Mung bean soup was used to treat my nosebleeds when I was a child.
- Priority of foods
No meal is complete without rice. Rice must be on the table. No exceptions. I think the emphasis on rice shapes the perception of sustenance food and snack food. Anything that does not complement with rice on the table is automatically labelled as "snack food". This may include chips, candy, sweet pastries, French fries, hamburgers, and other types of high-calorie food products. I think labelling something as "snack food" leads to the perception that something is "in excess" or "extra". Too many of these "extra" things in life is unhealthy and unbalanced.
Guilt comes in, when people go against their conscience. However, the nature of that guilt, I believe, is different, and can manifest itself in different ways. For a typical American who diets, there is guilt associated with eating junk food. This guilt is deeply personal, and the person regrets for making such a decision. To deal with the guilt, some people develop eating disorders, a negative self-image, and low self-esteem. All of this is focused on the self. On the flip side, some people deal with the guilt in a healthy manner by forgiving oneself and moving on. This way of dealing with guilt is healthier and goes with the individualistic spirit.
For me, guilt does not revolve around food at all. It revolves around relationships.
There was one time in elementary school when I asked my mother for lunch money. But she told me to look in the closet for quarters. In the closet, there was a cup sitting on the shelf with a lot of quarters. Lunch was $1.25, which meant 5 quarters. Although I could take more quarters than I needed to buy lunch and the slushie/nacho, I reasoned that I couldn't. First of all, it would be too dishonest, and I would feel guilty that I would have to lie to my parents that I spent more than $1.25 on food. Second of all, I knew there was a finite number of quarters. If I used too many quarters on one day, then I would have less quarters to spend on following days, and I didn't want to go hungry. To make the quarters go the extra mileage, I had to use exactly the amount I needed -- $1.25. So, I always took 5 quarters out of that cup, and in a way, I restrained my own spending and eating behaviors. But health was not really the primary intention.
When I was 8-10 years old, my family went to the local farm to pick farm-fresh fruits and vegetables in the fields. My parents probably chose the place, because they liked the cheap prices by the pound. They just had to harvest the fruits and vegetables themselves. At the farm, there was a snow cone stand. I asked my mom for one, and she bought it for me. The second time we went there, I asked again, but she said no. Instead, she literally requested a snow cone without any flavoring. Although that certainly did ruin my appetite for snow cones, I am now very thankful about that, because I have recently found out that food dyes are very unhealthy. Thanks, Mom!
Sometimes, my family and another family went to the said farm together. One day, that family brought a plate of appetizers. I decided to try one. When I returned home, my mother scolded me for my behavior. She used the word, "馋", which referred to my gluttonous food craving. She said that my behavior made me look like a beggar's child who wasn't well fed at home. I think, in Chinese culture, Chinese people value being well-fed. Affluent people are more well fed than impoverished people, so they are extremely humble about food intake from other people.
This becomes interpreted as good manners, because it shows that person comes from a wealthy family. In addition, Chinese eating etiquette requires the diner to eat less than what the host serves. If the diner eats everything on the plate, then that suggests that the host is not serving enough food, which in turn puts a greater burden on the host to make more food. In good taste, the diner must eat less than what he is served. Good health implies that a person has proper upbringing, righteousness, and social status; it's not necessarily an individual's conscious, personal choice.
Off The Great Wall mentions that Chinese parents don't typically give out allowance money, like American parents do. In that regard, my parents never gave me any money for doing household chores. I think that the refusal for giving allowance money is a manifestation that Chinese parents value familial interdependency more than they value personal independence. When my parents were children, older siblings took care of younger siblings, and all the children helped their mother with the housework.
Though, a slightly more richer family would hire a live-in servant to do the menial tasks. Similarly, many Chinese parents pay their children's college tuition in full, so that their children could walk out of college debt-free. That's just another example of familial interdependency over personal independence. The side consequence of not receiving allowance money really cuts into how much I can spend on "snack foods" outside the home and thus the amount of calories I would consume in a day.
I think I started eating more processed food in greater quantities in middle school. At the time, my mother found a full-time job, so I was left home, alone. For after-school snacks, I ate canned or prepackaged meals. Sometimes, I forgot the key, so I went to the lease office to borrow the key. There, I found out about free cookies and took one regularly. In high school, lunch money was placed on my student ID card, but then I started to buy the cookies. My favorite ones were the double chocolate and macadamia nut cookies. I joined chess club.
The combination of sitting and munching on free leftover pizza donated from the cafeteria probably made me fat over time. During my first year of university, I brought home-cooked foods again. They were usually last night's dinner leftovers. I didn't have any money to buy food in the vending machines or the cafeterias, so when I was thirsty, I just drank free water in the water fountain. For some reason, the water in the water fountain always tasted better and more neutral than the unboiled water in the sink. The combination of portioned home-cooked foods and walking/running all around campus probably made me lose a significant and noticeable amount of weight.
It is common knowledge that if you eat more than you need, then you will gain weight. However, this belief fails to consider that people have finite capacity to store food. During the process of eating, the brain will tell the person to stop eating. So, the only way to gain weight is to eat calorie-dense foods. The belief also fails to consider that some people have a much bigger appetite than others. For some people, they persistently eat a small amount of food to feel full and have to consciously eat more food to gain weight. For other people, they persistently eat a large amount of food to feel full and have to consciously eat less food to lose weight. In addition, the intention of eating more may backfire, because the body may refuse to admit any more food and will force the person to vomit. The uncomfortable feeling of sickness teaches the person a lesson about how much food he/she can take in. On the flip side, some people have massive food cravings and probably a lot of money in their wallets, so they can buy a lot of foods and eat all of them in a short time period.
There was one time when I went to my father's office in the college campus and told him that I didn't have my lunch box with me. So, my father and I went to Wendy's, which was located in the hospital building next door. I wanted to order something really special and big, so I ordered #3 on the menu with a small fries, a coke product, and a baked potato. We carried the food products back to my father's office, and I gobbled the food products all by myself. By the time I finished, I felt uncomfortably full. Although I didn't vomit, the experience made me aware of how much I really could eat in a sitting.
Personal Preferences and Money
Many energy-dense foods tend to be very sweet. If you like sweet things and can buy them, then you can gain weight very easily. Economically, demand for a product comes from a desire for the product, the willingness to buy the product, and the ability to buy the product. If there is no desire or willingness, then the product is a waste of money. If you have the desire but you can't afford it, then the product is beyond grasp.
For me, I do find moderately sweet foods tolerable. However, if I had a choice between something savory and something sweet, then I would go for the savory food over the sweet food. It may be that I naturally do not like sweet food, or it may be that my personal upbringing has made me adverse to sweet food. Either way, excessive weight gain is possible, if I consume large quantities of salty food. But as food costs money, I would have to buy a relatively small amount of salty food regularly to cause a very slow weight gain. It's the economics, not personal choice for healthy living, that makes a person fat or fit.
Portion Size and Food Quantity
Without a doubt, the American portion size for meals is relatively bigger than that of other nations. When I ate home-cooked baozi (a type of steamed bun with filling) or mantou (a type of steamed bun without filling) prepared by my mother, the individual pieces were smaller than my palm. When I ate a bagel in a coffee shop, the bagel was about a fourfold greater than my mom's bun. The bagel would usually have a hole in the middle, but the hole was so tiny that it didn't even count as a hole.
When I ate rice porridge for breakfast, it was mostly water. When my family transitioned to oatmeal because of a belief that the oatmeal was heart-healthy, it was prepared in the same way as rice porridge. I tried to prepare the oatmeal according to the instructions on the package. I thought it was not bad, but my parents hated it and thought I prepared the oatmeal improperly. The main reason was that the oatmeal was too thick. Later, we always ate our oatmeal porridge like rice porridge, with a higher water-to-grain ratio. Coincidentally, the food quantity was considerably less, and the oatmeal could last a long time in the pantry. On top of that, the oatmeal was usually eaten by itself or with savory things, even though there was one time when I sprinkled dried cranberries in the porridge.
The belief that a healthy lifestyle or unhealthy lifestyle is a personal, conscious choice is definitely false. There are so many conditions and variables involved in a healthy lifestyle or unhealthy lifestyle. We should not blame the individuals themselves for "choosing to eat an unhealthy diet"; and we should be wary about praising individuals for "choosing to eat a very healthy diet". How much personal choice and free will is there when the environment predisposes us to be healthy or unhealthy?
That said, I am not saying that people are completely helpless in their own environment. Instead, I am merely saying that we should look at the whole situation and what are the many factors that cause unwanted weight gain in people. Doing so will hopefully bring down the negative stereotypes of obese people as lazy and stupid. Currently, the MyPlate model, created by the United States Department of Agriculture, is a progressive guideline for eating healthy and adding moderately or vigorously physical activities into daily life. At the same time, it includes the importance of creating a healthy food culture. Like I said, humans are mostly cultural beings. If the food culture is healthy, if families make healthy food choices, then that puts less stress on individuals to live a healthy lifestyle. The individuals may just conform to the culture instead of consciously making a difficult, life-changing choice with so many commitments and no support from family or friends.