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A Different Type of Epidemic

I can categorize memories of adolescence by the disease of the year; 2014 was Ebola, 2009 was H1N1, and last year Zika dominated global fears. However, while these worries slowly faded to the back of our minds, we continued to ignore a larger problem closer at hand: the obesity epidemic.

According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention, over 70 percent of American adults 20 years and older are overweight or obese, and one-third of American children currently face this same situation. Yet when we think of issues facing society today, these are not the first concerns that jump to mind. Instead we think of ISIS, gun violence, and the consequences of Russia undermining this past election. While those issues deserve serious attention, taking a step back and focusing on a problem that affects almost the entire general public is equally as important.

Fighting against our basic biology and the way our bodies naturally control and contract our weight is a battle that can’t necessarily be won. Being the size we are is shaped by a number of evolutionary, genetic and environmental factors that no one controls. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can allow ourselves to slip into the abyss of unhealthiness. It’s worth the battle to maintain what we’ve got and aim for healthfulness wherever it is possible.

Availability and convenience are two of the large issues behind the overarching relationship between the food industry and the crisis we now face. We turn to fast food because it is cheap and can take less time than preparing and bringing lunch to school. Furthermore, even if one had the motivation to purchase healthier ingredients at a lower price from the grocery store, would they even know how to prepare a meal? Students joke that all they ever need to know how to cook is ramen and toast, but is that the sentiment we wish to have about the food we put in our bodies?

While you could get a ham and veggie sub at Subway, it’s still cheaper to get the burger from McDonald’s. Even in our own cafeteria, the same problems exists. You can purchase ice cream or fries for under $2 but have to shell out double that for a salad. The cafeteria, and American school lunch system, should be innovating and incentivizing healthier options that students will actually buy. Eating chips, mozzarella sticks, and similar items should become a luxury reserved for rare cheat days instead of being the featured items in students’ diets.

Furthermore, the targeted advertising and big data marketing that bombards children leads to a preference towards the unhealthy brands over actual raw food. As the president of the American Psychological Association noted, “The obesity epidemic is not the result of an increase in laziness and a decrease in motivation and self-discipline in U.S. adults and children. The fast food industry—a central player in our obesogenic environment—carefully targets the populations who suffer most from high obesity rates, while arguing against New York City’s restriction on the size of sugary drinks as unfairly restricting personal choice.”

When we reflect on the school lunches of elementary school, we should not be thinking of fruit snacks and kool-aid; we should be thinking of grapes and celery. Companies like Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Frito-Lay, though, spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year in research and product development to create just the right balance of salt, sugar, color, and texture to make the cravings we formed for Gushers and Doritos stick with us so that now when we’re selecting a snack from a vending machine, are we really going to choose the whole-oat granola bar over that pack of Oreos?

Food, however, is only one portion of the problem. Remember last summer when people joked that Pokemon Go got more kids out and moving than Michelle Obama did in eight years? That is not a joking matter. With technology use increasing among all of us faster than ever, more people are spending time on their phones than out and about. It is not enough to simply purchase a fitbit or download an app, Americans need to have the inspiration to exercise and use that inspiration to actually accomplish something.

While joining a gym or just simply getting out and walking around the neighborhood are easy options to get your daily number of steps, we should also be looking towards the diverse forms of exercise available. For instance, while touring University of Chicago over President’s Day weekend, I learned that they have an intramural sport called broom-ball in which students go out on an ice rink without skates and try and score goals with giant bouncy balls and brooms. Or if you want to dive right into the extremes of exercise, Crossfit gyms and hot yoga are only a Yelp search away.

We should be expanding our fitness horizons to suit our own unique lifestyles. Whether it be rock climbing at the YMCA, biking to school on the semi-warm days or taking up cardio-intensive jump roping with your younger siblings, the different possibilities for burning calories should all be explored and expanded upon. It might be intimidating at first, but the benefits of working out and exercising far outweigh the negatives. As a bonus, it’s as good for the mind as it is for the body: exercise is the best way to squash stress and anxiety.

Overall, this problem needs to be talked about beyond the confines of health class. Health care costs will continue to soar and our medical crises will continue to grow if we ignore the impact of our own choices. Living a healthier lifestyle can improve one’s physical health as well as better one’s emotional and psychological mindset. Starting the journey to a more active and less junk-food-filled life should be a choice everyone should make in their own time, but the sooner we start, the better.

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