This post was first published on ON LINE Opinion, Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate, as Connect the dots out of an obesity epidemic to ‘picture of health’.
My childhood friend was getting quite plump, had trouble running and became the victim of chubby and fat jokes by kids and adults alike. This was back in the ‘60s when most children were quite slim.
If you’d seen her a year later, you wouldn’t have recognised her. She regularly rode her bicycle, played tennis and had established a healthy diet despite being part of a family who often overindulged. And her slender appearance hasn’t changed during the ensuing five decades.
What changed for her? There was more going on than just seeing-out the ‘puppy fat’ years. It was pretty clear that there was a major change in her thinking when she realised that she could take charge of her life. This new, empowered view of herself transformed her lifestyle. I happen to know that this change included a dawning awareness of her spiritual identity. Even in her early teens she was learning that she didn’t need to continually try to use food to fill a void in her life and that she couldn’t be limited by family eating habits. She realised that an all-powerful and infinitely loving, divine consciousness was guiding her throughout each day, and nothing could stop her putting in the many hours of hard work to develop her talents and fulfil her dreams.
Obese Nation, the series currently running on The Conversation news and opinion site, is bringing together academic comment and research on what we can do to stop the obesity epidemic threatening Australia. Around two-thirds of adults and a quarter of children are overweight or obese. This is a dramatic change from the landscape just 30 years ago when we first collected national data on weight and height.
So what’s needed in our community to solve the increasing problem of obesity and the often related ‘lifestyle’ diseases like diabetes and hypertension? The Conversation series suggests many options: a ‘fat tax’, an overhaul of the economy so that the poor in our society are no longer deprived and development becomes sustainable, fewer calories, more exercise, building of recreational facilities, improving urban design, increasing anti-obesity social marketing programs, adding workplace health promotion programs, and more. It’s clear that all these steps could be adopted and would be beneficial. But will they really solve the problem?
While researching this subject I came across another article that prompted me to think about obesity in a different way. Shannon McKeown asserts, “If you are overweight or obese, your weight loss journey starts from the inside – out. The obesity epidemic is as much about fundamental nutrition like balance, variety, food choice, and portion control as it is about spirituality, psychology, and behaviour”. And Time Magazine’s Food Columnist, Mark Bittman suggests that love and meditation prevent and even reverse lifestyle diseases that often stem from obesity. This is thought-provoking stuff!
My research also led me to discover that treatment at the other end of the spectrum, anorexia and bulimia, is having success through cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps sufferers by showing them how to recognise negative thoughts and feelings and how to change them. Interestingly, it is not until some remain chronically unwell that newer approaches such as mindfulness are explored.
From these and many other conclusions, it seems that spirituality and mindfulness have equal footing with other predictors as health determinants. So perhaps the peace, happiness, kindness, forgiveness and unconditional love that result from spiritual or religious experiences may be part of the solution to better health, including solving the obesity epidemic.
The Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality asserts that “The present is a very exciting time for the emerging trans-disciplinary field of religion, spirituality, and health. Research findings are slowly coalescing into a coherent picture of how the human body and human health is affected by the perennial human quest … for spiritual and religious truth.”
Looking at the research on both the mind/body connection through placebo research and the more recent studies on the effects of spirituality on health perhaps we start to connect the dots to where public health funding needs to be allocated. Prevention should drive health care suggests Dana Godman, director of the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California in a recent interview.
In his cutting-edge work on spirituality and health research published a few months ago, Duke University professor and doctor of geriatric medicine, psychiatry and biostatistics, Dr Harold Koenig, goes so far as to propose a research agenda for the field of religion, spirituality and health research, with lifestyle diseases being one of the focus areas. He suggests that there is such a strong, consistent relationship between religion/spirituality, healthy lifestyle choices, and positive health behaviours, that there may also be similar relationships between the lack of religion/spirituality and associated lifestyle diseases.
I can only conclude from this research that health starts mentally, and this certainly fits with my experience as someone who embraces Christian healing. Mary Baker Eddy, an early researcher into the affect of spirituality on health, concluded that health starts mentally and that our thoughts and motives need improving to bring healing: “The body is governed by mind; and mortal mind must be improved, before the body is renewed and harmonious, — since the physique is simply thought made manifest” (Miscellaneous Writings, p.34). She had discovered a practical, metaphysical health science freely available to all, which she named Christian Science.
Some years ago the community accepted that bleeding a patient or using leeches were good medical practice. These days that seems astounding. I don’t think we are too far away from people looking back on our era and saying with incredulity, “You mean doctors just used to do things to the body without trying to address the thought?!!!”
My young friend took on a life-changing, spiritual mindset based on this science that solved the obesity problem, along with opening new vistas of healthy life expectations. Her experience could be replicated throughout the community as integrative health practitioners and researchers work together for a new health model that at all times addresses the mental component of disease and acknowledges spirituality as integral to health.