I struggled with my weight for most of my adolescent life, which continued into adulthood. By the time I gave birth to my third child, my son, I tipped the scales at 185 lbs. Six months after Cliffy was born, I weighed in at 210 lbs.
I have, what I like to call, a hyperactive pancreas, because every particle of food I consume, if not used as fuel, goes directly to storage. Somewhere deep in my genetic lineage, I knew I had ancestors who had experienced feast and famine, but I had no idea of my ethnic background. Given up by my birth mother for adoption as an infant, I was raised by a WASP family who had no issues with weight gain. I learned to eat potatoes and converted rice, to consume processed bread disguised as whole-wheat, and to eat dessert after every dinner. Though we usually ate whole foods, there was enough pasta and other starches to interfere with my normal metabolic processes.
Obesity caused other problems, aside from Cliffy being a large infant at birth, nearly nine-and-a-half pounds. I had gallstones, and the early stages of insulin resistance, reflected in a fasting blood sugar of 103 mg/dl (normal blood sugar levels should fall under 99 mg/dl when fasting 12+ hours).
I rarely stepped on the scale, because the device was not my friend. Every added pound was cruel irony for a woman who gave birth at home twice with the aid of a midwife, who breastfed all her children, and who quit smoking at age 20, so that her offspring would not be raised in a smoking household. I wasn’t a health nut, but neither did I understand how to feed my body.
When I realized I was 210 lbs., and sure to gain more weight, I made a pact with myself. I changed my way of eating, ridding my diet of processed foods and consuming only whole grains. I ate whole foods instead of processed, mostly meat, fruit and vegetables, though I continued to eat white rice, a habit acquired from my husband’s Filipino culture. Eventually I gave up rice with much reluctance, and noticed a swift improvement in my blood sugar levels. Steadily I lost weight. By the time I became pregnant with my fourth child, my daughter Stephanie, I had shed 80 lbs., and was exercising vigorously on a daily basis.
It wasn’t until 1996, when I was thirty-four, and located members of my birth parents’ families, that I fully understood why I had so many issues with easy weight gain from adolescence through adulthood.
Both of my birth parents carry Cherokee Indian genes. Typically, Native Americans, just like my Filipino in-laws, are descended from a feast and famine way of life. Over millennia, the pancreas developed into an efficient organ for weight gain, transforming every molecule of food into either instant energy or fat storage for the lean months when food is difficult to find. Moreover, I learned that I had to work hard at everything – eat carefully, making every meal count; and exercise daily, whether that be riding a bike, hiking up in the Open Spaces, or running three miles or so. Much like the U.S. Postal Service, I have to be on it, rain or shine.
And I had to teach this to my children, because they carry the same risk on both sides of their lineage, mine and my husband’s, of contracting the disease of the modern age, Type 2 diabetes.
In the publication, Indian County Today (October 26, 2011), David Bender writes of his own experiences with the fare of a First World Country. He records a resistance to wheat (gluten), a food sensitive liver, and various ailments that are a result of leaving behind the diet of a hunter-gatherer society. A food epiphany is no less profound than any other type of revelation, especially an awareness that has the power to heal the wrongs a simple act such as eating can wreak upon a culture.
Obesity in our day has become more of a disease of the poor. If you check out the grocery store, you’ll notice that macaroni and cheese can be had for less than $1. Conversely, a bag of dried beans can cost twice that amount, and takes much longer to prepare. A can of fatty “pasta-o’s” is much cheaper than a flat of lean beef, and a bag of broccoli. In some neighborhoods, fresh fruits and vegetables are unheard of, impossible to be acquired. If a family of five is living on a Food Stamp budget, it’s easier to feed hungry tummies on mac ’n cheese than on a roasted chicken – even if you could find fresh poultry within walking distance.
The small solutions are community gardens in inner cities, and well-planned school food programs, plus access to whole foods. In my diverse neighborhood, the only store within walking distance is a Safeway, where the produce is often very expensive. But there are also Indian and Asian ethnic food grocery outlets, where prices are amazingly affordable, and the turnover assures fresh produce most of the time.
Imagine what would happen to rates of disease caused by poor nutritional choices, if processed foods were substituted with ‘real’ food. The medical profession, already spurned by the downturn in the economy, would find itself tending to fewer patients with disease caused by a metabolic disorder. Pharmaceutical companies would post losses rather than obscene profits. The cure is merely a bite away. The irony is that it rests in a food paradigm from our ancestry, a Paleolithic mindset to negate the ills of a modern world.