Waistlines are expanding. Diabetes is skyrocketing. Clothes that are bigger are still fitting tighter.
Everyone has noticed it. Most people who think about it, from experts to casual observers, have formulated some sort of explanation for it.
Many of these explanations are self-evident, or at least familiar by now. And that is why it really stood out when, in a recent conversation for a different article, Debra Boardley had an explanation that seemed fresh and new.
Ms. Boardley is a registered dietician and an associate professor of Public Health and Rehabilitative Services at the University of Toledo. Among her many areas of expertise, she has written papers and given presentations about obesity.
The thing she said that resonated so strongly was this: "When we were younger, special things happened less frequently. Yeah, you got Easter candy; yeah, you got Halloween candy; yeah, you ate Christmas cookies - but not every day as the fourth meal."
That sounds right, doesn't it?
Although we do not have empirical evidence to back it up, it certainly seems anecdotally likely that people are treating themselves more frequently these days.
Going out to eat used to be a big event, a special-occasion kind of thing. It was not that long ago that most families would dine out once a month, once a week, or once or twice a year. Someone else would do the cooking, the serving, and the cleaning, and it would be a treat.
It still feels like a bit of a treat to go out for dinner. Unless you are lucky enough (or a poor enough cook, or you live in New York) to eat every meal out, then you probably feel a little surge of anticipation and excitement when you go to a restaurant.
But it is a treat many of us treat ourselves to with increasing, almost casual, frequency.
I have a friend who eats most of his meals at home - nearly all of them taken out from a restaurant - on paper plates. He does so, he says, because it makes him feel more festive. Without delving too deeply into whatever it was that happened in his childhood that makes him associate festivity with paper plates, the point is that he does it for nearly every dinner that he eats at home.
In the context of overeating and obesity, however, it is not a bad way to treat oneself. This particular friend remains infuriatingly skinny.
Why do we feel we need something special so often? Why do we take things that were once out of the ordinary and, through overuse, make them ordinary? And doesn't that remove the specialness from things that were special?
Perhaps it is a natural outgrowth of the whole self-esteem movement. For the last 25 years, we have been telling our children that they are unique, they are special, they can do anything. Their self-esteem has risen demonstrably, and with it their self-regard, which was the whole purpose of the movement. But with this increased self-regard comes also a sense of entitlement, the idea that "I should have this ice cream cone because I deserve it."
Once in a while, that is fine. But when we start to think that we deserve an ice cream cone every day, that is when the weight starts creeping on.
One of the most successful and recognizable advertising taglines of all time is "because I'm worth it." That slogan for L'Oreal, which is in the Advertising Hall of Fame, captured the imagination of millions because it revealed - and maybe even fueled - the hidden sense that yes, darn it, I am indeed worth it.
I am worth these cosmetics. I deserve something special.
I think I'll have doughnut to celebrate.
Contact Daniel Neman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.
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