Sunday, October 6, 2013

Lessons From The Homeless

Not the actual person I saw but you get the idea

Why are homeless people sometimes obese?

I saw a really obese homeless person on my way to the studio. Now this isn't that unusual. I see lots of obese homeless people in Los Angeles.

But sometimes people see this, and think they have it good. "See they can eat, see they are okay, see it's a scam, they don't really need our money."

They are NOT overweight from overeating. They are overweight because their financial situation eliminates the ability to choose. They can afford to eat whatever they can afford, they don't have the buying power to make other choices. It's this buying choice we take for granted.

If they have 2 dollars, they can go buy 2 candy bars, or they can wait until they have 12 dollars to go buy a chicken salad. Caloric density is key to their survival. Nutrition is something people who can afford to eat have to worry about, eating enough to live is the baseline. And if they could save up more, they may opt to find a place to stay for the night and use the rest to eat something cheap. They have bigger problems than soy or tempeh, Trader Joe's or Wholefoods.

It's the same reason India and China will outpace the rest of the world in type 2 diabetes. Sugary foods are cheap with no limiting factor. Places where poverty is high, you eat what's cheap, as long as you're religion and culture does not forbid it. And no religion or culture forbids sugar of starchy cheap foods. The US produces a lot of these foods and these foods have the highest amount of government subsidies. These countries can't compete with our prices. And since it's just food and it's not threatening their belief systems, they can embrace it.

Now some people have this strange paranoia that every homeless person they give money to will go buy drugs. So instead some of them give them food. What foods are you giving them? Candy, french fries you no longer want, soda pop, etc. They can't be picky, if they go to a mission or when food trucks that feed the homeless come by, they take whatever they can get.

And since the only food they are given or they can afford are the things we consider unhealthy but cheap, they gain weight. Not because they are secretly holding a job and pan handling to make money on the side.

Harsh Reality - You are not an underdog (don't read further if you are easily offended)

Majority of the people who can accord fitness classes, books, trainers, etc., hunger and starvation is not a reality for them. They have enough caloric density, and if they don't they can afford to go buy more food. Their problem is different from the homeless person, it IS overeating, and it's nutritional deficiency. You CAN choose better but you don't.

You may argue the merits of paleo, vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic, and the rest, but to a homeless person they can't have those luxuries. They have to eat whatever they can and when they can and however much they can. They are probably unaware of their thyroid issues or wheat or lactose intolerances nor can they go to that holistic doctor to be diagnosed.

Starving to death is not a legitimate problem for any of our clients. It's not the problem of anyone who can afford a trainer, and if it is, use that money for food not for a trainer. Don't use your rent money for training. If you have an eating disorder, use that money for a therapist, definitely don't treat it with training.


Now sometimes I deal with someone who is underslept, overstressed, and always tired. That actually sounds like a lot of us right? So we talk about their sleep habits. They come home late from work and they are insanely tired. I ask if they wash up and go to bed. They say no, they eat, watch some shows (DVR, cable, Netflix) on their HD TV and snack, then wash up and go to bed...

I suggest to them, if they are that tired and underslept and overstressed, and being underfed is not one of their issues, why not just go home and skip dinner and go to sleep.

They get real defensive, and say I am trying to make them anorexic, or trying to get them to starve to death, or my methods are based around starvation. Or trying to eliminate their time to relax and enjoy themselves and catch up on their programs...

At this point, a part of me wants to smack this person upside the head. But I verbally slap them. First of all no one becomes anorexic from skipping dinner to get more sleep, they become anorexic because of deep underlying mental issues. Secondly, DO NOT talk about starvation so lightheartedly. Starvation is the lack of food to the point of risking death. You have an ample storage of reserve energy (which is why you came in the first place), and you eat a lot anyway, dinner or no dinner. You will not starve to death. It just insults real people, forget Africa, I mean this country, who actually starve to death because they have no money. And if you really need to enjoy yourself and relax and watch your programs, then do it, and realize being tired and underslept is the price of that choice so hopefully you find it worth it. You can't have it all though with money you will try. And lastly, stop being so dramatic. If you don't want to do it, don't do it. It's a suggestion based around the key problems you mentioned, starvation was never an issue you mentioned during our intake and if it were, I would have to refer you elsewhere.

The most common question I get on Facebook is, what's a good snack. Usually the situation is, they've had lunch, they are going out for dinner after work. What's a good snack? When I question them on why they need a snack (especially since they just had lunch and it's only a couple hours away from a big dinner), they react the same way as the person skipping dinner for sleep reacts. My questioning is the same to them as me depriving them of a necessity of life.

Necessity or Luxury

People dealing with food insecurity like the homeless, they deal with HUNGER. Most of us, we deal with CRAVINGS. Don't get it twisted. You just had lunch, you're about to have dinner, how hungry or hangry (so hungry you are angry) could you be? Even the term hangry is an upper class term. You got cravings. Hunger is when your body is completely out of food and food reserves. That's not the problem for the person who has to wait a few hours to go out and eat DineLA.

There have been three instances someone has threatened to beat me up (you risk your life trying to get in the way of people and their food). One time was when I asked someone if they had to put sugar in their coffee, another time was when I asked a client why they had to have a snickers bar in the middle of the day, and the last one was why a client had to constantly snack while sitting at his desk. How dare I even ask. If it was a necessity of life, I would get their overreaction. But it's a luxury, and no one is going to make them stop (I'm not going to their work and make them stop, nor do I even have that sort of power), I just asked why. If they were dying of hunger, I get it. But if you just consumed something less than an hour ago, and just the thought of not having something makes you feel flight or fight, you've got a serious relationship problem with food. You've got a problem where only someone who has unlimited access to food could have. The fact you have this problem means you are in a good financial place in your life (all three of these people are more than well off).

You now need to realize food is abundant, you don't have to fear the absence of food. That what you feel are cravings not hunger. That your problems are a lot smaller than you think and you CAN control it. It's within your realm of control and choice. Others do cannot afford that luxury of control or choice. They can't dictate when they eat, how much they eat, or the frequency. You can. Use it, don't take it for granted because its a blessing to others.

I don't even know if homeless people or people dealing with food insecurity can even have an eating disorder. It's almost a luxury in that world, having food but being able to choose not to eat it.

If most Americans are now overweight, that does not mean they are all the same. They got to the same result, but the paths were very different. 

The majority got there due to a lack of income, a minority got there due to too much disposable income. It's a mistake to think everyone can relate to being tempted by a fridge always overstocked with food. Not everyone can afford to be a foodie.

This can also explain why some people can lose weight while others can't. They didn't have the health buying power or education another person did. Just because you could lose the weight doesn't mean everyone else can do it so easily and you shouldn't hold that against them.

The Millionaire

I had a millionaire client, only wore Rolexes, sent his kids to the best private schools, his wife bought all the expensive clothes, fancy country club, the whole nine yards. He cared about quality, no matter the price. It was consistent with everything except food. With food, yes he would order expensive steak, he would also get Cheetos at the gas station. Other than fancy dinners, if he had 10 bucks, he's not going to buy a 10 dollar lunch. He would buy 10 dollar packs of something from 7-11. With food, quantity of food was more important than quality, though the rest of his life, the opposite was true. He kept asking me why he was having a hard time with weight loss.

I told him that he lives like a rich person, but eats like a poor person.

But unlike real poor people, he's doing it by choice not necessity. That's a problem yes, but that's only a problem a rich person could have. His life was contradictory as many of us are with food. We want Harvard for our kids, but we feed them junk food. Because when you have more money, you consider your ability to earn income based solely on your brain. Your body is not the real you, your brain is the real you because your brain makes you money. So you can treat the body however you want, as long as it can still get your brain to school or work. (Though this is scientifically inaccurate as the brain is a housing unit for neurons, but there are neurons all around your body as well.)

Whereas with the homeless person, if he can't feed his body, he dies. His needs are basic.

This puts things into perspective. Hunger and inability to choose is a REAL problem. As wounded and hurt and unhealthy some of the people we deal with in the fitness industry are, we are regularly dealing with first world problems.. I can't resist that red velvet cake or wine after my meal. How dare you question the validity of yoga, spin, or pilates, I pay 25 dollars a class! Why are supplements bad? I pay a lot for these!

Health Elitism (even the liberals)

I go to this holistic doctor, or take this yoga class, or all of us were meant to eat this way and not to mistreat bla bla bla, if it's so love and light, why is the barrier to entry so expensive? Why are there none in lower income areas? Why, whatever city you go to, in the class, or in that restaurant, or at the waiting room of that doctor, all the people are of the same few ethnicities? If everyone in India is really doing it (though they don't, the physical asanas of yoga is more of an American practice) and this yoga is so authentic, then how come it's exponentially more expensive than what the people of India could afford? Why isn't it for the people? Why is it only for a certain group of people?

If that Hollywood celebrity work out is so effective, why doesn't it work for the lower income people? Why does it only work for the upper class who are more thin to begin with?

Even someone quite "liberal," when asked about their diet or their favorite work out, may sound like a Tea Party member and vice versa. Meaning no matter how open minded we think we are, when it comes to food and health, we compartmentalize it and we can't use the same logic as we do with other things.

Why celebrity trainers are so effective

Here's a secret. If you have a class, and it's expensive, you will have more thin people there. People in the richer areas tend to be more thin than people in the lower income area, and the high income people are the only people who can afford it. And so because the class is full of thin people, it gives the illusion that it was the activity not the barrier to entry that filled the room with thin people.

There was a time our training rates were literally 40 dollars more per lesson. I had a lot of clients, they all came from the same zipcode (I won't say where), they were thin and their biggest problem was looking "hot." If someone took a picture of all these clients, they would think I was the fitness guru. I had to lower the rates and make the barrier to entry based on their attitude and mindset not on their assets.

Problems like these

I love cronuts (even though it's 12 dollars), I need my morning Starbucks latte, you will have to pry it out of my dead hands! You are insane if you question this food I eat while working, it's the only thing I can eat while working in front of my Macbook, in my nice cushy office. Besides I got it from Wholefoods and it says gluten free!

You already knew this and this is why you initially came 

Though you may have forgotten or got into old habits. As one of our clients Natalie put it, "you're just really stating the obvious. If we can afford to pay you, we can afford to make better food choices."

She told me about a relative she has who's dealing with an illness but they are on a fixed budget. They forgo a lot of amenities, entertainment, and ride public transportation to make better food choices. Whereas we debate the pros and cons of eating dark chocolate (which I heard has anti-oxidants!) or organic, whole fruit yogurt from Erewhon as we watch Breaking Bad on AMC. Really your problems aren't that big in the grand scheme of things.

Movie Logic

A person recently told me how he hated some movie because according to him "it was all yuppy crap no one can relate to." It made me think of work situations I hear about frequently and the indulgences people give themselves, and how they don't understand why I couldn't understand or relate to it. I was "weird," how can anyone be like me? They would question (some even attack) and begin to ask me what I ate (though wouldn't their time be best served talking about what they ate?).

To some of them its weird for me not to be in those situations, but for me I have no idea what it's like to have millions of dollars riding on me and have lots of employees work under me. Their situations are not a common person's problems, and to me some of them become like a character from that same movie, the one most of us can't relate to.

Growing up, we couldn't afford to snack. In a way its still foreign, if I can afford a snack, I should save that money just in case. I wonder who more Americans can relate to as he put it? Based on our environment, we begin to lose perspective. If you can afford all those luxuries, a gym, a trainer, unlimited snacks, wine and dessert with every meal, how tough do you really have it? Deprivation and starvation is not and will not ever be within your realm of reality unless your financial situation changes. Don't kid yourself. But those are words I hear and deal with daily. And they are words not to be uttered lightly out of respect for people actually dealing with it.

Maybe the makers of that movie felt the same way, because its a comedy about issues they face (as rich studio writers or producers or executives) that everyone can relate to it because those are the only kinds of people they know. But what's true for you isn't true for everyone else. Being able to even sit while you work (think of the mechanics, the servers, the plumbers, laborers, even struggling gym trainers), let alone snack while you work is a luxury for some whereas to others it's a necessity or a right. Working at an office where the fridge is fully stocked always is mandatory. But working a full-time job is a blessing for many. Maybe in their world, they are the down to earth ones, they only go to the spa once a week whereas their friends get go once a day. I know people who have never been able to afford a massage because all their money had to go some place else, like rent and basic necessities for life.

Some ask how I eat or live to get an example. But others will ask not because they care what I eat, they just want to use it as fuel to point out how uncommon I am and that no one can live like me. Maybe a lot of people can't, but a lot of people also don't live in their situations either. I'm in a good place right now, so they know I can afford some of the things they can. They just don't understand how I can choose differently. They come from a world where everyone they know can afford choice. But a lot of Americans have no choice.

They deal with temptation, OTHERS deal with deprivation.

They deal with cravings, OTHERS deal with hunger and starvation.

If your problem is not knowing what's a good snack between lunch and dinner, consider yourself blessed.

You have more blessings than you know

My Rolex client once promoted a girl from his factory into the office. The fact that she now worked in an office was a huge deal for her family, and they celebrated. She was the first in their long line of laborers to ever work in an office setting. Many envied her. College? Maybe for her future child, because mommy got an office job. All the problems people face in the office, are problems many people wish they had. My parents dream for me was to actually make a salary, be a salaryman as they called it because they only knew minimum wage (my mom got paid less than that, she got paid per garment she sewed as a seamstress).

If I truly understood and accommodated for all the voluntary health issues people create, how effective would I be? Not very. How effective would our time be if we used that time for you to get me to adopt your way of thinking and belief system, sure you got me to change. But how will that help you change? Wait, wasn't our time meant for you to change, not for me to change so that you can remain the same? You really want to use your money and time like that? Most of the industry tries to accommodate and it's why it's not effective.

Rapper Logic

One of the things I love watching is to see a client spread their mindset to all facets of their life and to watch them be successful, and I've seen a lot of clients get financially more successful as their health improved (something we strive for). That's better than watching people lose weight. I wish all my clients got richer and better off. But like every good rapper says, you must "keep it real" and remember where you came from and the people who helped you get you where you are. And to quote more rappers, "don't get it twisted", do not mistake your problems as being the same problems everyone else faces. It's probably not. And don't take for granted your blessings, because that's annoying.

It's all fun and games

For the homeless and many Americans dealing with food insecurity, their problem isn't behavioral. It's a lack of choice. They want to change but sometimes they can't unless their financial situation changes. They deal with hunger, cravings only come when you can quench hunger first. The ability to joke about hunger, starvation, and to use a "funny" term like "hangry" or sayings like "I'm as hungry as a starving ______ in _______" is not a luxury they have. Because they are that starving thing we are making fun of. But we take it lightly...

That homeless person is overweight because of a lack of choice. But some of us, our weight issue is due to too much choice. And because of that some of us will be able to lose the weight more easily than others because being overweight was always optional.

Look at the poorest states, the ones dealing with the most food insecurity and hunger, you will also find the fattest states. That's poverty. Wholefoods and farmer's markets won't go to places that won't be able to afford their food. But McDonald's will and so will convenience stores, because its cheap.

The rest of us are dealing with our own behaviors, mental not food insecurities, ineffective choices, unhealthy choices, and the belief that we have earned the right to do these things and we can hire someone to work around them. "I don't want to change. So work around that." What a nice option to have...

*Being a former finance/investments/stocks/banking guy, my view points are different from the norm of fitness. But the obesity problem in the US is also a problem of income disparity. Healthier employees make for better income. Better income make for healthier employees.
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