When Did Personal Responsibility Become Irrelevant?

As you know, I’m an avid Twitterer. Sometimes I worry my blogging is suffering because I spend my limited time writing for Twitter and Facebook and not as much here. However, a recent conversation on Twitter spawned a rant needing a little longer than 140 characters.

Rob Smart, a gentlemen (and I mean that sincerely) I converse with on food issues regularly, is debating with me regarding the role processed foods play in our increasingly overweight society. Here are the things I will stipulate, as I either believe them based on my personal experience, or based on empirical evidence:
- Our society is becoming increasingly overweight
- Said weight gain is bad for the individual, and ultimately costs us money

These are issues Rob and I can easily agree on. Where we part company, at least in part, is on the issue of why people are increasingly overweight. I suggest it is due to a cultural shift that has taken us away from the tradition of eating a homecooked meal around the family table. As June Cleaver as that concept sounds today, I miss that tradition from my childhood. And, I admit that our family falls far short of the standard my wife and I both grew up with.

What did the homecooked family supper do for us? Several things, I think. First, it kept us in touch with food. Mom and Dad are both great cooks in our family, and the men of both houses were tremendously skilled in the kitchen. I like to think I picked up some of their culinary gifts. Secondly, it strengthened the family by keeping communication open, which in turn allowed us to remain grounded in our shared values and aspirations.

So what does all this have to do with family dinner? Simple. When our families were centered around a shared evening meal, none of us ate out as much. Now, I love a good restaurant as much as the next guy, but in all honesty eating out isn’t nearly as good for us as eating in. While Rob would suggest this is because restaurant food is highly processed and not as good for you as food fresh from the garden, I take the line that restaurants are a challenge because we make bad choices at the menu.

Take for example my favorite food. For years, I’ve been a member of the big eaters’ club at many great steakhouse chains. I’d sit down, order a 12 or 14oz ribeye, a loaded baked potato, a salad with ranch dressing, and perhaps share an appetizer of some fried variety with the rest of the table. Add a beer, sweet tea, or soda pop and suddenly we’re talking about a smorgasbord of calories nearing my total daily caloric needs. This meal would be fine if I was running three miles a day or working a major construction job. I, however, spend most of my day in an office, in a broadcast studio, or in the truck driving to our public appearances. A steady diet like I just described has led me to an extra 150 pounds I’m working to shed.

Should I blame Frisch’s, Texas Roadhouse, or Cap City Diner? No way. As Truman said, the buck stops here.

You and I have this little gift called personal responsibility. God created man with one unique gift he held from all other creatures: free will. Governments have come and gone with the stated aim of subjugating that gift from the people. The Soviets, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong-Il, Saddam Hussein; each were dedicated to removing the rights and choices of the people. In this country, however, we retain the use of that God-given and unalienable right to exercise our free will.

As Spiderman taught me, with great power comes great responsibility, and arguably the gift of free will is the greatest power on this earth. By giving us the right to choose our actions, the Great Creator also gave us the opportunity to fail and fall short of our potential. In my case, I’ve failed to make good choices about my own personal well-being that I’m now trying to rectify.

Folks like Rob, and there are many more out there (President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, etc), attempt to blame the nameless, faceless firms of “corporate America” for this failure of personal responsibility. It would be easy for me to say that Wendy’s deserves the blame for my weight because they offered to sell me a triple cheeseburger knowing that it was loaded with way more calories than I need. Of course, they also gave me the option to buy a single with cheese, which would have more than satisfied my needs.

Food marketers have been faced with the unique dilemma of trying to justify their value to consumers. The concept of super-sizing food allowed food marketers to increase their operating revenues at relatively little cost. To double the amount of french fries in an order costs very little, but the perceived return on investment is exceptional. The concept has worked extremely well; if you want a great example, start watching the price of fountain drinks the next time you eat out. These are areas where a restaurant can pass along increased labor and energy costs to consumers. You might balk at a $20/plate meal over a $15 dinner, but you don’t think twice about ordering a Coke at $2/glass when it used to be 50-cents.

Is this an evil plot by the entire food industry? Absolutely not; this is simple market economics at work. Consumers want “more for their money.”

If I am not happy with my weight, my blood-pressure, or my cholesterol, I can take steps to rectify those issues. None of these issues require a Harvard PhD, by the way, although billions of dollars have been spent researching them. Calories in, calories out is the simple answer on the weight issue. While thousands of Americans have legitimate biological issues keeping them from losing that extra twenty pounds, most of us have shifted into this knowledge-based economy driven by services and professions keeping us in a more sedentary lifestyle.

Our forebears were workers; they held jobs that required them to be on their feet all day, to lift things, to move things, to build things with their hands. They created, they forged, they worked in fields and on farms. Today we accomplish a previously unthinkable amount of “work” without breaking a sweat. This shift in occupational activity, however, is not the only culprit. Our kids aren’t helping.

How can I possibly blame the children? Take a look at the schedule of your average parent today. A teenager today is involved in more activities, sports, clubs, and college-prep coursework than ever before. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but our escalating demands on our children (our demands in the societal/cultural sense) have almost precluded the concept of a shared evening meal altogether. The difference in just the decade I’ve spent away from the public school system are astounding, let alone the difference over the last generation.

So, to summarize, I have a hard time laying this, and numerous other societal ills, at the feet of corporate America. I don’t believe the CEO’s of Fortune 500 food companies got together in a dark room to conspire how to make us all fat and unhealthy. I do believe that Americans don’t have time, or don’t take time, to stay educated on their own nutrition and fitness, myself included. The necessity of a firm reliance on personal responsibility in our society cannot be ignored.

The current administration in Washington and the current Congress would like us to believe that government is here to help us with a steady diet of legislation and regulation; Jefferson reminds us, however, that government large enough to give us everything we need is also big enough to take away everything we have. To that end, be it over health care, jobs, stimulus funding, or food safety, we need to keep a weather eye on the horizon of federal government and spending. Let’s rededicate ourselves to personal responsibility, and take hold of this obesity “epidemic.”

The answers are as simple as Mom’s age-old wisdom: eat your vegetables, and don’t sit too close to the TV. In other words, we eat more calories than we expend. To refrain from being a hypocrite on this issue, I’m dedicating myself to losing 150lbs this year. That’s right, I want to be half the man I am today. I’m excited to say I’ve already lost 13 pounds in the last month, and I’m stepping up my game this week by tightening my calorie count even more.

How will I do this, you ask? Simple – Good old fashioned calorie-in, calorie-out common sense couple with modern technology. Using my iPhone 3GS and a clever app called “Lose It,” I’m tracking my intake and expenditure of calories. The program is very useful, and allows me to log all my food consumption and exercise, estimating my intake and output of calories. Given my goals, it tells me how many calories I can consume in a given day. It has me set to lose two pounds per week, although I’m looking to push that schedule a little harder.

With your permission, I’ll keep you abreast of my progress here. I think your help will keep me accountable, and with any luck and a lot of hard work, I’ll be a new man in time for those New Years Resolutions I never keep. Wish me luck; I love food, so it ain’t gonna be easy.

That being said, I’m focusing on cooking great tasting foods at home and watching my balance of nutrients carefully so when I’m on the road (as we are almost all the time) I can better control the fluctuation in my intake. The exercise part of the plan right now involves me spending more time on the Golf Course or at the Driving Range. No, not the most intense workout I can find, but I think for a program to be sustainable, you must enjoy it.

Let me know what you think. I plan to make this a regular feature here so we can decide together if I’m right about this personal responsibility thing, or if Rob’s right and the decks are stacked against us by evil food marketers behind closed doors.