Obesity Matters began with a dream: to create an organization that could help bring awareness to obesity and its effects. We wanted to challenge the status quo by showing how obesity can affect all of us, regardless of age or background.
To accomplish that dream, a lot of things needed to change. One of those changes is ongoing as we work toward shifting the public perspective on obesity. Other changes, though, needed to happen for me on a smaller and more personal scale.
The COVID-19 pandemic flipped the world on its head. But while it came charged with uncertainty and loss for many, it also provided an opportunity for some to reassess, and change their outlook on work and life. This was me.
Like many companies in many industries, my event-planning business was impacted by the pandemic, and the growing uncertainty left me feeling like I had two options. I could wallow in fear and doubt or take action and carve out a new path.
I chose the latter.
The first stop on my new path was the Okinawa Islands off the southern coast of Japan. I didn’t manage to get there in person (pandemic and all), but I did discover the people of Okinawa through The Happiness Equation, a book and podcast by Neil Pasricha.
The people of Okinawa are remarkable for a few reasons. They age extremely well, their hearts are in great shape, they develop cancer, diabetes and other chronic diseases at a low rate, and they are happy. Plus, their region has the highest percentage of centenarians in the world — there are about 68 people 100 years or older for every 100,000 residents of Okinawa. In Canada, there are about 26 centenarians for every 100,000 people.
Okinawans have a diet high in carbs with plenty of fruit, vegetables, and healthy fats, all while consuming about 11 per cent fewer calories than the recommended consumption for an adult. It is a common cultural practice for Okinawans to stop eating when they are 80 per cent full, and they tend to eat off smaller plates.
This very specific diet may partly explain why the people on this small group of islands live so long, but it’s certainly not the whole picture.
Aside from seemingly hitting the genetic jackpot, Okinawans help their cause by living active lifestyles working mostly in agriculture and fishing. They also smoke and drink less than most other populations and they get plenty of Vitamin D.
Maybe most importantly, Okinawans maintain lifelong friendships through tight-knit communities. It is common for Okinawan children to be placed into social groups as babies, eventually growing old with the same peer group. Okinawan people are happy, and they cultivate a connection with the world around them by developing a deep sense of spirituality and purpose.
They also don’t have a word to describe the concept of “retirement.” Instead, they have another word: Ikigai . In Japanese, “ Iki ” means “life,” and “ gai ” describes value or worth. Ikigai is essentially the concept of a “reason for being,” or purpose in life. It was my discovery of this concept that brought me to the next step in my journey. I needed to find my Ikigai.
In thinking about what my own Ikigai could be, I knew that I wanted to make a difference in some way. I had been in the obesity space for a while, and I saw how stigmatized the community was and how many people needed a platform and group of like-minded individuals who understood the struggle and the pain obesity can cause.
Obesity Matters has a vision of weight acceptance
I saw the lack of care that people were dealing with, and I dreamt of a world where obesity would be perceived and treated like any other chronic condition without the stigma. It would be a long road ahead, and we would need to change a lot of people’s perspectives, but I felt ready for this challenge.
This was something I was passionate about, something the world needs and something I already had some skills and experience with. It had the makings of my own Ikigai .
After speaking with my eventual co-founders, it became clear that we not only shared a lived experience, but also a passion to make real change. And so Obesity Matters was born.
We decided to start a non-profit with a vision of weight acceptance while building on the wonderful work done by Obesity Canada. Health and happiness would be a main priority, but the mission would be to educate and empower this warm, wonderful community while reinforcing our core beliefs.
We believe that no matter your size, shape or means, everyone deserves to be cared for with respect, understanding and dignity. That also means that everyone has equal access to medical treatments and therapies, too.
Fast forward to today, and Obesity Matters has grown from just a dream into a successful non-profit. We’ve been able to unite individuals, families, communities, and organizations together in support of one common cause — creating awareness around obesity as a chronic condition and the importance of equitable access to care.
Our work has now reached thousands of people across Canada and beyond, and we see progress being made every day as more and more people become aware of obesity issues.
We are proud of our growing list of accomplishments after just two years:
A growing community. The growth and adaptability of the community of people with obesity to support each other and change the treatment and policy paradigm to focus on evidence-based solutions instead of stigma.
Influence. We are challenging the status quo and moving decision-makers to consider changes. More must be done to increase equity of access to treatments and supports.
International recognition. Our recognition internationally has been a boon to our growth as an organization.
Alliances. We have established partnerships in diverse sectors.
Solid community. Our community engagement has been equally rewarding and educational.
But these accomplishments are not enough.
Looking ahead, my dream is to work with kids while educating and empowering them to improve the health of future generations. I hope at a third anniversary we can report on the progress of that goal. In the meantime, there are a number of initiatives and goals we are working toward, including changing policy so that evidence-based treatments are available to all who need it; investigating the future partnerships with innovators, be it in virtual medicine, or with influencers and celebrities who can further disseminate the message of self-love; working with stakeholders who can help debunk the myth that obesity is a lifestyle issue and help us achieve our vision to create a future of weight acceptance; and helping people advocate for themselves so they can take action to help transform societal attitudes.
We still have a long way to go in our mission, but the progress we have made in such a short time keeps us optimistic that we can accomplish our big dreams.
On World Obesity Day, and every other day, Obesity Matters is committed to helping create a world where obesity is no longer an issue, and everyone can live in health and happiness. This is our collective Ikigai .
With our continued hard work and dedication, we know that this dream will become a reality someday soon. Together, let’s keep dreaming of a healthier future.
Priti Chawla is the executive director of Obesity Matters and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published in Healthing on March 2, 2023