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My Thoughts on the Obesity Epidemic

“The government has spent hundreds of millions telling Americans to exercise more and eat less.  But the country is getting heavier every year. It’s time to change the way we think about fat. ” Gary Taubes


1. The conventional wisdom energy balance theory is wrong

Courtesy of Mike LichtThis is not new information to me and is a recurring theme in Gary’s book Good Calories, Bad Calories and his less scientific, more reader friendly book Why We Get Fat and What to do about it.  Here he explains that calories in do not equal calories out. If we had to eat only exactly what our body burned each day, it would be virtually impossible for anyone to maintain their weight.  Most importantly Taubes highlights that  “not all calories are created equal”.  Your body doesn’t treat calories from sugar and carbohydrates the same way it treats calories from fat or protein.  Sugars (carbohydrates are broken down in your body to sugars) cause a large insulin release in your body, insulin is a fat storage hormone, so large amounts of insulin lead to more fat storage…enough said.  For those of you that are breathing a sigh of relief because you only drink “diet” or “no calorie” sweetened sodas or other similar foods, here is a newsflash for you – your body gets confused when it gets something sweet and there are no sugars there (e.g., fake, no calories sweeteners) and in fact may actually store MORE fat because of this phenomena, so ditch the diet sodas and no calorie sweeteners already!

2. It’s not lack of willpower that is making us fat

Americans are doing and following the advice to eat less and exercise more, reducing our consumption of saturated fat and red meat and yet our weight keeps creeping up.  So if this advice is truly what we need to do to be healthy and lose weight, it begs the question, is what conventional wisdom telling us working? “Exhorting obese people to eat less and exercise more doesn’t work” and it’s not lack of character, gluttony, or sloth that is the culprit, but rather what these people are eating that is causing them to become obese.  It’s not that Americans aren’t trying, they are, and they are trying by following the advice of the government.  The My Plate recommendations that have roughly seventy five percent of your plate covered in carbohydrates (in the form of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits) and Americans' obesity and childhood obesity are at rates that are alarmingly high and keep climbing.  Americans are following this advice and still getting fatter, so lack of will isn’t the issue anymore, rather it's a lack of a fundamental understanding of how what we eat affects us and lack of good advice that is making and keeping America fat.

3. What if an alternative theory is true

So now we understand that what we think we know about nutrition may not be true, based on the evidence that it’s not working.  Another theory, one that has also been around for decades, is that specific foods, not necessarily the amount of food that we are consuming, are what is  making America fat.  Remember, what you think is healthy – whole grains, eating many small meals a day, and having a full glass of orange juice with breakfast – may not actually be healthy for you.  What if it’s not red meat, real eggs, butter, and coconut products that are making America fat, but rather refined sugars and grains that are the true culprit.  Sugar and grains, which break down primarily into sugar in your body, cause a spike in your body’s insulin levels.  Insulin is a fat storage hormone which regulates fat storage. The more insulin your body releases the more fat you store in your fat cells.  We know scientifically insulin regulates how much fat is trapped in your fat cells, and that all of the carbohydrates that Americans consume cause a large release of insulin every time we eat.  The government is saying that the problem isn’t that individual fat cells are getting too fat, it’s that Americans are eating too much….something just doesn’t seem to add up in that theory to me.

4. Exercise doesn’t make or keep you thin

OK this one is going to blow your mind, because it really surprised me.  I still haven’t been able to fully wrap my head around it, but like with food, let's take a step back and analyze what’s going on.  Gary asks ”so why is the world full of obese individuals who exercise regularly?”  Good point.  Why the concept that exercise can help you lose weight is not true is because  ” it takes significant amount of exercise to burn even a modest amount of calories” and then the kicker is that after you exercise or do strenuous activity you’re likelier to be hungrier and rationalize eating foods that aren’t good for you since you exercised – justifying an ice cream sunday with extra hot fudge because you ran 3 miles today.  Exercise does have health benefits, stress relief benefits, and many other reasons why you still want to include exercise in your daily routine; however, it is not an effective weight loss tool and will not keep you thin so stop the chronic cardio already!  This idea isn’t going to make me stop exercising, but it does reinforce the point that diet and what you eat matters. You can’t just work out and expect to lose weight, what really matters are the changes you make to your food choices.  Regular exercise could encourage you to do positive things too, like drink more water, and inspire you to make other healthy choices throughout your day like going to bed earlier to get a full night sleep, burning off some of the stress from your day, and inspiring you to fuel your workout with fresh whole foods instead of greasy carb heavy ones.

5. What you eat matters

Many Americans have stopped eating real food, and instead eat a conglomeration of processed and fried chemicals.  Food stays in the pantry, has a long shelf life, has unidentifiable ingredients, and comes in packages and boxes.  All of this is contributing to our obesity epidemic.  What you put into your body matters, not just how much you put in, and we need to get back to eating actual food again, food that is fresh, local, and perishable.  Food quality and quantity but most importantly where you get your energy from matters.  The article quotes David Wallinga from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy  – Today “a quarter come from added sugars, a quarter from added fats (‘most of which are from soy’) and ” almost half is from refined grains, mainly corn starches, wheat, and the like.”  Americans aren’t eating enough vegetables (ketchup and fries should not count in this category) and real fruits.  We need to work to add real food back into our diets and really focus on cutting out sugar, refined carbohydrates, large amounts of whole grains, and all the other processed foods that have only recently been introduced into our now industrialized food system, we need to go back to the start.  Additives like High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) by itself may not be THAT bad since it does closely mirror table sugar, but since it was added into the food system in the 1980s it has found its way into everything – sodas, bread, pasta, snacks, etc., and Americans' waists have been expanding ever since.

So, what should we eat?

 So if the real problem is that we’re not being given the right information, what should you really be eating?  One woman in the article comments that she knows that she should cut back on sugar sweetened beverages, which is a good start, but what next.  How do you fundamentally start to shift or change what we eat in order to really start battling the obesity epidemic?  Gary recommends ”fewer if any sugars and fewer refined grains (bread, pasta) and starchy vegetables (potatoes)” which was “conventional wisdom through the 1960s when we turned grains and starches into heart healthy diet foods.”  How about letting go of conventional wisdom and starting to use some common sense, eating real food instead of convenient food, and understanding how what you put into your body is broken down and processed.  We can start with small changes that individuals make, but in order to really make a dent in this problem, as Gary states it requires  ”changing the entire American food economy and rewriting our beliefs about what constitutes a healthy diet.”

I already started years ago when I started shifting my diet towards a Paleo one, rejecting and challenging conventional wisdom and finding a whole foods healthy approach to living.  Personally I’d suggest that everyone give Paleo a try, but you don’t have to take my word for it, check out fellow blogger over at Constantly Varied and his thoughts on Gary’s article.  He looks pretty healthy following a diet focused on meat and veggies to me.

Note: All quotations in this blog post are taken from: Newsweek May 7 2012: The New Obesity Campaigns Have it All Wrong by Gary Taubes

Reader Comments (4)

I've been watching bits and pieces of HBO's Weight of a Nation series, and I find a good deal of what's being said redundant; however, I feel like I'm fairly well-read on this topic.

A big part of this issue that is not being as well discussed is the factor of education, race, and economy. This crisis dramatically affects the poorly educated, minorities, and poor citizens far more than well-educated, white, and financially stable members of society. I understand the ideals of eating whole foods and non-sugar drinks or promoting different types of exercise, but this is so unbelievably unrealistic for so many people, especially those disenfranchised and marginalized.

Until we stop being so politically correct about this issue, as well as so many others, there is little room for reform. I want to believe that these efforts can work, but I can't help but be cynical.
May 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterPatrick Edmonds
I agree with the article, though I have a few thoughts. I just finished reading Wheat Belly, and now I'm working on The Paleo Answer.

I also think that access to real food is an extremely important part of the equation. SNAP benefits can be used at local farmers markets, however, if there is no farmers market, a poor person with SNAP benefits is going to have to rely on the local convenience store. Poor people in cities don't want to be unhealthy, but their options are limited by what's available. Optiions are also limited by what cities permit. In Sustainable Underground, the author talks about the city of Detroit having a variety of ordinances banning the growing of food in the city limits. Practically speaking the citizens have found ways to make use of the land, and the city officials turn a blind eye because the community gardens and farms are getting rid of urban blight.

I also think we need to continue to emphasize exercise, and focus on having an active lifestyle. If we look at the lifestyle of the Paleo hunters, or even just 100 years ago, people were active all day long. We're meant to be active people. It's the old saying: if you don't use it, you lose it.
May 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBarb@ALifeinBalance
I want to believe that individual choices make for what is acceptable weight. There are so many factors to be healthy and I do not believe sugars are the devil in our diet. I truly consider the lack exercise and physical activity are what makes our kids and adults bigger.

We need to eat sensibly and enjoy our food. We need to have vegetables, carbs and meat and burning calories is the surest way we can use to make sure we maintain and lose weight.Parents should be aware of how many calories their child's breakfast, lunch and dinner are and give snacks accordingly.

I enjoyed your thoughts because they always make me stop to consider what I am doing for my health and if better choices will insure the happiness and longevity of my family.

Food for me is calories and exercise is the way I balance. And balance is the key.

Thanks for the lunch, as always, it was beneficial.
May 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJames Dugan
I'm glad you are writing and getting the word out. I think a lot of people immediately stop listening to posts like this because they think, oh well, that's just not practical for me. What they don't realize is that we shift our eating habits to a more protein and vegetable, but that it's going to take effort. Sugar is the problem, especially refined sugar, and it's an addiction that has to be broken. I'm not saying people need to be all paleo all the time, but they have to realize that carbs and sugar are devoid of nutritional value and start finding alternatives. I love ice cream and bread just as much as the next guy, but I try to avoid it now and eat whey protein shakes or fresh greens instead ...at least most of the time.

It took me a while to get it, but now I'm doing better with diet and exercise and it's in part thanks to your writing, so thank you. Keep banging the drum and encouraging people..
May 30, 2012 | Registered CommenterNick Carraway

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