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When it comes to uncovering the root causes of the obesity epidemic, there appears to be a sort of manufactured confusion. Major studies assert the causes are “extremely complex,” “fiendishly hard to untangle.” Having just reviewed the literature, it doesn’t seem like much of a mystery to me.
It’s the food.
Attempts at obfuscation—rolling out hosts of implausible explanations, like sedentary lifestyles or lack of self-discipline—serve the needs of the manufacturers and marketers more than the public’s health and the interest of truth. When asked about the role of restaurants in the obesity epidemic, the president of the National Restaurant Association replied: “Just because we have electricity doesn’t mean you have to electrocute yourself.” Yes, but they’re effectively attaching electrodes to shock and awe the reward centers in our brain to undermine our self-control.
It is hard to eat healthfully against the headwind of such strong evolutionary forces. No matter what our level of nutrition knowledge, in the face of pepperoni pizza, the ancestral heritage baked into our genes is screaming, ‘‘Eat it now!’’ Anyone who doubts the power of basic biological drives should see how long they can go without blinking or breathing. Any conscious decision to hold your breath is soon overcome by the compulsion to breathe. In medicine, shortness of breath is sometimes even referred to as “air hunger.” The battle of the bulge is a battle against biology. So, obesity is not some moral failing. It’s not gluttony or sloth. It’s a natural, normal response to the abnormal, unnatural ubiquity of calorie-dense, sugary, and fatty foods.
The sea of excess calories we are now floating in (and some of us are drowning in) has been referred to as a “toxic food environment.” This helps direct focus away from the individual towards the societal forces at work, such as the fact that the average child is blasted with 10,000 food commercials a year. Or maybe I should say pseudo-food commercials, as 95 percent of the ads are for candy, fast food, liquid candy, and breakfast candy.
Wait a second, though. If weight gain is just a natural reaction to the easy availability of mountains of cheap yummy calories, then why isn’t everyone fat? Well, in a certain sense most everyone is. It’s been estimated that more than 90 percent of American adults are “overfat,” defined as having excess body fat sufficient to impair health. This can occur even in normal-weight individuals (often due to excess abdominal fat). But even if you just look at the numbers on the scale, being overweight is the norm. If you look at the bell curve, and stick in the latest data, more than 70 percent of us are overweight, with a little less than a third on one side normal weight, and, more than a third on the other so overweight that they’re obese.
But, if the food really is to blame, why doesn’t everyone get fat? That’s like asking if cigarettes are really to blame, why don’t all smokers get lung cancer. This is where genetic dispositions and other exposures can weigh in to tip the scales. Different people are born with a different susceptibility to cancer, but that doesn’t mean smoking doesn’t play a critical role in exploding whatever inherent risk you have––and the same with obesity and our toxic food environment. It’s like the firearm analogy—genes may load the gun, but diet pulls the trigger. And we can try to switch the safety back on with smoking cessation and a healthier diet.
If you lock up two dozen folks, and feed each the exact same number of excess calories, they all gain weight, but some gain more than others. Overfeeding the same 1,000 calories a day, six days a week for 100 days caused weight gains ranging from about nine pounds to 29 pounds. The same 84,000 extra calories caused different amounts of weight gain. Some people are just more genetically susceptible. The reason we suspect it’s genetics is that the 24 people in the study were 12 sets of identical twins, and the variation in weight gain between each of them was about a third less. A similar study with weight loss from exercise found a similar result. So, yes, genetics plays a role, but that just means some people have to work harder than others. Ideally, inheriting a predisposition for extra weight gain shouldn’t give reason for resignation, but rather motivation to put in the extra effort to unseal your fate.
Advances in processing and packaging, combined with government policies and handouts that fostered cheap inputs for the “food industrial complex” led to a glut of ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat, ready-to-drink, hyperpalatable, hyperprofitable products. To help assuage impatient investors, marketing became ever more pervasive and persuasive. All these factors conspired to create unfettered access to copious, convenient, low-cost, high-calorie foods often willfully engineered with chemical additives to be make them hyperstimulatingly sweet or savory––yet only weakly satiating.
As we all sink deeper into a quicksand of calories, more and more mental energy is required to swim upstream against the constant bombardment of advertising, and 24/7 panopticons of arms-length tempting treats. There’s so much food flooding the market now that much of it ends up in the trash. Food waste has progressively increased by about 50 percent since the 1970s. Perhaps better in the landfills, though, then filling up our stomachs. Too many of these cheap, fattening foods prioritize shelf life over human life.
But dead people don’t eat. Don’t food companies have a vested interest in keeping their consumers healthy? Such naiveté reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the system. A public company’s primary responsibility is to reap returns for investors. Consider the fact that the tobacco industry produces products that kill one in two of their most loyal customers! It’s not about customer satisfaction, but shareholder satisfaction. The customer always comes second.
Just as weight gain may be a perfectly natural reaction to an obesogenic food environment, governments and businesses are just responding normally to the political and economic realities of our system. Can you think of a single major industry that would benefit from people eating healthier? “[C]ertainly not the agriculture, food product, grocery, restaurant, diet, or drug industries,” wrote emeritus professor Marion Nestle in a Science editorial when she was chair of nutrition at NYU. “All flourish when people eat more [junk], and all employ armies of lobbyists to discourage governments from doing anything” about it.
If part of the problem is cheap tasty convenience, is the solution hard-to-find food that’s gross and expensive? Or, might there be a way to get the best of all worlds—easy, healthy, delicious, satisfying meals that help you lose weight? That’s the central question of my latest book, How Not to Diet. Check it out for free at your local library.
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