In honor of January—the month of resolutions and diets I present two recent books on obesity and dieting in our society. I start with the perspective of an academic with a food science background who provides an overview of obesity and diets. In Ever Seen a Fat Fox? Mike Gibney puts the issues in the perspective of humans and their place in nature. His ideal is the fox who must hunt for its meals. As such the fox does not overeat. Next week I will provide an alternative perspective from a physician practitioner who works with overweight and obese clients. Responding to Gibney’s own words in bold:
“No other species on earth relates to food the way humans do. To begin with most of us rely on someone else (farmers, food manufacturer, restaurateurs) to procure our food.” Wild animals don’t have someone to wait on them. They must go out and forage for their food. Humans and their companion animals, on the other hand, have meals prepared for them and can override a feeling of fullness leading to overeating, accumulating excess calories and becoming obese. This premise is the central theme of Ever Seen a Fat Fox? Since we are not involved on a daily basis with food other than to eat it, we fail to appreciate the implications of consumption without expending the requisite calories to obtain it. The availability of high-caloric food makes it difficult to maintain proper weight.
“Today we nourish that inner self with antioxidants, super foods, colonic irrigation, fasting and multivitamins.” Our relationship with food has become increasingly complex as we are bombarded with information daily about what we should and shouldn’t eat. Gibney makes the distinction between everyday diets (what we consume over a given period of time) and weight-loss diets (foods we restrict to reduce calories and lower our weight). Thus, articles encourage us to abandon processed foods and conventional nutrition to latch on to the latest fad. Diets are no longer what we eat, but what we shouldn’t eat. Ironically, food writers oversell the complexity of the Western Diet so they can provide simple solutions leading to miracle weight losses. We are encouraged to abandon the simple idea of a balanced diet for the latest buzzwords that sound scientific.
“So it wasn’t mainstream science that set this low fat spree in motion. It was the media with the help of some scientists who advocated a low fat intake. And they had an ally—the food industry.” I get so tired of hearing science bashed because “they” told us one thing before, and now “they” have changed their minds. In the arena of public opinion, it is science, particularly science of nutrition catches the blame. The critics of this science have a new term—nutritionism—to denigrate the science. Yet, it was mostly food writers who promoted low fat—the same genre of communication that now blames science for the problem and has turned sugar into the new enemy of the eater. Big Food jumped on the low-fat bandwagon because it helped them sell their products. Now they push clean labels and low sugar, again to sell product.
Food critics are correct when they point out that Big Food makes claims about single nutrients, such as high in Vitamin C or calcium or whatever the hottest nutrient is out there today. As such they distract the public from evaluating the true merits and limitations of a specific product. Do food companies manufacture that demand for a particular nutrient? Maybe to some degree, but it is the distorted nutritional information found in many books, popular articles and Facebook posts that do the advertisers’ jobs for them. I remember reading years ago in newspapers and magazines how bad fat was for me just as I now read on the internet and social media about how bad sugar and other carbs are. In the nutrition courses I took, the biggest drawback for fat was having twice as many calories not that fat was bad per se.
“the reality is that modern obesity is determined by a multitude of genes, each making a small contribution.” When it comes to obesity, we seem to want a simple explanation and a simple solution. We don’t seem to be able to handle multifactorial explanations—it could be a little of this, a little of that and a little of many other factors. A single factor does not apply to each obese person. Likewise, every factor does not apply to everyone who is obese or overweight. We appear to be most comfortable with one villain and one solution. Today’s primary villain is sugar, and the primary solution is to avoid processed food. Science tends not to be black and white, but too often science is more nuanced than we are willing to accept. Popular food writers tend to reject the role of genetics in the onset of obesity. The thought is that we are obese now as a society, but we were not obese 50 years ago. Ergo, genetics have not changed that much, so genetics must not play a role. Gibney suggests that the genetic triggers are present, but we live in a more obesogenic environment today, eating more, exercising less allowing the triggers to kick in.
“The media bombards us with reports on obesity and health and if one mentions physical inactivity, then it’s greeted as a contributory factor to obesity but nowhere near the foul and toxic effects of sugar, fast food, processed food and whatever is the latest darling of the media.” The author believes that energy balance, once a key to weight and health, is losing its caché. Unlike many current food writers, he believes in calories both those consumed and those expended. He is a big believer in burning calories by exercise and encourages his readers to be active persons. Modern living contributes to weight accumulation by putting high-caloric products at our fingertips while making it easier to live life without expending energy. Unfortunately, the popular perspective on obesity has us consuming too much processed food, which is clearly unhealthy, and tends to ignore a lack of physical exertion.
“Beyond the basic tenet of obesity that weight gain is caused by excessive calorie consumption, there is no certainty.” Food writers, Gibney suggests, proclaim more certain explanations and solutions than our accumulated nutritional knowledge provides. While scientists tend to be overly skeptical, journalists have become merchants of certainty leading to a culture of fad diets, superfoods, and nutritional confusion. One statement the author makes that really shocked me was that success rates for curing obesity are not as high as those to cure cancer! To sum up his thesis, then, the author proclaims that we tend to oversimplify the development of obesity and greatly underestimate ways to overcome it and the toll it exerts on our society. He believes that we need to explore the multifactorial causes of obesity and should put much more emphasis on preventing it in the first place than into curing it.
The key to obesity prevention is maintaining energy balance—calories in vs. calories out. Gibney is careful not to blame the individual for becoming obese, but he also suggests that each of us has an obligation to watch what we eat and to develop an active program to burn off any excess calories that we consume. Much of what we learn from Ever Seen a Fat Fox? resonates with what I believe and what I personally practice to maintain my weight and health. I am pleased to recommend this book to anyone looking for an alternative view on diet and obesity. Unfortunately, the book seems to be a little too academic to make a major impact on obese America. Next week, I will review the perspective of a physician who is intervening with overweight and obese individuals.
Next week: The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work