Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Obesity's Perfect Storm

There's something going on in the Western World.  And, despite so much attention being focused on it, it's still getting worse.  The average westerner has lost touch with the innate ability to feed and, thereby, care for ourselves.  People are getting heavier and sicker by the day.  We're more educated, have a higher living standard, and medical science is more advanced than ever before.  How are we not getting the message?

It must be something bigger.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist.  But I do believe in complexity.  And the more I learn, the more I see a "perfect storm" of factors that have come together to, quite literally, shape our society.  To peel it all back, let's take each factor one at a time.

Storm front #1: Flawed Science
It really all starts here.  Whether you agree with his "carbs are the real problem" stance or not, in his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes paints a fairly dismal picture of the evolution of medical science with respect to weight and health management.  The foundational focuses are decades old and were based on the limitations of what was known and what could be measured at the time.  These foundations have endured over time and, like a crooked wall, veer ever farther from the original premise.

Scientific studies can do as much harm as good.  This is no critique (necessarily) of the researchers themselves, but more of the instant-gratification, dumb-it-down media to immediately take things out of context and beyond the scope of the study.

These days, the focus is on "curing" obesity.  It was even recently designated a disease.  Open the door for "there's a pill for everything" medicine.  Family practitioners are not up to speed on nutritional science breatkthroughs, and are also less likely to explore lifestyle treatment, like meaningful physical exercise.  The lifestyle mantras are quoted chapter and verse by doctors across the world: get 30 minutes of cardio, 2-3 times a week and eat less fat.  But there is little expectation that patients will follow this advice, so very little emphasis is put on the importance of lifestyle and health.

Specialization also takes a toll here.  Diabetologists and endocrinologists are on the front lines of the impacts of obesity.  But those specialists come into the picture after things are well out of control, and "downward" communication to your family doctor isn't happening the way it should.  Instead, the entire focus has been put on calories in vs calories out, rather than on how to nourish and power our bodies.

Storm front #2: "Big Fitness"
The fitness industry, from big box gyms to "as seen on TV" wonder DVDs and gadgets, to the purveyors of miracle supplements and shakes, is a mult-billion dollar industry.  And its customer base is growing.  There is no incentive for the fitness industry to actually get you into shape.  In fact, they'd rather make you dependent on their products and keep you coming back as a return customer.   If you buy a gym membership and never go, the gym still gets your money and the equipment you would be using remains vacant for yet another member.  It's a win/win for the fitness center.  And nothing you buy from TV is ever going to deliver the results promised.  They even tell you that, right on the screen: "results not typical".

Storm front #3: "Lifestyle Marketing"
Can I have a side of Diabetes with that?
I'm in the marketing industry myself.  Everybody is looking for that fundamental emotional connection to make with their customer.  Lifestyle marketing is when you tie your product to a way of life, a feeling of prosperity, happiness, and success.  The tactics are incredibly successful.  Now think about the last restaurant commercial you saw.  Was it really about the food?  Or were there images of attractive people having a great time while eating food?  If you want to have a good time with friends, what is the first thing that comes to mind?  A meal out somewhere?  Where did that come from?

Now think about the advertising for "convenience foods" that pepper the television.  What are the underlying messages there?  Cooking is hard and you don't have time.  Your family will love you for serving this dish.  Plus: hey! added fiber / reduced fat / naturally sweetened - you name it.  Bottom line: this is better than what you could possibly pull off on your own.  Nonsense, I know.  But we, as a society, are completely in the thrall of the convenience food message.  

Storm front #4: "Addictive Flavors"
On the first three points, we are talking about information that is widely available and completely up to the reader to make an informed decision.  Let the buyer beware, right?  But, when it comes to addictive flavors, this is the one topic where I will point a finger at a malignant source.  

Food companies consult with flavor labs to create the perfect balance between a distinctive flavor and a very limited finish.  When the food is in your mouth, the texture and flavor are extremely pleasing, but, in these engineered flavors, the moment you swallow, you need a "boost" to get the flavor back.  It literally keeps you coming back for more.  

We haven't been eating clean for that long: just over a year.  I still remember foods that I loved.  They were my go-tos week after week.  We recently drove across the country and hit some pretty austere territory in the process.  Our choices were limited.  I literally had McDonalds for the first time in 13 months.  It tasted like - nothing.  Nothing at all.  Place after place we stopped, it was the same story.  Safe to say, we were sort of stunned.  When you're used to real food.  The stuff you used to think of as craveable is just a pale shadow of flavor.  And that's the way they design it.  

Storm front #5: "Pop Media"
Have you noticed that when you flip through five different news broadcasts, they're all on the same stories?  That's because they all take their information off the same news wire.  We are obsessed with the sound bite and the news feeds us exactly what we want.  When a study that took five years to conduct and comes with four hundred pages of findings is reduced to a two-minute blurb read by a talking head from a teleprompter, it's fairly safe to say that you aren't getting the nuances.  

Take the recent story on Omega-3 fatty acids.  The study took participants who had prostate cancer and examined their blood chemistry to see if there were any trends.  They found that some of these participants had elevated levels of Omega-3 DHA.  There was a correlation between these participants, all of whom had cancer, and blood levels of this fatty acid.  Of course, people at risk for prostate cancer (men over 50) have been bombarded with messages about supplements that will reduce their risk or the severity of the cancer.  Did they have elevated levels because they were fighting cancer, or was the cancer a result of the Omega-3?  Or... was some other element of body chemistry out of whack that contributed to both the cancer and the blood lipid levels?  The study confessed not to know.  But the news story said "Taking fish oil is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer."  Period.  

Beyond the news, you run into an endless stream of "talk" shows that are, at best, the blind leading the blind, and at worst, a serious conflict of interest.  People who profit from the endorsement of a product on their forum should be regarded with skepticism, especially when it comes to your health.

Storm front #6: "Urban Myths"
The Internet is a fabulous thing, isn't it?  I mean, you're enjoying our fabulous content right now thanks to the "information superhighway".  But the Internet is a peculiar paradox.  On one hand, it has nutured our craving for instant gratification.  There is always something new to grab your attention.  On the other, it is a vast repository of things that just won't die.  In my military life, when you got a new regulation or new set of orders, they would always tell you that the previous version was obsolete and you should get rid of it.  That was nice.  It was clean and simple.  The new guidance is the only guidance.  

Not so in our modern world.  Everything gets mixed up.  This will save you, that will kill you.  Then tomorrow the whole thing is reversed.  The result is that people hold on to whatever piece of information struck them first or resonated the most, with a healthy dose of skepticism for anything that conflicts with what they perceive to be the truth.  And, with the Internet, they can perpetuate it through a host of different channels, continually re-muddying the waters.  

People mean well.  They believe that their information is the right information.  But there is very little to help you, the reader, from separating established fact from outdated convention from plain ol' poppycock.  

Superstorm: Obesity
By themselves, none of these "storm fronts" would do much damage.  But the way they've coalesced into a combined power, it has colored our perception in a profound way.  Look at how these look when they're strung together into one set of attitudes about food and fitness:

     "I'm overweight, and I know I need cardio exercise three times a week to burn fat, plus I have to watch my fats and cholesterol.  Fiber's great though, so I should eat more grain.  Plus, I drink green tea every day, since it's a fat-burner.  I have a membership at a great gym; they have all these cool classes and tons of treadmills and elliptical machines, plus I bought that "Turbo Jam" DVD, so I can tone and shape my muscles.  It really makes me sweat."  

     "I eat pretty healthy; I only buy low-fat and low-calorie foods. Except on weekends, because that's when I go out with my friends.  Dinner, drinks and dessert are such a great way to unwind and I deserve a little reward.  I'll just work out twice as long on Monday.  When I'm hungry, I usually have an extra bowl of Special K, because it's heart healthy and "they" say the studies show women who eat this weigh less.  Besides, it's delicious! I could eat a whole box of that stuff every day."  

     "I'm not sure why I'm not losing weight.  I don't eat eggs, cheese, or meat hardly ever; I only drink diet soda now, and I've been taking Hydroxycut for months.  I only eat 1200 calories a day (when I don't cheat).  I'm just so tired all the time.  I have no time or energy to go to the gym, let alone cook a lot of crazy food.  I feel bad, because I've paid for the membership, but I'll get back in there soon.  Guess I'll microwave dinner; it's Healthy Choice at least."

Do these sound like anybody you know?  Do you see the subtle influences of the six "storm fronts" across them all?  

How about this one?

     "I love food!  It seems like I'm eating all the time.  Steak, cheese, and full-fat Caesar dressing?  Bring It!  I can't remember the last time I had a bowl of cereal.  I have a vague idea of how many calories I'm eating, but I don't count and don't really care.  I  never jog or hit the elliptical.  The best thing is all the great flavors I get to eat: Mexican, Greek, Chinese, and Italian.  Besides, I save a ton of money by eating at home."

This person is obviously unconcerned about his or her health.  A walking time-bomb, right?  Well, the truth is, this is a declaration that Michelle and I have both made more than once.  In fact, though it is only part of the story, it is a big part of our attitude toward nutrition now.  It flies in the face of everything you know about eating healthy, right?  How could we possibly lose weight with such a bizarre approach to nutrition?  

I'll repeat what I said at the beginning: something is wrong - something bigger than "eat less, move more".  We believe that we have found a winning approach to nutrition and fitness.  I won't say "right" because your goals may be different.  But if you want to lose fat, be stronger, have more energy, and feel great about how you feel and look, then you've come to the right place.  You've got to shed the conventional wisdom, choose a nutrition plan (not a diet) and a training plan (not exercise) that will deliver the results you want.  


  1. Great article, Michael - it really got me to reflecting on how things have changed, and wondering about the causes.

    Remembering my grandparents...they were of the Lost Generation that came of age in the 1920s. Lived into their 80s and their build was always slim to normal, even in their sedentary later years, and the same was true of most of their peers. The very idea of exercising just for fitness was something they found amusing. They never counted calories, or avoided fats - their diet was heavy in those things by our standards. Whole milk, plenty of beef, pork, and eggs, filled out by bread, potatoes, and vegetables. Cooking was done with lard and butter. What they didn't have a lot of was sugary stuff, packaged meals, or restaurant food.

    Seemed like being overweight was much more common among my parents' age group (Silents and Boomers), though back in the '70s and '80s it was still FAR less common than today. I'm an Xer - when I think back to my small high school of around 400 kids in the early 1980s, there were probably less than 10 kids in the whole school who were noticeably overweight. I'm shocked when I see how common it is now among my children's peers.

    I think you're on to something with the marketing, the artificial flavorings, and the pre-packaged food. Personally I'm totally on board with Taubes in seeing the primary cause being the government and medical profession's advocacy of low-fat, high-carb diets, along with the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup in virtually every ready-to-consume product available.

    1. Thank you, Tim, for the thoughtful comments. When you look across generations and pair their lives up with what we think of as "healthy" today, the math certainly doesn't add up. But we are so wrapped up in today's "normal" that it seems very hard for people to let go and return to a simpler way of approaching our bodies and our health.

  2. The whole idea of eat less and move more is not working. This old chestnut has been around for a while now and obesity rates continue to climb. Being in the industry myself and working at a gym I see first hand how confused the average person is when it comes to "What is healthy".

    Little by little with my clients I'm educating them on a balanced approach to long term health not a 28 Day transformation.

    As a child of the 80's I can't recall too many overweight kids at my school. I wonder if being overweight back then was more of a stigma because it was less common? Have we accepted that more people are obese or overweight today?

    Another enjoyable read. Thanks.

    1. We're so grateful for people like you, Darren, who are helping people as a profession and a way of life. I don't know how it is in Australia, but I've noticed that television ads and casting for shows in America are including more and more people that are overweight. My impression is that the casting is reflective of our image of the "regular guy" thus making it easier to connect with the audience. Art imitating life?

  3. Great post, Mike. One nitpick: Your testimonial includes the line "I never jog or hit the elliptical" which is true in your case, but it may give the casual reader the impression that "hey, I don't have to do much of anything on the workout front." Now, I know that this is not the message you intend, and it's certainly refuted by the last thing you write about getting a training plan. But the testimonial itself seems to omit the fact that while you don't do much cardio apart from HIIT (also not mentioned), you are a serious and consistent lifter.

    @Darren: Is it your impression/belief that "eat less move more" can't work, or that it's too hard to maintain for most people?

    1. You are absolutely right, Tungster. I did mention in the post that the excerpt of our attitude wasn't the "whole story", but I did not mean to give the impression that cardio or other forms of training were not important. They absolutely are, and form a huge part of our total approach to health. It was intended to illustrate that the "mandatory" elements of the conventional fitness mindset seem to be completely absent from our winning (for us) approach.

      Thanks as always for the read and comments. We love hearing from you. In fact, if you ever feel the urge to educate our readers (and by extension, us) about your perspective on distance running, we'd be thrilled to have you as a guest poster.


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