Over the past 2 nights I watched the 4 part series from HBO, “The Weight of the Nation”. For the most part, I thought this was a pretty good look at the obesity epidemic and recommend people watch it. That said, there were definitely a number of things that I didn’t agree with and hope that rather than take everything said at face value, viewers take the opportunity to learn more about health and what they can do about it.
BTW – did anyone else catch that the logo is a bunch of wheat? Was that intentional? Surprised they didn’t interview Dr. Davis of Wheat Belly. Oh the irony…..
A Historical Perspective
Gary Taubes (not interviewed in the program) pointed out in his response to the program that it lacked a historical perspective. Taubes recalls obesity research in the 1930′s that discovered obesity was not necessarily from over eating (clearly during the depression, very few people over-ate), but from the consumption of refined carbohydrates in the form of white flour and sugar.
Indeed there was very little time spent looking to our past, merely just to point out that most of the diseases that are killing us are fairly recent developments. There WAS however a small amount of time spent on the human physiology and how our bodies may crave foods that are fat and sweet because our ancestors needed to stockpile these foods because thousands (if not millions) of years ago, food was scarce. One of the main problems we’re facing as a consumer culture is that, not only is there NOT a food shortage here in the US, there is an OVER ABUNDANCE. Sadly, the vast majority of that food is unhealthy and actively killing us.
If we’re going to look back on history, and I think its vital that we do, we should look further back to our hunter gatherer ancestors. If you have not seen the documentary “In Search of the Perfect Human Diet” I highly recommend it. As humans, we need to understand where we came from so that we can return our bodies to good health.
A Calorie is a Calorie?
One of the moments in Weight of the Nation that got my blood boiling was in Part 2, in a chapter titled (appropriately enough) “Energy Balance”, when Dr. Rudolph Leibel says “One of the myths out there is that if you eat a calorie of fat, that its different than if you eat a calorie of lettuce or a calorie of candy or a calorie of pumpkin pie. For all intents and purposes, a calorie is a calorie.”
Another voice comes on to tell us, “There are only three macronutrients, and that’s fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Diets are generally based on eliminating one of those three food groups. But if we just cut back on all of them and ate less, that would work.” Would it really? Says who?!
Dr. Leibel then comes back to teach us about physics and the ol’ “energy in = energy out” crap, stating this as a fact that everybody knows.
This oversimplification is part of what has confused the American people for the past 30 years and its just plain wrong. Do you really think that your body responds to a calorie of grass-fed steak in the same way it responds to a calorie of soda? Spoiler alert: It Doesn’t! By focusing on calories people no longer need to know (or care) what’s in their food, they just need to know how many calories it has. Quality doesn’t matter. Nutrition doesn’t matter. Its just calories.
Speaking of calories – if you haven’t read “Fuck Calories” by Krista Scott-Dixon, its is an absolute must.
Its Not About Weight, Its about Health!
For the love of god, people, food is not math! Very few things in this world affect our overall health than what we put in our mouths. In the same way that we want an expert mechanic to work on our cars, WE need to be the expert on our own bodies. WE need to know what the right fuel is for our individual needs. WE need to know where our food comes from and what’s in it. WE need to realize that food is not just a certain number of calories or protein or fat.
Real food has the ability to return our bodies to their optimum states and heal our bodies from many of the diseases plaguing us today. If you don’t believe me, watch this amazing TED talk from a doctor who cured her own Multiple Sclerosis by going on a Paleo diet. You can also simply Google “Paleo Diet” and almost any malady (especially modern day autoimmune diseases like Type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s and IBD, MS, Lupus, etc.) and find anecdotes of people curing them through diet.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’re overweight you should loose weight, but the important thing to remember is “You don’t get healthy by losing weight, you lose weight by getting healthy.” Start here.
In a (literally) gut wrenching part of the program, a morbidly obese Vivia says “My relationship with food has very different dimensions. Food can be my best friend. Food can be my boyfriend at the moment. Food can be a vacation to the beach that I can’t afford to go.” She then goes on to say all of the wonderful things she would do if she were not obese. Like traveling, sky diving and, perhaps, dating. How does this happen? Clearly somewhere along the way food became no longer food, but an emotional support system.
Unfortunately, the program doesn’t go into this subject any deeper. Thankfully, Sean Croxton just had Dr. Vera Tarman on his podcast to speak about food addiction. It was a great episode and quite timely.
In a nutshell, the highly processed foods we eat are filled with ingredients (like wheat flour, High Fructose Corn Syrup, MSG and other food additives) that are targeted to illicit an addictive response. They are engineered to be addictive, for if we become addicted we’ll keep buying them. Ka-Ching!
Part of this addiction is also “mindless eating”. Snacking while sitting in front of the TV or constantly “grazing” at work sets our body up for craving a constant stream of food. Meals should be planned and of significant nutrient density and quality so that your body is satiated and won’t need further snacking between meals.
When one of the obese interviewees asks “When it comes to obesity what is the single best thing I can do for me and my family?” The answer? Stop drinking sugar-sweetened beverages. Calling Dr. Lustig!
If the viewers of this program take ONE thing away from this, it may be to stop drinking sugary drinks. Dr. Lustig calls out fruit juice as no different than soda. “The juice is nature’s way of getting you to eat your fiber.” My only issue with they way the program handles sugar, is the focus on sugar as a source of calories. Perhaps they haven’t seen “Sugar: The Bitter Truth“. There’s more going on there with fructose than just calories. Indeed a calorie is not a calorie.
One of the best segments of “Weight of the Nation” is the one on Childhood Obesity. They show at length the social impact on obese children. Kids who are bullied, teased and who have such low self-esteem that they don’t feel they can take part in any of the normal activities that make up a happy childhood.
They also go in depth on the food marketing to children which Kelly Brownell calls “powerful, pernicious and predatory.” As a parent I see the heinous advertising displayed to my kids on TV. Its awful. Not sure how much can be done to regulate this sort of advertising, but the only way to get away from it may be to turn off the TV permanently.
The program does go into the governments feeble attempt to limit food advertising as well as make improvements to the quality of the foods (especially cereals) that are marketed to children, but it seems that no progress is being made here.
In addition, they show many overweight children (many who are borderline Type 2 diabetics) who begin doing some exercise and seeing some good results in their BMI, which is great. They don’t really spend much time on what they’re actually eating (besides cutting back on their sugar).
School lunch is also brought to the forefront as it can be a large part of the food consumed by children every day. They talk about the “pizza as a vegetable” scandal that came up this past year and general lack of funding for school lunch programs. Why, as a nation, are we shortchanging our children in this way? Our government seems to be getting pushed around by food lobbyists and letting them dictate what our children eat. This is reprehensible.
It has been shown that children who eat higher amounts of protein and lower amounts of sugar and carbs do better on tests and generally behave better. Watch this TED talk by Ann Cooper on Reinventing the School Lunch.
They also talk about PhysEd and the positive impact that activity has on kids. I agree this needs to be increased and, like corporate wellness programs, will provide dividends in the future by giving children a love of exercise and play. I know it difficult to get kids off the couch and away from the TV or XBOX. We’ve got to try.
So What Do We Do?
The last segment is called Challenges and lays out some of the issues we face in try to change the direction we’re going in. Part of it is definitely on the government. The fact that we are subsidizing the production of the least healthy foods (corn, wheat, soy, CAFO beef/chicken/pork) rather than the most healthy (organic fruits and vegetables, pastured/humanely raised beef/pork/chicken) is decidedly part of the problem.
Some time is spent on what some companies and a few local and state governments are doing to make their environments more conducive to good health. These are some of the most inspirational. Adding additional parks and bike paths is a great way to get a community off their butts and moving.
If our federal government is not going to set the example, or even be a source of funding, then clearly its going to come down to us to make the changes required to make a difference. This is not going to be a top-down solution but a bottom-up one. As individuals and small groups we need to wake up and see the situation for what it is and begin to “fix” what we can, starting with ourselves.
To quote Angelo Coppola, from Latest in Paleo, “Humans are not broken by default”. We need to remember that instead of looking for “magic bullets” from the Pharmaceutical companies or “short cuts” via surgery or even legislation/regulation from the government. The “fix” is to give our bodies the whole foods it really wants and opt-out of the vicious cycle of cheap food and ill health we’re in.
We can go to the farmers market and buy fresh food. We can stop buying the processed foods that are making us fat and sick. We can educate ourselves on the right foods to eat and exercise to do for our individual needs. We need to take responsibility for our own health and wellbeing and stop expecting someone else (government, health care system) to do it for us. The last 30 years of that mindset has failed. Its up to us.