A commentary by Jane E. Brody in yesterday’s New York Times has a promising title: Attacking the Obesity Epidemic by First Figuring Out Its Cause.
You have to admit, there’s logic in that approach. There’s logic, too, in Brody’s central claim that we live in an environment that encourages, or at least enables, frequent eating and discourages, or at least enables the avoidance of, exercise.
But is that environment “obesogenic” as Brody and some of her sources claim? Does the modern world make us fat by providing too many cheap calories and demanding too little expenditure of those calories?
As I see it, the “obesogenic environment” is the old “calories in/ calories out” model of weight control, dressed up in a new term. The model does not fit my personal experience. Living in that same supposedly obesogenic environment as everyone else, I have lost 45 pounds. Many others have done the same or better.
Increased activity — i.e., exercise — was not a factor in my weight loss. Neither was will-power or self-denial.
Neither was any action of government a part of my weight loss. Indeed, I’d argue that the dietary advice of the U.S. government has contributed to creating a more obseogenic environment (with that environment existing between people’s ears).
On the supply-side of the obesity equation, Brody and the experts she quotes round up the usual suspects: high caloric junk food and sugary beverages.
It’s excess calories that draw Brody’s fire, not the particular source. For instance, she criticizes the $1.99 breakfasts she once saw advertised on a fast-food strip in Ohio. The cheap breakfasts included three scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, a croissant, and a choice of bacon, ham or sausage. To me, what you do with a breakfast like that is eat the eggs and the meat, and leave the rest. At two bucks, it’s still a deal without the cheapest, carb-laden items, the potatoes and croissant. I’ve been eating such low-carb breakfasts for six months and have lost enough weight to no longer be obese. Moreover, my blood lipid numbers are my best ever. It takes no will power for me to eat this way.
The point is, a calorie is not simply a calorie. Don’t get me wrong. At some point, I think calories matter, but not in the simple way Brody suggests. For instance, she cites a report that the way to return American weights to the their 1978 levels is through “steep reductions in caloric intake” — 240 calories less a day for the average adult, and 480 less a day for obese adults.
I can testify that cutting nearly a thousand calories a day out of my diet did result in weight loss. But I didn’t cut calories uniformly or randomly across the nutrient groups. I cut carbs. Specifically, I cut sugar, bread, pasta, potatoes, corn and rice. Maybe I’d have been successful with balanced cuts, but I doubt it. That would’ve taken will power. When it comes to eating, I don’t have will power. If I’m hungry, I eat. It’s the logical and natural way to behave. But without all those carbs creating spikes and dips in my blood-sugar, I don’t get as hungry as often. Several readers of this blog have testified to that effect.
My own daily reduction in calories was two to four times as steep as the ones Brody calls for, and was accomplished without hunger.
With hunger, my calorie reduction would not have happened, period. I’d be as fat as ever.
I know me.
So the trick is to identify the obesogenic items in the environment and avoid them. Certainly, Brody and her experts are right to single out sugar-sweetened beverages as one such item. Individuals need to stop drinking that stuff. It’s a start in the right direction.
But as I have argued before, I don’t think government action in the form of higher taxes on soda-pop will have the desired effect. Brody seems to support such action. It strikes me as a mostly symbolic action, the kind of thing politicians do to earn points with the electorate, not to solve a problem. I think a soda-pop tax, or out-right ban, would solve the nation’s obesity problem to the same extent that Prohibition solved the nation’s alcohol-abuse problem. (Bath-tub cola, anyone?)
I won’t shed a tear if the sugary-beverage producers go out of business, but I also won’t anticipate much reduction in American waist lines.
If you lack a workable principle to guide your food choices, you are apt to go on making the wrong choices. For me, the wrong choices are carb-laden foods that only make me want more of the same.
People need to see for themselves what things in their environment are obesogenic, and what things aren’t. Until they do, too many of them will go on being fat.
Like all organisms, human being interact with their environment, and it is the interaction that counts.
The tuna-avocado salad I ate for lunch today came out of the same environment as potato chips, soda pop and snack cakes. I fixed it for myself in 10 minutes. It took no great intelligence and no will power to make it and eat it.
Nor did it take an act of Congress.