The Obesity Challenge: Changing Viewpoints and Lifestyle Choices

America, and most of the industrialized world, is becoming the land of the obese. Over one-third of American adults are overweight, and in fellow members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes most industrialized nations, the obesity rate averages at nearly twenty percent. Attendant with this weight problem are multitudes of serious illnesses not seen before in history and still rare in many parts of the world. Yet one century ago, this was not the case. Most persons were not concerned about their weight; perhaps because they were too busy working to worry about it. Actually, changes in lifestyle and particularly in food choices have contributed significantly to this deterioration. One of the most unfortunate aspects of the situation is the misunderstandings and misinformation rampant regarding weight gain and weight loss. In America and much of the industrialized world, the widely held belief that reducing calorie intake and increasing calorie expenditure will result in sustained weight loss does not hold up under scrutiny. Indeed, the popularly-accepted calorie management system fails as a long-term remedy for obesity as it does not take into account metabolic and other physiological functions essential to weight control.

One of the major shifts that has occurred over the past one hundred years that has wreaked havoc on weight maintenance is the move from a diet resembling that of hunter-gathering ancestors to one of processed agricultural products high in refined sugar, starches and low in protein. When people adhered to the “Paleo” diet, which included abundant protein, vegetables and fruits without the addition of pastas and breads made from processed grains, sugars, and preservatives, they were healthier. Even when compared to subsistence farmers from around the same period, hunter-gatherers lived relatively long lives, were free from many infectious diseases, had a lower infant mortality rate, and had considerably healthier bones and teeth. Protein consumption is vital to weight maintenance and health. Today’s industrialized population, whose carbohydrate-laden diet often lacks meat or other primary sources of protein, is far from that of the early hunter-gatherers. This has not only resulted in a marked rise of obesity, but the presence of illnesses rarely seen previously, on a scale never-before imagined.

Diets that are high in protein provide amino acids, which are essential for metabolism, functioning of neurotransmitters, enzymes, hormones, not to mention good for skin, muscle, hair and nail growth. Conversely, a diet rich in processed food, including starches and carbohydrates, causes insulin levels to rise, affecting body sugar levels, fat retention and aging. Numerous hormones serve as messengers to the body when metabolic functions are being affected; hormones such as glucagon, leptin, ghrelin, adiponectin, peptide YY and cortisol were all enhanced by diet and activity levels of earlier humans, but now suffer due to intake of processed foods coupled with sedentary lifestyles that reduce metabolic functions. If modern eaters returned to the diet of their ancestors, their internal processing would improve dramatically, with resultant long-term weight loss and energy gain, according to Wolf, because genetics have not changed significantly: environment (food choices, lifestyle modes) is primarily to blame for the state of industrial citizens’ overweight affairs.

According to Dr. Arthur De Vany, many people have perception biases related to fitness and fat loss. They believe that more exercise will lead to weight loss, and that the high protein diet of the hunter-gatherers described above will lead to cholesterol build up and fat accumulation. Nothing could be further from the truth, De Vany counters. He advises that less exercise rather than more optimizes weight loss and maintenance. In fact, De Vany proposes what he terms a “New Revolution” diet consisting of three key elements:

  • Enjoy eating and do not count calories. Restrict glucose intake, however, and eat a diet as close as possible to that of the hunter-gatherers.
  • Do not starve yourself, but do fast periodically, in order to restore insulin balance.
  • Exercise less, but in concentrated bursts that one is able to maintain and enjoy.

De Vany’s goal is not weight loss as shown on a scale, but muscle/fat ratio balance. He believes that people freed from the headache of counting calories and able to exercise naturally rather than compulsively will not only maintain a healthier body weight, but benefit from stress relief. This in turn will affect attitude, and ability to sleep soundly, an often-overlooked component of weight issues.

This vital but neglected contributor to obesity, modern sleep patterns, has disrupted the body’s restorative, metabolic, and physiologic processes. Inside lighting and indoor employment has resulted in a confusion of the circadian rhythm in many persons in industrialized nations. The result is that restorative sleep, the type which repairs the body and burns calories to trigger weight stability, is lacking. Few people today maintain a pattern of consistently-timed sleep for nine hour intervals, the suggested time for optimal sleep functioning. With work and leisure activities no longer dependent upon daylight, it is easier to fall into habits where sleep comes late and is disrupted prior to having its desired effect. As a result, overall health suffers, including a propensity toward weight gain.

Society exerts extreme pressure on individuals to attain a level of fitness, promulgating the concept that fitness is a choice, and that people either choose to be fit or fat, with overeating and laziness contributing to the latter outcome. The problem is that fitness and obesity are not opposite ends of the same spectrum. Obesity is based on body/mass index (BMI). Human bodies are set up to be efficient processors of nutrients. The human body can be well-functioning and fit, yet not reflective of current standards advocating thinness as fitness. This disparity is acute particularly in media images of female bodies and the stereotype that “thin is in.”

The fact is that today’s media conception of the perfect human has an idealized body type that is unattainable for most people, male or female. Indeed, “these body types have become a common source of comparison for many young viewers who evaluate their own self-worth and bodies based on the models they see on television”. Studies such as Robinson’s have shown that the lack of heavy characters on television impacts feelings of self-worth amongst viewers. This study “examined body weight, both in terms of frequency and portrayals, focusing on how preadolescent and adolescent characters' bodies are presented on the sitcoms from three children's television networks”. Ethnicity also seemed to be a factor in the negative image of the overweight child. Not only can these effects be damaging to self-esteem, they can lead to unhealthy behavior such as anorexia and bulimia. In addition, the study by Greenberg showed that negative media portrayals of overweight persons can carry over to how people are perceived and treated in real life.

There was a study which demonstrated negative impacts upon young girls due to poor self-esteem related to body image, correlated with magazine portrayals of ultra-thin beauties. This study reported negative impacts due to magazine influences in the following areas: Body Dissatisfaction, Dieting, Negative Affect, and Bulimic Symptoms. Clearly, media depictions of nearly-emaciated models held out to be the paradigm of beauty can damage these girls physically and emotionally.

Television is the most common leisure activity in American households, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It has also been confirmed that Black families watch more television than other racial or ethnic groups so may be more susceptible. Therefore, on a daily basis, viewers are shown images in commercials and shows of slender, desirable men and women. Those who are less attractive or overweight are portrayed as undesirable to potential partners and receive less attention or affection. Then there are the numerous weight-loss advertisements, often with celebrity spokespersons such as Jessica Simpson, Marie Osmond, and Valerie Bertinelli. Persons watching television are first shown that they will be desirable only if they conform to a certain body type. They witness celebrities whose lifestyles and talents are attractive to ordinary persons sitting at home in front of the television, admonish them to pick up the phone and their hopes can become realities.

The United States government has not been particularly helpful in the past when developing national nutritional policies. From the food pyramid to current suggested portions, the stance taken by federal and state agencies has not recognized the importance of limiting carbohydrates, refined sugar and starches, and emphasizing primary protein nearly as much as it should, given the current results of government-promoted diet programs. Indeed, despite studies and information available from many sources that consuming fat and red meat does not cause weight gain but just the opposite, the government continues to supply foods rich in fats and carbohydrates through its aid programs; school nutrition guidelines likewise have not brought about a decrease in overweight school children. Current policies are being developed to emphasize healthy choices that are available and affordable, but statistics compiled by the CDC indicate that obesity is a national problem, and it is growing.

In addition, government efforts to spread information concerning fitness, if directed toward diets richer in protein and scaling down carbohydrates would help the public dramatically. One of the basic problems contributing to obesity is the lack of understanding of human physiology, both on a professional and lay level.

What, then, can the average consumers do to escape the cycle of obesity and improve their overall health and fitness? The most important factor is to understand that the popular notion, promulgated by the media as well as the government for years, is that the “calories in/calories out” approach to weight loss does not work. People must consume more primary proteins and try to eat foods similar to those of earlier eras. This, however, is easier said than done in a world of fast food, long work hours, and media saturation. One option is the use of supplements to enhance a diet that is unavoidably inadequate. Protein powders, amino acids, and many other enzymes and hormonal supplements, if taken under medical advice, can replicate or encourage some of the metabolic processes previously taken care of through diet. In addition, as mentioned earlier, people need to maximize the exercise time that they have. It is not necessary to jog five miles, or spend two hours at the gym daily, to attain overall fitness, fat/muscle ratio and BMI. Regular brief but intense periods of exercise, coupled with sufficient restorative sleep and the type of diet recommended herein will produce long-lasting improvement in weight loss and maintenance, as well as overall health and wellness.

In conclusion, members of the industrial world have departed in many ways from the lifestyle of earlier humans, but significantly so in diet and physical exertion. Over the last century, methods of food production have radically altered the nutritional value and impact of what people eat, slowing down metabolic functions, contributing to obesity and its associated illnesses. For many, including health professionals, government sources and the ever-present media, the answer to this health crisis has been to advocate “calories in/calories out,” and shy away from foods such as red meats that were at the core of hunter-gatherer diets. If people can rethink their approaches to what constitutes a healthy diet, exercise less but with more effect, and sleep regularly, the outcome should be surprising and positive. For thousands of years humans existed without the scourge of obesity and its negative side-effects. In some nations, which do not consume the amount of processed foods as industrialized nations, this healthy situation still obtains. It is time to shed the media hype and established ways of thinking about obesity, and follow a program that will maintain optimal muscle/fat ratio and BMI, in turn reducing stress and improving overall health.