The clamor for practical, effective information about obesity and weight loss is growing rapidly. Although the latest fad diet, magic cleanse or false nutrition claim still attract the most attention, word has spread through the major news outlets that 99% of diets fail. A quick review of the available resources reveals that the recent global transformation of lifestyle and food supply created and now perpetuate the obesity epidemic. More scientists, researchers and clinicians recognize that the issue needs thought, concern and action to counter the disastrous effect of unregulated food and diet industries. So what's the verdict of these newly minted experts thus far?
Even a quick summary of the available data about dieting is unequivocal. It doesn't work. Diets pretty much always fail. Any combination of severe calorie restriction, magic nutrient compositions and newfound supplement concoctions are sheer quackery meant to capitalize on the desperate willing to try anything for success. The underlying motivation of every diet guru is monetary gain. The diet industry is huge business and is sure to quash the obvious conclusion that diets fail at every turn.
Another consensus opinion is that nutritionism is man made myth, not true science or medicine. Nutritionism, as explained in previous posts, is the process of creating meal plans based on food components, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc., rather than actual food. The concept implies that current knowledge of nutrition is complete and that the best, healthiest meal plan is easy to create based food components and is completely effective for weight loss. Experienced academic nutrition professors and scientists dismiss nutritionism and instead expound on the dangers of spreading such misleading information. Omnivores one and all, humans need to eat a wide range of foods, not food components. We adapted to survive on an extremely wide range of diets, a trait sure to extend our longevity. The sage advice of the experts is that the best meal plan is simple and general: not too much food with ample variety. These are simple words to live by.
Yet the simple advice has been woefully inadequate to make a dent in the problem. At this point, the conversation inevitably turns to metabolism and weight management, basic facts needed to tackle the problem of obesity, which are incompletely understood and surprisingly complex. Metabolism encompasses how the body uses food, our energy source, to function. Weight is generally stable within a range but varies according to overall food intake and energy expenditure. The body stores energy during excess and uses that stored energy during lean times. And that balance has been very effective to maintain weight, until the last few decades. Put simply, the recent introduction of significant excess food with high fat and sugar content apparently overrides the mechanism that maintains weight and has triggered the obesity crisis. Human evolution protects against weight loss effectively but much less so against weight gain, something that has never before been a problem in human history. The experts then conclude with this statement: years of human function and evolution show that moderate food intake and moderate physical activity lead to a stable weight range, and we need to return to that basic concept. Beyond that, the experts, one and all, throw up their hands. As of now, they all seem to agree: that's all we have to counter the issue of obesity. Since everyone is still hooked on a quick fix for the crisis, the experts' message is largely ignored. Although the experts' opinion is undoubtedly accurate, it's the presentation that needs a little work.
The underlying premise of the obesity crisis is that we need a fix now. Our current knowledge about weight and metabolism relies on the largely unchangeable evolutionary adaptations of the human body. Maintaining stable weight and energy stores is essential for life. Human survival depends on a body that can adapt easily to change and is resilient in hard circumstances. In fact, we even have multiple backup systems for any possible failures to essential organs, much like a backup generator for a power failure, all to maintain the status quo, or in medical jargon, homeostasis. Homeostasis means that the body always will work to keep things stable. This can refer to blood levels of various electrolytes and blood cells, heart rate and blood pressure, hormonal balance and pretty much all body function. Of course, metabolism and weight are included. In recent decades, the average weight range has gone up but that hasn't done away with homeostasis. Instead, the body recognizes the new norm is a higher weight range, and the body uses the evolutionary system to protect this new range. So a quick fix tests an age-old system and repeatedly fails. But if we apply the experts' advice, any approach to the obesity problem has to respect that homeostasis is here to stay.
The next step is to combine expert opinion and change the time of the conversation. Moderate food intake with variety and moderate exercise will, slowly and steadily, chip away at the obesity problem. Weight loss can only come with a gradual decline in each person's normal weight range as the body slowly reacts to a more moderate daily calorie intake. The key to effective weight loss is sustainable, consistent and small calorie decrease over a long period of time. For this message to work, the focus needs to shift from a quick fix to a reasonable, sustainable solution, one that takes into account how our body functions, not the desire to just fix the problem.
The next post will address how to apply this information practically and how to spread the word.