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Americans Now View Fat as Normal

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Perhaps my well meaning advice about how to lose weight came just at the time when people stopped caring?

Carrying a spare tire or two around the waist has become socially acceptable in the United States as the population’s waistlines have expanded, according to a study released on Tuesday.

Economic researchers from Florida State University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found the weight of the average woman rose by 20 pounds (9.2 kilograms) or 13.5 percent between 1976 and 2000 — but their ideal weight also edged up.

In 1994 the average woman tipped the scales at 147 pounds but she wanted to weigh only 132 pounds — but less than a decade later the average woman weighed 153 pounds but said her desired weight was 135 pounds.

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Written by Eric

August 9, 2007 at 5:25 pm

Posted in Health, Science, Society

The Great Eric’s Guide to Losing Weight

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(This is an older essay from an older version of this blog; but I decided it was one well worth re-posting. It’s also revised and expanded with a few new links that I’ve found since I originally wrote it. Now without further ado…)

I’m lucky enough to have a cool boss who likes taking everyone in the office out for lunch every day (it’s a small company and most of us telecommute, so typically we’re only talking 3-6 people in the office, depending on the day). I quite enjoy these lunch breaks; they’re pretty low key and I’m never one to complain about free food (since I don’t eat much to begin with, getting lunch like this significantly cuts down on my grocery bills).

Lately though, this otherwise pleasant ritual has been getting on my nerves. Or more precisely, one of my coworkers has been getting on my nerves every time we go to lunch with her. I don’t mean to badmouth her and that’s certainly not my intent. She’s actually a very nice person and we get along well, it just happens she’s been hitting on this pet peeve of mine.

You see, she’s gone on a diet. And she hasn’t just gone on any diet, but the Atkins Diet. So now, whenever we decide where to go to lunch (and there’s not many options around here), we have to be reminded how she “can’t have bread, because [she’s] on Atkins.”, and plan accordingly to make sure there will be something there for her to eat. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing about our lunchtime ritual that can pass without her making it known to the world that she’s dieting and which diet she’s on: she talks about it constantly. Quite frankly, I just don’t care and I don’t see why she feels the need to bring it up constantly. What makes it worse is that I don’t just have to listen to a female talk about a diet, but I have to listen to the sheer stupidity that is the Atkins diet.

Just take a second to really think about it:

Wheat is one of the earliest crops mankind domesticated, and was one of the enabling factors that directly led to the development of human civilization. We’ve been eating bread for 10,000+ years; it’s one of the most basic components of our diet. Just about every human civilization throughout history had some sort of high carbohydrate crop as a staple of their diet. This was the status quo up until about three or four years ago when Mr. Atkins (whoever granted him the title of “Doctor” should revoke it) managed to convince millions upon millions of Americans, including my coworker, that bread is somehow responsible for making them fat, and said that to lose weight they could eat as much as they wanted as long as it didn’t include carbohydrates. The idiocy is astounding.

The irrationality of this diet plan was epitomized the other day when we went to Burger King for lunch. My coworker – on a diet, trying to lose weight – orders a TRIPLE bacon cheeseburger. But to her, this is okay, because she took the bread off. I just kind of sat there with my mouth open the whole time, unsure how she could possibly rationalize this.

The truly sad part is that she’s not alone. Her behavior is indicative of just how deeply ignorant and downright screwed up our society is when it comes to food, health, and nutrition. It boggles my mind that anyone could think the Atkins diet could work in the first place, least of all after it’s been scientifically debunked time and time and time again. Yet it’s still one of the more popular diets out there.

I realized early on that my attempts to infuse reality into my coworker’s diet plan was most unwelcome, so now I simply hold my tongue at lunchtime while I count the days until she’s done with it (and hopefully, shuts up about it). For everyone who’ll listen to reason though, I’ve done the research for you. I’ve distilled the volumes of scientific research and nutritional information into a concise, easy to follow diet plan that’s guaranteed to work for pretty much everyone, based on everything we know about the human body.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. Consult one. Don’t sue me.)

 

The Great Eric’s super duper double secret amazing guide to loosing weight:

 

Step 1:

 

Eat less.

 

Step 2:

 

Exercise more.

 

Simple, right? Yet millions of Americans are baffled by this approach to weight loss. Mostly, I suppose, because it involves a lifestyle change, complete with actual work and personal responsibility and discipline. Which is why I imagine the “still eat as many bacon cheeseburgers as you want” type diet plans are so popular; they make people feel like they’re doing something despite their ineffectiveness. People would rather be fat than be uncomfortable, even a little bit.

To state my diet plan another way: “You’re fat because you’re lazy; stop being lazy and you won’t be fat”. Harsh? Maybe. True? Yes. Sure, entities like the media, the food industry, biology, and even the government share culpability for the obesity epidemic now upon us. But at the end of the day, the only person who’s responsible for the shape your body in is you.

Still, I imagine there are those of you out there who are skeptical, so let’s break down the plan and examine it in more detail.

“Eat less” should probably read “Eat less and eat right”. I trimmed it down in the diet plan because the first half is the one that would make the biggest difference for most people, and is sufficient all by itself for loosing weight. But “eat right” is another factor which shouldn’t get ignored, so we’ll consider that here as well.

Most Americans eat too much. I’ll let the USDA qualify that (emphasis mine):

Americans at the beginning of the 21st century are consuming more food and several hundred more calories per person per day than did their counterparts in the late 1950s (when per capita calorie consumption was at the lowest level in the last century), or even in the 1970s. The aggregate food supply in 2000 provided 3,800 calories per person per day, 500 calories above the 1970 level and 800 calories above the record low in 1957 and 1958.

Of that 3,800 calories, USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that roughly 1,100 calories were lost to spoilage, plate waste, and cooking and other losses, putting dietary intake of calories in 2000 at just under 2,700 calories per person per day. ERS data suggest that average daily calorie intake increased by 24.5 percent, or about 530 calories, between 1970 and 2000. Of that 24.5-percent increase, grains (mainly refined grain products) contributed 9.5 percentage points; added fats and oils, 9.0 percentage points; added sugars, 4.7 percentage points; fruits and vegetables together, 1.5 percentage points; meats and nuts together, 1 percentage point; and dairy products and eggs together, -1.5 percentage point.

Some of the observed increase in caloric intake may be associated with the increase in eating out. Data from USDA’s food intake surveys show that the food-away-from-home sector provided 32 percent of total food energy consumption in 1994-96, up from 18 percent in 1977-78. The data also suggest that, when eating out, people either eat more or eat higher calorie foods–or both–and that this tendency appears to be increasing.

[…]

Although multiple factors can account for weight gain, the basic cause is an excess of energy intake over energy expenditure. In general, Americans’ activity levels have not kept pace with their increase in calorie consumption. Many people apparently are oblivious to the number of calories they consume. Calories consistently rank toward the bottom of consumer nutrition concerns, according to the annual national probability surveys “Trends–Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket” conducted by the Food Marketing Institute. Of respondents in the 2002 survey who said they were either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about the nutritional content of what they eat, only 13 percent cited calories as one of their concerns. That compared with fat (49 percent), sugar (18 percent), salt (17 percent), and cholesterol (16 percent).

Yeah yeah, I know. It’s like, rocket science. How can the average American be expected to understand something like that? There’s an 800 calorie difference between what Americans consumed in the 1950’s and what they consumed in 2000. Maybe, just maybe, you should look to cut about 800 calories from your diet, at least if you’re the average American. You won’t die of starvation if you do. Just a thought.

One thing you might not immediately get the significance of is why I highlighted the bit about eating out, or even why it’s mentioned at all. The correlation between going to restaurants and obesity is pretty clear and has a logical reason for existing. Although portion sizes have increased everywhere in recent decades, restaurants are especially bad in this regard: portions at restaurants have doubled and sometimes quadrupled in size since the 1970’s. And surprise: the bigger the portion, the more you eat, the fatter you get. Contrary to what your mother may have told you, “cleaning your plate” is shockingly bad advice.

Here’s some examples:

In the 1970’s a 12 ounce soda was a typical size you would get as a fountain drink from a restaurant or quick stop and now it is 20 ounces.

Bagels used to weigh 2-3 ounces and now weigh 4-7 ounces. A regular size serving of French fries from McDonalds (you remember…the one that came in the little white paper bag) weighs one third the weight of the largest size now. This becomes so normal to us that when we see the “smaller” servings it looks like a tiny amount of food and surely couldn’t fill us up. This is an even bigger problem for the youth today. This is all they know and when they see what a portion size should look like it will appear very small.

I could expand on the portion size issue a great deal more and talk about the economics of the food industry, psychological tricks, your body’s hunger cues, etc, but honestly I don’t think that’s necessary. While the “why” of all this is fascinating and important in it’s own right, it’s not germane to the point of my little rant here. Just eat less. That’s the long and short of it.

Now, that other part, “eat right” is admittedly more complex and legitimately confuses a lot of people. Nutritional science journalism is simply hideous. What’s good for you depends heavily on your individual traits and lifestyle. But news reports never say “Food X is good in amount A under condition B for type of person C”; instead they oversimplify it to “Food X is good for you”. The end result is that the news media will seemingly flip flop on the health benefits of (for example) eggs every year or so. One year they’re good, next year they’re bad. My advice: don’t listen to this kind of stuff.

Despite the complexity of the issue and how greatly individuals will vary in this regard, there’s still a couple of meta-trends that we can apply here. Like, here’s the big one: nothing you eat is really bad for you if eaten in small amounts, but anything you eat can be bad for you if you eat it in excess. The key to eating right, generally speaking, is to eat a little bit of a wide range of foods.

Recently, I’ve become a big fan of Michael Pollan, a journalist who’s written a great deal on the science and history of agriculture and food. He’s penned a number of great articles and essays on this subject, and his most recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, covers this subject in great depth. It’s all worth reading and I recommend it if you’re at all interested in learning more about this subject. I bring it up because everything I’m about to say mostly summarizes what he’s written on the subject, and it’s worth learning about more in depth (more links at the end of the post).

You see, our food industry is deeply fucked up. A combination of technological innovations, political factors, and simple corporate greed has resulted in an agribusiness that greatly overproduces corn, making it much cheaper than it ought to be in any rational market economy. As a result, this commodity finds its way into everything. Most of what you eat was once corn. It’s the main ingredient in any number of supermarket foods, gets fed to livestock, and gets mixed in with a whole lot of other unrelated foods. So far from having a wide ranging diet, ours is a remarkably narrow one. As Pollan explains:

Or perhaps a little of both. For the great edifice of variety and choice that is an American supermarket rests on a remarkably narrow biological foundation: corn. It’s not merely the feed that the steers and the chickens and the pigs and the turkeys ate; it’s not just the source of the flour and the oil and the leavenings, the glycerides and coloring in the processed foods; it’s not just sweetening the soft drinks or lending a shine to the magazine cover over by the checkout. The supermarket itself–the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built–is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.

There are some 45,000 items in the average American supermarket, and more than a quarter of them contain corn. At the same time, the food industry has done a good job of persuading us that the 45,000 different items or SKUs (stock keeping units) represent genuine variety rather than the clever rearrangements of molecules extracted from the same plant.

Basically, if you’re the average American, you’re eating a heck of a lot of corn, and probably have deficiencies elsewhere in your diet. As omnivores, we need balance, and there’s a good chance you’re not getting it.

The problem with corn gets even worse when you consider that much of our overproduced corn is turned into High Frustose Corn Syrup (HFCS). HFCS is a chemical sweetener and preservative that’s makes its way into just about everything on the supermarket shelf, and is particularly bad from a health perspective. You see, HFCS differs from regular sugar in three important respects:

  1. Rather than acting like sugar in your body (producing insulin and burning energy), it acts more like fat, stimulating your body to store energy.
  2. It never triggers the appetite suppressant hormones that make you feel full.
  3. Thanks in very large part to decades of unreasonably large government farm subsidies towards corn growers, it’s cheap to manufacture – cheaper than real sugar.

It has a couple of other properties as well: It’s sweeter than real sugar, it’s effective as a preservative in preventing freezer burn, and it stores longer. Oh, and it causes diabetes, though the industry denies it, much in the same way tobacco companies once denied the health effects of their products.

Add it all up, I shouldn’t have to spell it out.

Do we eat too much of it? Heck yeah.

Until the 1970s most of the sugar we ate came from sucrose derived from sugar beets or sugar cane. Then sugar from corn—corn syrup, fructose, dextrose, dextrine and especially high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—began to gain popularity as a sweetener because it was much less expensive to produce. High fructose corn syrup can be manipulated to contain equal amounts of fructose and glucose, or up to 80 percent fructose and 20 percent glucose.2 Thus, with almost twice the fructose, HFCS delivers a double danger compared to sugar.

(With regards to fruit, the ratio is usually 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose, but most commercial fruit juices have HFCS added. Fruit contains fiber which slows down the metabolism of fructose and other sugars, but the fructose in HFCS is absorbed very quickly.)

In 1980 the average person ate 39 pounds of fructose and 84 pounds of sucrose. In 1994 the average person ate 66 pounds of sucrose and 83 pounds of fructose, providing 19 percent of total caloric energy.3 Today approximately 25 percent of our average caloric intake comes from sugars, with the larger fraction as fructose.

Where do we consume the majority of it? Soda.

A single 12-ounce can of soda has as much as 13 teaspoons of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup. And because the amount of soda we drink has more than doubled since 1970 to about 56 gallons per person a year, so has the amount of high fructose corn syrup we take in. In 2001, we consumed almost 63 pounds of it, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If you’re serious about losing weight, you’ll stop drinking it entirely, starting now. Even if you’re not, you probably shouldn’t drink it. The stuff is terribly unhealthy in most every regard.

New research published in the United States that followed 50,000 U.S. nurses reveals those who drank just one serving of soda or fruit punch a day gained weight more quickly than those who drank less than one soda a month. Those who drank more also had an 80% increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. This risk, by the way, was associated with those who drank drinks sweetened with either sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.

I’m going to stop here to just to reiterate; when it comes to obesity, the culprit is your lifestyle. End of story. As I said above, the food industry, media, government, and HFCS aren’t excuses; I’m just explaining what’s what so you understand the context of my advice. I’d actually expand on this topic more but again, we’re getting off point. Just cut this shit out of your diet as much as it possible if you want to lose weight.

Alright, back on topic: how do you eat right? Look at it this way: Human beings got here by a process of evolution. Our diets were arrived at by a process of evolution too (Hmmm… I wonder if there’s a correlation between obesity and being a creationist?). The people who ate healthy generally managed to survive to pass their genes on, and their diet got passed down via cultural tradition. For a multitude of reasons, those cultural traditions have been all but ignored for the last fifty years, thanks to technology, marketing, and cultural shifts. But as a rule of thumb, to eat right, you should eat what your grandmother would have cooked in the 1950’s.

Michael Pollan actually explained “what to eat” pretty succinctly.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

But for explanatory sake, and those of you too lazy to read the whole article, I’ll snip a little more:

That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy. I hate to give away the game right here at the beginning of a long essay, and I confess that I’m tempted to complicate matters in the interest of keeping things going for a few thousand more words. I’ll try to resist but will go ahead and add a couple more details to flesh out the advice. Like: A little meat won’t kill you, though it’s better approached as a side dish than as a main. And you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat ”food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

And to hammer home the most important point (IMHO) from that article:

1. Eat food. Though in our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. So try this: Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.

So that covers eating. This brings us to step two: exercise.

Balance is crucial. Going back to the USDA’s piece, the basic cause for weight gain is an excess of energy intake over energy expenditure. Simply cutting your intake isn’t enough, because there’s two sides to the equation. You have to exercise, too.

The sad reality of the modern world is that most people spend their lives sitting on their ass; at work, at home, driving, etc. So, walk more. Take up jogging. Go swimming. Play sports. Go to a gym. Eating a 1950’s diet won’t get you thin unless you also get as much physical activity as people did then too; it was a lot more than people get today. In other words, stop being a lardass. Burn off the calories you consume.

From the CDC :

Becoming a healthier you isn’t just about eating healthy – it’s also about physical activity. Regular physical activity is important for your overall health and fitness. It also helps you control body weight by balancing the calories you take in as food with the calories you expend each day.

  • Be physically active, at a moderate intensity for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
  • Increasing the intensity or the amount of time that you are physically active can have even greater health benefits and may be needed to control body weight. About 60 minutes a day may be needed to prevent weight gain.
  • Children and teenagers should be physically active 60 minutes every day, or most every day.

At the end of the day, this is all kind of straightforward common sense if you just pause to think about it for a while. But it’s not always obvious; so my hope is that those of you who read this will be less inclined to try crap like Atkins diets and more inclined to simply make the lifestyle changes necessary to lose the weight you want to lose. Again, I’m not a doctor – but what I wrote here is kind of common sense.

Then again, I’m not a doctor. Plus, while I tried to keep this tightly focused on how to loose weight, there are a number of secondary issues that I raised. I feel that understanding just what’s wrong with our food industry and how it impacts us is critical to being able to do something about it. So here’s some references for further reading, from far more authoritative sources than me:

Sources:

Reference Materials:

World Health Organization’s Obesity Page
USDA Factbook
Department of Health and Human Services: Diet, Nutrition, and Eating Right
CDC: Overweight and Obesity
CDC: Nutrition

Articles:

Articles by Michael Pollan.

Children of the Corn Syrup
The Murky World of High Fructose Corn Syrup
The Double Danger of High Fructose Corn Syrup
The Politics of Sugar: Why your government lies to you about this desease promoting ingredient

High Fructose Corn Syrup articles on Accidental Hedonist

Information From the Venerable Wikipedia:

The Atkins Nutritional Approach (See: Criticism)
Body Image (not talked about, but related)
Body Mass Index
Childhood Obesity
Dieting
Healthy Diet and Healthy Eating
Nutrition
Obesity

Some More Info on the Obesity epidemic:

Obesity in the US
The REAL Threat to Americans

Dieting tips:

Things You Didn’t Know About Your Body
The Hacker’s Diet
Diet Tips by Jeremy Zawdorny
Kicking Sugar to the Curb
Quitting Caffeine

(Disclaimer: Those who know me probably know I eat like crap. I eat very little, but what I do eat is mostly crap foods. I drink too much sod and too much caffeine. I don’t exercise nearly enough. I stay thin and healthy mostly by virtue of being young, I think. So this is definitely a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do post. Does it make me a hypocrite? A little bit, I admit. But then, I don’t have a weight problem… if I did, the above is what I’d do to fix it.)

Written by Eric

July 29, 2007 at 11:00 am

Posted in Health, Science, Society