Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Thoughts on Obesity, Part I

From the US Centers for Disease Control website:
Since the mid-seventies, the prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased sharply for both adults and children. Data from two NHANES surveys show that among adults aged 20–74 years the prevalence of obesity increased from 15.0% (in the 1976–1980 survey) to 32.9% (in the 2003–2004 survey).
In hunter-gatherer and some semi-agricultural societies, obesity is rare. In most, it's nonexistent. Wild animals typically do not accumulate enough fat to interfere with vigorous exercise, and when they do, it's because they're about to hibernate or migrate. Wild animals also tend to have similar amounts of body fat between individuals (at a given age and sex), unlike industrialized humans. This makes me think that obesity is an unnatural effect of our current lifestyle. Whatever the cause, it's getting progressively more common.

According to self-righteous nutrition experts, we know exactly what causes overweight. It's a character flaw known as overeating. Calories in, calories out. And the cure is to eat less. The problem is, this is not supported by the evidence. First of all, overweight people often eat no more than the thin. Second, weight gain is a highly individual process. Overfeeding under controlled conditions can produce more than 3-fold differences in weight gain between individuals fed the same number of calories.

Restricting calories is also fraught with problems. Each person's metabolism has a preference for a specific body composition within the context of a particular lifestyle. If total calories are restricted without changing diet composition, the body reacts vigorously to maintain homeostasis. Energy expenditure is reduced; muscle and organ mass diminish. The psychological effects are particularly bad, as anyone can tell you who has been on a low-calorie diet. In 1944, Ancel Keys undertook a calorie restriction trial in conscientious objector "volunteers" in Minnesota. They remained on a 1,570-calorie diet that was low in fat and protein and high in carbohydrate, for 24 weeks. Hardly a draconian calorie count. Here's a quote from the study:
As starvation progressed, fewer and fewer things could stimulate the men to overt action. They described their increasing weakness, loss of ambition, narrowing of interests, depression, irritability, and loss of libido as a pattern characteristic of "growing old".
Some of the men ended up suffering from neurosis and borderline psychosis before the end of the study, one culminating in self-mutilation. This is what we're being prescribed for weight loss?

There are some diet trends that have associated with rising obesity in the US. Per capita calorie consumption has increased. This increase is due to a higher consumption of carbohydrate. Total protein and fat consumption have been almost identical for the past 30 years. This period also saw increases in the consumption of unsaturated vegetable oils, hydrogenated vegetable oils and high-fructose corn syrup. It's hard to say from this association which of these factors (if any) has caused us to gain weight in the last 30 years, but it certainly isn't total fat or protein. Fortunately, we have other clues.

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