Diet and Exercise Won't Solve Obesity
There's much more to weight than eating and moving.
Posted Jun 02, 2011
It's front-page news - the missing link to explain why we're so fat. In the May 26 New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope reports on a new study led by Timothy Church that "a sizable portion of the national weight gain can be explained by declining physical activity during the workday." So many manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1960 that many jobs hardly involve physical activity.
This is important, interesting work, but its probable public impact will be to reinforce misleading single point explanations of why American leads the world in weightiness (our national Body Mass Index is 28.1.)
And that's wrong.
Diet and exercise won't save us. Hundreds of millions of books on diet and exercise have been sold, countless articles have been written, media and corporate programs proliferate, and we're fatter every year.
It's not just what you eat; it's not just about how you eat, or when you go to the gym. It's the system, folks - the simple facts about our basic life functions. Fortunately we can fix things if we gain a more accurate view of how our bodies actually work.
There's a Lot More to Weight
Many factors change eating, moving, and weight, lots of them shifting radically since 1960:
1. Rest - Dozens of studies show people sleeping less than 6.5 hours a night gain weight - about the amount of time American working women now claim they get to sleep. Weight changing insulin resistance quickly ramps up with partial sleep deprivation, and Eve van Cauter at the University of Chicago points out Americans have knocked off 90 minutes of sleep in the past 40 years. With the Travelodge survey in Britain showing 72% of people checking their email before they sleep, and others demonstrating people frequently waking to check texts and email, we face many bigger adolescents and adults from rest deprivation alone.
2. Environment - put people in identical rooms and provide identical meals, and they eat a third more if the room is painted red versus blue.
3. Socialization - people eat more with friends; they truly eat more feeding in front of a computer monitor or television.
4. Sitting - Even marathon runners who sit more than six hours a day experience increased mortality; people who sit that long also gain weight even if physically active (and who doesn't sit six hours per waking day?)
5. Body clocks and sequence- Eating at night causes more weight gain and higher levels of glucose and lipids than eating in the morning.
Are these the only factors influencing weight? Not even close - and that's not including the dozens we don't yet know about.
Next there's the question of what is in food itself - generally hundreds of substances, many uncharacterized, that change what we eat and ingest. Research has been heavily influenced as Michael Pollan defines it, by "nutritionism" - studying foods' carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and leaving out all the information content of nearly everything else. Which means we're still mostly ignorant about what food does in the body.
What Our Bodies Really Do
The standard medical model, imbibed by clinicians and public alike, is the human body as machine. The truth is very different - we're organisms who internally replace ourselves extraordinarily rapidly - with most of us gone within four weeks. Yes, your teeth and bones last a long time, but internally life is lightspeed fast - much of the business life of cells resides in proteins and they're gone in hours to days.
The human body regenerates - remakes itself - very quickly - and differently with each change.
And because people are a lot younger than they think, people can remake themselves more effectively - giving us a whole new tool in motivating people towards healthiness and weight control.
Also, people are fed up with the old single point solutions. According to Professor David Katz at Yale, the proportion of the population who claim they don't exercise at all has gone from 37 to 43% in a year. And what do we have to show from our $100 billion dollar diet industry?
Making the System Work
If we want to impact America's obesity, we need people to know that as they regenerate their bodies what they do - all they do - impacts what they become - what they look like, feel like, and weigh. How you eat is affected by how you move; how you rest changes your weight; having friends who gain weight makes you likely to gain weight; shift work is a great way to gain weight. To get all everything to change you ask people to make one simple change at a time, starting with:
1. Eating whole foods.
2. Moving after meals - whether it's housework or strolling, this changes glucose and insulin peaks in ways that control weight.
3. Recognize the brain does not make sharp distinctions between walking while you shop and walking on a gym treadmill - everything counts as "exercise" - including fidgeting and standing.
4. Make sure people get adequate night-time rest - in the form of sleep - and active rest - physical, mental, social and spiritual - in their waking hours.
A simple way to do this is following Food, Activity, Rest - eating, moving, resting in sequence during the day - with as much health inducing social contact as possible.
How Humans Evolved
Are bodies are built to a design that marks us as walking machines with a long gut prepared for fibrous plant foods. Parker-Pope knows this well, pointing out the importance of lifestyle and genetics.
Yet the excitement comes with recognizing that the body constantly and quickly replaces itself - and learns while it does.
And we can certainly learn to control our weight by making the body's system work as a whole. One-shot solutions don't succeed - we have to stop wasting our time trying them.
The system works. Use the system.