Obesity (and overweight) is a term used to describe people who carry excess body fat to an extent where it poses a health risk. A body mass index, or BMI (described later), over 25 is considered overweight and over 30 is obese. Although BMI does have its limitations, health complications do correlate well with it. Many factors seem to contribute to someone being obese. Genetic factors, environmental factors, hormonal and medical factors, and even psychological factors play a role in the pathogenesis of obesity. They all contribute differently to different people, and in this section, we'll address most of them.
Some believe that obesity is a choice, even a lack of motivation. They associate being overweight with being lazy and inactive, but is that really the case?
In the last three generations, say since your grand-parent's generation, the incidence of obesity has gone from one in thirty, to one in three. If you include overweight people too, the incidence goes up to 2 in 3. The obesity pandemic seems to have touched most countries, a worldwide phenomenon. Did everyone just get lazy or lose self-control? Ironically, studies show that the average person does more physical activity now than ever before. One can question if there's even any link between obesity and exercise. Is it technology? Are TV remotes, lawn tractors and washing machines making us fat? Cars were invented before the 1900's and obesity didn't become a major issue until 60 years later. NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is the energy we burn while doing yard work, typing or anything else that is not exercise or sleep. Although NEAT calories do contribute significantly to overall energy expenditure, their decrease over generations doesn't explain the simultaneous rise in obesity. Is it genetic? Were you simply dealt some bad genes? Although many genetic markers have been associated to obesity, they account for less than a few percent of cases, and do not explain the millions, even billions of people living with obesity.
Most people are well aware of the power of natural selection. The ability to overeat and store calories in fat may have given our ancestors an evolutionary advantage. Are we hardwired to overeat and store calories? In times of scarcity, storing calories in preparation for hard times ahead was necessary for survival, not knowing when the next meal would be. In modern North America, we are now surrounded by food on TV, in convenience stores and around the corner. Could there be a mismatch between our primal instincts to overeat and our environment? We have an innate, natural and biological urge to consume sugary, starchy and fatty foods, because that's where the calories are. When calories were scarce, we sought out these foods instinctively. Now they surround us everywhere we go. Our tendency to overeat used to be helpful for our survival, but has become detrimental to our health, in an environment of abundance.
Our stomachs can fit about 900 ml of food, equivalent to about 4 cups. 200 calories of carrots fills 4 cups. 200 calories of strawberries is 4 cups. A stomach-full of spinach, 4 cups, is 30 calories. Some foods are impossible to overeat. The main trigger for satiety, the feeling of fullness after a meal, is still stretch receptors in the stomach lining, and it's almost impossible to over consume calories from whole foods. The issue isn't people stuffing their faces with too much fruits and veggies.
We have traded health for convenience, comfort and shelf life. Cue processed foods. Although some processing is useful, such as freezing, blanching, or pickling foods, other types of processing actually modify the chemical structure of food, in order to preserve them longer, or make the food tastier or cheaper to produce. When we ultra-process these foods, we increase their calorie content exponentially. We also remove the nutrition and chemicals (including fiber) that send signals of fullness to our brains. Each mouthful of processed food contains more calories than their whole food counterpart, without being able to create that feeling of satiety that makes us feel full. We are left overfed and under-nourished, and nutrient deficiency leaves us begging for more food. Not to mention that foods with a high glycemic index (used to measure how fast foods cause our blood sugar to rise) are proven to increase appetite and lead to increased calorie intake. Guess which foods have the highest glycemic index...processed foods. By processing foods, we have increased its dose of sugar, salt and fat. Lab created foods never existed in nature, and our brains were never supposed to encounter these foods in real life. Their ultra-concentrated doses of salt, sugar and fat can be easily compared to addictive street drugs. Processing of coca leaves produces cocaine and poppy plants create heroin.
Have you ever taken a bite of an apple after a drink of Pepsi? Do you know what the apple would taste like? Nothing. It would taste like nothing. Your brain and taste receptors get dumbed down by the super-natural sugar influx. Normal doses of sugar, like those in an apple, don't taste like anything anymore. That's why people switching to a healthier diet, after years of consuming ultra-processed food, have such a hard time. Natural food has barely any taste after years of overdosing on processed crap. Rest assured, those transitioning slowly will notice a normal return of their taste sensations within a few weeks of switching back to whole foods. And after years of being on a whole food diet, the thought of a twinkie, or a doughnut simply makes me sick to my stomach. On an MRI brain scanner, people eating highly processed foods will light up their brain areas just like a cocaine addict, even after just seeing a photo of a processed food they love.
It seems we are simply wired to overeat, and that has been a very reliable mechanism to ensure we survive the scarcity that used to be ever present. Now that we live in a world of abundance and processed foods, it seems that it's not us that are the problem, it's our environment and the processed food it contains. Why do you think it's so difficult to stick to a diet, when the diet contains processed crap designed to hijack your satiety signals and also designed to make you overeat? Governments are subsidizing processed food companies and animal agriculture while ignoring produce and health food. There's no money in selling broccoli. Now, complex marketing strategies have been developed to sell you products and food you don't even need, when you're not even hungry. Have you noticed the strategic placement of products at the grocery store, the eye level placement of the most highly processed and profitable foods? Do you decide to buy two since the third one will be free. Ever noticed these strategies being used for vegetables? Me neither.
Our biology is simply not equipped to deal with the current environment we live in. We use food to socialize. We use it when we are sad, when we are happy, when we are alone. It's part of our culture, our identity, and big corporations know this. They spend millions of dollars figuring out your food weaknesses and then exploit them, and once you're hooked on their processed foods, because they're convenient, cheaper and tastier, they have won. Then they have accomplished their ultimate goal, profit. So when someone recommends you a calorie deficient diet filled with processed crap, think of it as a smoker being told to smoke a little less, while everything around him keeps telling him to smoke more. No wonder people fail. Studies have shown that a whole food diet is the way nature intended us to eat. We evolved for millions of years that way and our brains are simply not equipped biologically to deal with the ultra-concentrated doses of crap that's in our food.
So next time you think about being overweight or obese, try seeing it under a different light. It's not caused by lack of motivation, laziness or by loss of self-control. It's exactly what food processing was supposed to do, make calories more concentrated and tasty so people would consume more of them, enriching the CEOs of big corporations in the process. You can fight back by going back to our roots and eating real food that grows in the ground.