Weight—Why Simple Answers Can’t Work (And What Might)
Dr. Matthew Edlund, MD, MOH
Though the wrong connections can cause problems, the right connections can solve them.
Posted August 13, 2012
Everything is connected. Change one thing and you end up changing all. Highly complex it may be, but give the human body the right information, and it remakes itself right.
However, you have to face the preference—especially in the media—for simple “clear” answers to complex issues. Simple, seemingly sensible answers often create unintended consequences:
• Rabbits were introduced into Australia in the 19th century as a food source and for sport hunting. They destroyed innumerable species, their presence an ecological disaster to this day.
• Lithium was first used medically in the U.S. during the 1940’s as a salt substitute for heart patients (“would you like some lithium on your steak, sir?”). Uncontrolled “salt substitution” provoked kidney damage and many deaths. For decades the U.S. remained a laggard in using lithium for mood disorders.
Some mistakes we like to make again and again, even if we don’t have to. Let’s look at one national obsession: weight and waistlines.
A Weighty National Worry
Americans are obsessed with overweightedness. By present national standards about 2/3 of adults are overweight. The level of childhood obesity continues to push upward. Relatively soon 30% of the population may become diabetic—further bankrupting our tattered medical care “system.”
A series of simple answers have been proposed out for this monumental problem. Let’s trot out a few:
Just eat less calories. If people just counted calories and knew what they were taking into their mouths, everything would work. Except that won’t happen. Some reasons include:
- America produces about 3900 calories of food per day. Though some goes into gas tanks, lots appears in government subsidized products like high fructose corn syrup. The group at UCSF and Berkeley argues that HFCS gives different information that other foods, particularly to growing kids, making them fatter and fatter. According to Bloomberg Business Wee, adults are eating almost 20% more calories than in the 1980s. Make the food and someone will eat it—especially if it’s cheap.
- The food industry wants people to continually snack, feed, chew and chowdown. It’s very happy sending everyone—especially “early” consumer kids, thousands of ads showing them how—especially on TV.
- Human bodies are built for chronic intermittent starvation. Make them lose weight and hormonally they look perpetually “hungry”—as Proietto’s work at the University of Melbourne shows.
If people would just exercise they would all lose weight. Reasons why this doesn’t happen include:
- Many jobs since World War II have replaced physical activity with machine activity.
- The Internet Age is helping people feel more “connected” to their computers, pads and cellphones. Despite “mobile” computing, that makes them more mollusk-like and sedentary (people don’t believe it but the Internet will change much more than people’s brains—it will profoundly change their bodies).
- People suspect exercise is done in gyms rather than their homes or workspaces. They don’t want to take the time to visit or pay for gyms. 4. Some people, particularly people who weigh a lot, may not lose weight with exercise. Plus exercise’s useful effects fall off rather quickly if people quit moving.
If people just slept enough they would weigh less. It’s not quite clear things are some simple:
- Though the data show sleep less means weigh more, the converse has yet to be proven.
- Workers and students are now so “hyperconnected” that they gladly make cellphones their newest, closest bedpartners. Phones wake up people through the night. Their remarkably bright small lights shut off melatonin production, further wrecking the useful qualities of sleep.
- Time rules life. In a 24/7 economy more folks find themselves working shifts. Eating at night appears to be a fine strategy for weight gain. Some become “shiftworkers” voluntarily by connecting with their electronic friends throughout the night.
There are of course others factors in national overweightedness. They include:
- The quality and populations of our biomes—the trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi and others that lovingly reside within the human ecosystem. In epidemiologic studies, infection with adenovirus can lead to later weight gain. In mice, provide lean mice the bacteria from the guts of fat mice and they get fatter.
- Body clocks. From recent studies highlighted at this year’s Sleep meetings in Boston, a big factor in weight gain may be the time when you eat. The later you dine, the bigger you may become.
- Social networks—people with more zaftig friends also tend to become weightier.
Despite our desires, simple answers don’t necessarily fix complex systems. What answers do?
Cutting Through the Clutter
Humans bodies regenerate to survive. Most of your body is new in 3-4 weeks. Life is fast. It’s time to use that knowledge to your advantage. So ask yourself the regeneration question—what am I doing this minute, hour and day to regenerate myself? You then apply the answers to the matter of weight:
• Cuisines as varied as the Mediterranean diet and East Asian diets are associated with greater weight control. To properly regenerate, and control weight:
- Commit to nutritional variety—more nutrients and necessary ingredients come with diverse foods.
- Stick to whole foods—that’s what humans evolved with.
- Stay away from processed foods whose information—hormonal, neurological, psychological and microbiological—does not fit us very well.
• Physical Activity—the trick here is to make ordinary activities effortful. Exercise is any use of voluntary muscle. So:
- Pace when talking on a phone.
- Walk after meals to and from eating places to decrease post-meal glucose and insulin peaks.
- Get a stand up desk for typing.
- Try walking work meetings, particularly if weather allows you outside to enjoy mood enhancing sunlight (some studies argue less fat and more muscle is made when people move in light).
• Learn to rest. Recognize that regeneration remakes you and is necessary for life. Just like food, you need sleep and rest to survive. Try to protect your sleep time to an amount resembling the hours you need to feel alert and whole. Turn off electronic devices before you hit the sack. If you’re a shiftworker learn the skills of napping.
• Food policy is health policy. Lots of people are hurting. They don’t have much money for food. The cheapest, government subsidized foods are frequently obesogenic. We pay for them now with government subsidies—and we’ll really pay through the nose later, when the health care bills of obesity and diabetes come through.
But there’s lots you can do on your own. Recognize that everything is connected. Unacknowledged connections have often paved the way to our obesity epidemic.
But other connections can help you. So follow physical activity with mental activity. Make your work, play and pleasures social. Cook with friends and family and stroll afterward. Take morning walks. Dance with friends.
The real trick is to use your body the way it’s built. You’re not a machine—you’re a living, loving, regenerating person.
Regenerating yourself is more than healthy. It’s also a lot of fun.
Dr. Matthew Edlund, M.D., M.O.H., is an internationally recognized expert on rest, sleep, and body clocks. His books include The Body Clock Advantage, Designed to Last, and Psychological Time and Mental Illness. His new book, The Power of Rest, shows that rest is a skill that rebuilds, renews, and rewires mind and body, and can increase productivity, health, and pleasure. For more information, visit his website, TheRestDoctor.com. You can also subscribe to his new Fitcast via the iTunes Store.