A new study presented this week at the European Congress on Obesity concludes that Americans have gotten fatter as the result of eating too much, and not from exercising too little.
I expect most people and nearly all of the media will file this under “Duh, do you think?” I can already hear Conan O’Brien or Jimmy Kimmel delivering a punchline along the lines of, “So we’re fat because we overeat? Well, thanks for explaining that to us, Doctor Obvious.”
But this is one of those cases where the “obvious” explanation doesn’t actually explain much of anything. Read this statement by Boyd Swinburn, the lead researcher:
“There have been a lot of assumptions that both reduced physical activity and increased energy intake have been major drivers of the obesity epidemic. This study demonstrates that the weight gain in the American population seems to be virtually all explained by eating more calories.”
If that’s true, then it certainly supports Gary Taubes, who raised quite a few academic eyebrows (and some well-toned hackles among fitness gurus) when he said exercise has little effect on weight loss.
But it also raises a hugely important question that the high priests of The Holy Church of Accepted Advice For Living A Long and Healthy Life can’t seem to answer: Why, after so many generations, did Americans suddenly decide to start eating too much in the 1970s?
Or, asking the same question from another angle, why didn’t our grandparents eat themselves into obesity? The word “leftovers” certainly existed back then, so it’s not as if they didn’t have enough food to make pigs of themselves. Were they blessed with some kind of Greatest Generation self-discipline that enabled them to leave the dinner table while still hungry? Given what I remember about my grandfather’s smoking and drinking habits, I’m going to guess “no” on that one.
The explanation offered up by people like Morgan Spurlock and Kelly Brownell, author of Food Fight, is that we found ourselves living in a “toxic food environment.” The evil food producers and restaurants started offering us bigger portions and so, mindless sheep that we are, we ate more simply because we could.
But in order to swallow this load of bologna, you have to believe that eating and hunger are only somewhat related. Sure, people eat when they’re hungry, but they also eat just because the food is available – in other words, because they’re gluttonous.
One of the insights Gary Taubes presented in Good Calories, Bad Calories is that hunger doesn’t begin in the brain or even in the belly – it begins at the cellular level, when our tissues run low on fuel. If you haven’t seen it already, check out this clip from Fat Head:
Now look at where we’re getting all those extra calories the experts are so worried about:
We don’t eat too much because we’re more gluttonous than our grandparents. We eat too much because in the 1970s the McGovern committee convinced us we need to live primarily on low-fat grains and other starches. We eat too much because our insulin levels are too high. We eat too much because we’re storing too many calories as fat.
In other words, we eat too much because we’re too damned hungry.
And we’ll stay hungry as long as we continue living on foods that spike our blood sugar several times per day. But as usual, the experts have the cause and effect confused:
From a public policy perspective, expectations regarding what can be achieved with exercise need to be lowered and emphasis should be shifted toward encouraging people to eat less, Swinburn says.
No, from a public policy perspective, emphasis should be shifted toward encouraging people to drastically reduce their consumption of carbohydrates; do that, and the “eating less” will take care of itself. But in a country where sugar, wheat and corn are all subsidized by the taxpayers, I don’t expect this kind of policy shift to happen anytime soon.