Obesity, is it just an individual problem?

Could it be that a combination of sinister factors are at play in driving America’s obesity epidemic?

Recently I came across the following quote concerning obesity in an article I read:

“It’s the individual’s problem and I’m ready to hear the recitation of why that makes it America’s problem. I’ve heard it more times than I need to already! The important thing here is America has enough problems without solutions. Why should we burden our country with one more, when it’s not something ‘America’ can ‘fix.’”

According to the CDC, in just the last thirty years the amount of obese adults and children have doubled, adolescents have quadrupled, and right along with this trend type II diabetes has increased nine times.

While I don’t think we should focus on obesity as a stand alone issue that needs to be “fixed,” I don’t accept the notion that obesity is solely the individual’s problem. These numbers are outstanding and cannot be explained simply by placing all the responsibility on individual people.

You are not what you eat, but what your body does with what you eat. American nutritional policy does not address health from this standpoint, and that is a huge failure.

Weighing more than we should doesn’t just come down to taking in excess calories and not burning them off. The body is more complicated than that. The composition of the food we eat makes the difference.

Many of us eat the standard American diet full of processed food, yet not all of us who do are obese or even overweight. How sensitive we are to insulin, namely how sensitive our adipose and muscle tissue are to insulin, dictates how easily or not we store fat in these tissues.

And what causes the secretion of insulin and for many of us excess insulin? Sugar and foods that break down rapidly into sugar—processed carbohydrates.

Some people can stay slim eating processed foods, and some can lose weight eating a substantial portion of carbs on a daily basis, while cutting back on calories. For me it was very difficult, as I’m sure it is for millions of other Americans. This comes down to what I’ll call the sliding scale of genetics. Our genetics play a huge role in the size we reach and our sensitivity to insulin.

And what about the argument of our sedentary lifestyles as a large contributor to obesity? As I’ve said before, when I first set out to lose weight I was still eating pasta and bread and the like, trying to stick to 1500 calories per day, following traditional advice. It was not working well for me even with exercise. I couldn’t drop pounds without a struggle because I store fat very easily.

Exercise is important for health and well being, but I don’t think the criticism of sedentary lifestyle carries as much merit in addressing the weight of the nation as some might think. Diet composition is much more important.

Stopping obesity starts with ignoring commonplace dietary guidelines.

The USDA recommends a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet. This ideology of limited fat and increased carbs started because of an infamous and faulty experiment from the 1950s, the lipid hypothesis. The study was based on shoddy science, and vilified dietary fats as the cause of heart disease.

In the interest of agribusiness, our government would later design the food pyramid to look like this:

USDA’s original food pyramid in 1992

USDA’s original food pyramid in 1992

Nevermind that the lipid hypothesis has been disproved by many studies around the globe. This faulty experiment set off an explosive reaction when it set out to reduce heart disease. At the behest of the federal government people started eating a lot more of their daily calories from carbohydrates and the floodgates opened for the purveyors of processed foods to market their products.

More than twenty years later the USDA’s guidelines still cater to agribusiness in the “easier to understand” ChooseMyPlate with pretty much the same dietary recommendations, still pushing grains in large amounts and insisting that processed grains like cereal, bread, and pasta count as whole grain.

Take breakfast cereals as an example, foods that children and adults all over America start their day with.  Fruit Loops, Shredded Wheat, and countless other products sold on store shelves are marketed as a whole grain foods. Last time I checked shredded and ground down things were not whole. More cringe worthy is the heart healthy marketing.

Fruit Loops and Shredded Wheat marketed as a whole grain foods. Last time I checked shredded things are not whole. More cringe worthy is the heart healthy marketing. Kelloggs Froot Loops cereal

And usually milk (most likely reduced fat or fat-free) is poured all over cereal, a commodity also pushed by the USDA, containing 13 grams of sugar per cup.

What did we get out of all this? Not just more overweight people, but physically larger people, an alarming number of type II diabetics, and even more heart disease.

Now the question is, can all of us afford, in a monetary sense, to ignore these guidelines?

No. Food policy in this country makes unhealthy calories cheap and healthy calories expensive. We spend billions every year on farm subsidies given mainly to large commercial farms growing corn, wheat, soybeans and sugar beets that are used for mass market junk food, resulting in excess production of crops, leading to depressed crop prices.

The oversupply of crops produced here doesn’t just depress prices in the States, but globally as well, contributing to obesity among the poor in other countries.

Millions of Americans live in poverty, barely able to survive on a dismal food stamp ration. The minimum wage is so minuscule that people are unable to lift themselves from poverty even if they work full time let alone afford healthy food staples like fresh produce.

It’s hard to imagine poverty, hunger, and obesity going together, but they do. Poverty is one of the largest contributors to obesity in this country. An abundance of processed carbohydrates and sugary foods are cheap. A very low income often leaves people living near convenience stores selling tons of processed food and not much else, with no proper grocery stores for miles.

And not only are many people living in poverty overweight or obese because processed foods are primarily what is readily available to them, they are also nutritionally starved. Being heavy does not equate to being well fed.

Congress knows that we don’t need farm subsidies to thrive, and there are real world examples of this. New Zealand went cold turkey on farm subsidies in the 1980s and now agricultural practices there are driven by consumers, not by efforts to maximize the receipt of subsidies at the expense of taxpayer dollars.

Low income people also have poorer access to educational opportunities. Yes, individuals can take weight loss into their own hands, and of course no one can be forced to lose weight as Conn states in her article, but without access to the right kinds of foods, the know how, and the resources, it becomes exceedingly difficult.

Many doctors and primary care providers don’t know how to counsel their patients.

Doctors will recommend standard dietary guidelines just like the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, and pretty much every other public health organization in the country does.

Many might not even do that. Frankly, doctors don’t have much time to properly counsel patients even if they did know a thing or two about diet because they only get about 10 minutes with us.

It’s also much easier to prescribe drugs, and of course pharmaceutical companies have huge monetary incentives to push for this mode of treatment.

And how about getting fat shamed in the doctor’s office? That’s happened to me more than once. They give that look of, “why can’t she just have some self control?” While some physicians are sympathetic to the fact that many people don’t do well with the standard American diet and that genetics play a role in how large we get as a result, others simply brush overweight people off as lazy and glutinous.

Mental health is not addressed well in America either. A lot of the time emotional eating is a culprit in weight gain. Again, many will scoff at these issues, “Oh, why don’t you tell it to Dr. Phil.” Dealing with health holistically is not a standard of care in this country.

Yes, it also comes down to individual choices and initiatives, but let’s not leave out how sick the American environment is.

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I’ve never seen a group of people so confused and divided about what to eat. The check-out stands at the supermarket are lined with magazines promising weight loss solutions and dietary wisdom. In those magazines are ads for drugs and supplements promising more weight loss solutions, and then you come home and turn on the television and there’s more advertising to enjoy.

Obesity is highly profitable. So are the diseases that come along with it.

In the past I tried so many ridiculous diets and supplements and always yo-yoed, with each spin up putting me at a higher weight than I was at before. That started when I was a teenager. My father put a appetite plugging pill in my hand, and put me on a diet where for three days per week calories were viciously—idiotically—restricted. A lunch on this diet was a cup of fat-free cottage cheese and five saltine crackers. Madness.

I honestly didn’t get it, I didn’t get that the foods I had been taught to eat by everyone around me were the ones making me fat. Looking back I can see how brainwashed I was. I had to have been in some altered mental state to try all these diets, only to turn back around to the one making me fat in the first place, and then not question it.

Until I paid particular attention to Nutritional Biochemistry I didn’t understand that the body does vastly different things with different foods. I was eating supposedly healthy food items like whole wheat bread and whole wheat pasta and driving my pancreas to produce excess insulin, causing my body to hang on to fat.

Diets heavy in carbohydrates and low in fat are not satiating. When I reduced my carbohydrate intake, my blood sugar swings went away and for the first time when I got hungry, I didn’t feel shaky with an intense urge to eat. I got over my fear of fat and made sure to include more of it in my meals along with ample amounts of vegetables at every sitting. With these changes, I stayed fuller longer. This new way of eating helped me to curb my habit of overeating. No more calorie counting either.

This brings me to another point. We might sit and guilt ourselves for overeating, and others may judge us for doing so, but I feel we should pay more attention to the fact that the foods we eat do dictate our psychological responses to them. Processed carbohydrates and sugar can be addictive like drugs. They cause severe blood sugar fluctuations, they make us voraciously hungry, they make us crave more.

America does have a lot of problems and many of them have one thing in common.

Political buyouts.

Money in politics is the root evil in many of our backwards policies, producing disparities that provide for massive income inequality, cheap junk food, costly health services with poor health outcomes, and costly education with poor educational outcomes. All contribute greatly to the obesity crisis America is facing.

Our weight is due in part to the choices we as individuals make, and attitudes toward the overweight and obese are hard to change, but policy changes can make enormous impacts when they are made in the interest of people’s health and well being.

It doesn’t matter how many public health initiatives set out to do things like set up fruit stands in convenience stores in low income neighborhoods. As long as policy decisions are made in the interest of lobbying corporations like those in agribusiness, healthcare, and big pharma, we’ll never make strides in tackling the problem of obesity.