There's a huge misconception when it comes to the obesity pandemic in America. Not everyone who is obese is obese because they eat too much. Not all fat people are gluttons. In fact, some of these people aren't eating enough. Let me explain.
The Problem + Its Effects
First of all, to understand obesity, first we need to understand what the word means. Medically speaking, obesity is a condition associated with having excess body fat. It can be measured using a Body Mass Index—and if a person's BMI is over 30, then that person technically qualifies as obese.
The risk factors associated with obesity are also widely understood. From hypertension, sleep apnea and heart disease, to some cancers, diabetes II, and stroke—living with obesity is dangerous, not to mention uncomfortable. Add to all of that a huge societal stigma, and it's no wonder that individuals who qualify as obese are 20 percent more likely to have symptoms of depression. It's hard for researchers to tell which comes first, depression or obesity, but there is no contesting—there is a strong correlation between both.
We may know what obesity is. We may be able to measure it and identify it and list all of its risks. But what becomes much more difficult is explaining why it's happening in the first place.
This is probably where you stop and say, "Come on Joe, let's be real. People who are obese are just eating too much. If they stopped eating, they'd lose weight. And if they'd lose weight, they'd stop being obese."
Wouldn't it be nice if it were that easy? But it's not.
One issue is the role of certain hormones in the body. One such hormone is Leptin, a protein hormone produced by fat cells that travels through the blood to the brain and shuts off appetite. If leptin is a thermostat, then every human being is a separate climate, with its own "average temperature." The number of fat cells a person has varies from one individual to another. Therefore Leptin output varies as well. If a person doesn't produce leptin, or is leptin resistant then no matter how much or how little the individual eats, the satiety centers in the brain will continually feel that more food is needed.
But faulty hormones only impact a very small percentage of people.
For the majority, one of the most significant underlying causes of obesity is inactivity, and many inactive people don't eat enough calories. Let me explain. Your body burns a specific number of calories a day—a figure based on your age, height and weight, and oxygen consumption called your resting metabolic rate, or RMR. When someone eats less than the calories their body needs to get through the day, the RMR will slow 10 to 25 percent, in order to protect the existing fat in your body. For someone who was starving, that would be a life saving alteration. For someone who is obese, it is counter-intuitive, frustrating, and can lead to binge-eating, after periods of under-eating don't provide quick results.
Just because you "skip" meals, doesn't mean you'll lose weight. Like I've said before, people who are obese don't eat often enough. Experts estimate that more than 18 percent of Americans skip breakfast every day. That means by the time those 31 million people sit down to their first meal, it's late in the day—and the normal satiety rhythm of the body is already off. The fittest people in the world don't eat two meals a day. They don't even eat three meals a day! They eat five or six small meals every day, with a set number of calories in each meal.
Now let's talk about what's in those meals. One of the leading causes of obesity in America is the prevalence of the "cafeteria diet." Think about it. What's available in the typical American cafeteria? Or the center aisles of the grocery store? Trail Mix? Chips? Gatorade? Kool Aid? Processed lunch meats? When I was in graduate school, I worked with a set of lab rats to prove that it wasn't just caloric intake, but our calorie choices that matter.
One rat test group was fed a normal amount of pellet made of protein, carbohydrate and fat, and water—what we called a typical "rat chow" diet. The other group was fed the "cafeteria" diet. We filled the water bottle with Kool aid and fed the rats the exact same amount of food as the "chow" group, only this time—the food was the kind of junk food you'd find in a store. What we found was absolutely remarkable. The rats on the "cafeteria" diet not only gained weight and became obese, but they also lost the ability to regulate their hunger. While the rats in the chow group would leave some food uneaten in the bowl, the rats on the cafeteria diet never would.
There are no easy solutions for obesity—because every single individual is different. But that doesn't mean there's nothing we can do about it. Stop saying obese people should stop eating. The truth is, we must regulate the choices we make, investigate our hormone levels to make sure everything is working properly, and eat not too little, but just the correct amount of food each day. These are the steps to take to make progress. And real progress is possible. Just check out some of my client's before and after pix. You'll see what I mean.