I’m sure you’ve heard that obesity is on the rise in America. So just how fat are Americans, anyway? Researchers reported average BMI (Body Mass Index) statistics for men and women.
Now a person’s BMI is a measurement of his or her body fat based on height and weight. According to BMI guidelines, a BMI ranging between 25 and 29.9 indicates that a person is overweight. A BMI of 30 or above is considered obese. The study showed that women weighed in with an average of BMI of 27.8, but men dominated at 28.2.
Another way to look at the problem is to measure the circumference of the waist. Healthy sizes have been determined to be less than 34 inches for a woman and less than 38 inches for a man. A study conducted in 2003 showed that on the average woman had a waist circumference of 36.5 inches, while men bloated out at 39 inches.
At those sizes, both women and men move into the realm of a serious problem. We have some leeway with BMI, but according to circumference the average woman and man are already obese.
What causes obesity?
We continue to gain weight because of the related effects of our sedentary lifestyles. We have machines to do the work we used to have to do ourselves, whether it was walking the golf course or washing clothes. The level of naturally-occurring exercise has dropped. Our workday involves—for most of us—sitting and processing information via computer screens.
Then many of us go home to sit in front of the TV to receive our entertainment. This creates an interesting cycle where people have a tendency to overeat foods that are easy and convenient to prepare—we don’t want to miss the key clue that will help solve the mystery by the last commercial break or the twist at the end of our favorite TV show. Most foods eaten while watching TV are artificially sweetened and easy to take out of a wrapper, because cutting up a salad takes time.
It’s not just an inactive lifestyle that leads to obesity. There are three hormones—leptin, ghrelin, and insulin—that deal with fullness, hunger, and sugar metabolism. They may help explain why we get fat when we thoughtlessly eat in front of the TV. Leptin tells the body it is full. Ghrelin tells the body it is hungry. Insulin metabolizes most sugars. Leptin and ghrelin play directly opposite each other.
Insulin removes excess blood glucose from the bloodstream by taking it to the cells that need energy. However, a high blood sugar environment combined with little-to-no exercise means a lot of glucose will be converted into fat. An insulin release is the primary mechanism of telling the body to make less ghrelin to make you feel full. On the surface, it seems like a simpler answer would be to exercise more. However, there are people who work out very hard and still get nowhere—except, maybe, more hungry.
Diet and exercise won’t always do the trick
Not all sweeteners and sugars respond to the insulin cycle. For example, fructose doesn’t use insulin to metabolize. It metabolizes in the liver. Therefore, no insulin is released when we eat fructose, so ghrelin levels remain constant and the body still feels hungry According the U.S. Census Bureau, consumption of high fructose corn syrup increased from 19 pounds per person per year in the 1980 to 63.8 pounds per person per year in 2000. Since fructose causes people to keep feeling hungry even after eating, they are likely to continue eating until obesity eventually sets in.
Unfortunately, many mainstream health practitioners assume that motivating their patients to diet and exercise is all that needs to happen to make their patients thinner, if not actually thin. They are laboring under years of misinformation, possibly created by Big Sugar, that say sugar is only a problem for dentists.
Part of the reason for this is that obese people have been known to underreport their food and sugar intake. For many years, based on people’s self- reporting of sugar consumption, researchers have said that sugar is not a factor in obesity. Then researchers found that urinary sugar excretion, in twenty-four hour urine collections, can serve as an independent marker of sugar consumption. To test this, the researchers have test subjects submit all of their urine collection over a twenty-four hour period. They found that when obese people had a high urinary secretion of sugar, it did not correlate with the sugar intake that they reported eating. In normal-weight people, the findings were similar. Researchers understand now that sugar plays a huge role in obesity. This concept reinforces the old adage from Alcoholics Anonymous: How can you tell when an addict is dying? He opens his mouth.
Health practitioners will agree that sugar and other sweeteners have only one purpose: adding calories to your diet. They don’t always make the leap of thought that if a food only adds calories and no other nutrients, then maybe that food can safely be replaced in our diets by complex carbohydrates or protein and vegetables.
Studies on sugar addiction and obesity
There is research showing that obesity and also addiction can start in the womb. While studying this concept, researchers fed a healthy diet of rat chow to some rats an unhealthy diet of rad and junk food to other rats while the rats were pregnant or lactating. The junk food consisted of sugary, fatty, and salty foods. The primary thrust of the study was to figure out if what the mama rat ate during pregnancy and lactation affected the food preferences and obesity risks of her offspring. The rats exposed to the unhealthy diets preferred consuming sugar water above anything else, even when healthier options were available. The results showed that for the most part, after birth, the baby rats largely made the same food choices their mother did.
The babies born to the sugar-eating mothers were not heavier at birth than the ones born to the healthy-eating mothers, but they gained weight at near astronomical rates as they approached adulthood. Their choice of food was similar to their mother’s diet while she was pregnant and lactating. It follows that while rats and humans are different, many studies can translate between species.
Dr. Jeffrey Gordon of Washington University in St. Louis and his group of researchers have been conducting ongoing studies on weight gain since the 1990s. The results were fascinating. The team used mice as subjects. They found that a certain type of intestinal bacteria in the mice may have been causing weight gain. The dominant bacteria in the gut of obese mice were Firmicutes. Mice that were thin had more Bacteroideted in their system. Firmicutes have more genes for breaking down complex starches and fiber. When you break down the complex carbohydrates easily, you add calories and can gain weight. Bacteroidetes are not as efficient at breaking down fiber and complex carbohydrates and therefore, mice with Bacteroidetes in their systems do not digest as much, meaning they don’t absorb as many calories. Therefore, they stay thinner. When Firmicutes were transplanted into the lean mice, the mice gained weight.
Parallel to the mouse study results, the researchers also found that heavy humans had far more Firmicutes bacteria than thinner humans. They then asked their overweight subjects to go on a low-fat, low-refined carbohydrate diet for one year. As the test subjects lost weight the bacteria in their stomachs changed from Firmicutes to predominantly Bacteroidetes. It appears that obesity itself contributes to an increase in fat storage via a change in the ratio of bacteria. In this reseach, it certainly shows that calories don’t count by themselves. Remove the sugar, fat, and excess weight, and you will not absorb all the calories you consume.
Continuing with research on this obesity, Dr. Maria Collado and associate from Finland found that women who were overweight before they got pregnant gained more weight during pregnancy than women who were not overweight. These overweight women also had higher levels of bacteroids (one class of Bacteroidetes) than normal-weight pregnant women. Dr. Collado also found that there were more bacteroids in the newborn babies of the obese women, which would predispose them to gain weight as they grew up.
It would be a good idea if you are overweight and you want to get pregnant to go back to your normal weight first. This will give your baby a chance to grow up without a weight problem. But it is still important to control what you pu in your mouth and your baby’s mouth—at any weight.
The future of obesity looks grim. According to a study at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Human Nutrition, 75 percent of adults and 24 percent of children and adolescent in the United States will be overweight or obese by 2015!
Putting an end to obesity
Dieters should focus on limiting the amount of fructose they eat instead of cutting out starchy foods like bread, rice, and potatoes. Dr. Richard Johnson at the University of Florida at Gainesville proposed using new dietary guidelines—based on fructose—to gauge how healthy foods are. Johnson says hat potatoes, pasta, and rice may be relatively safe to eat when compared to table sugar.
Portion sizes are a definite key to obesity control. Plate sizes have increased every year since 1982. The Journal of American Dietetic Association found interesting information. A study demonstrated that current portion sizes are larger than standard portions developed by the U.S. department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1982. The mean weight of muffins (6 ½ ounces) was more than three times the weight of the USDA’s standards. The mean weight of cookies (4 ounces) was eight times that of USDA’s standards.
If you gradually reduce the amount of food you put on your plate, you will start seeing some results on the scale. The idea is to lose weight gradually. Drastically reducing your intake of sweeteners will also help.
Depending on the severity of obesity and other health problems, your health practitioner may recommend taking brisk walks of up to one hour between three and five times a week. You will also have to change your diet. On the contrary, if the only thing you do is remove all forms of sugar from your diet, you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.