I read today that the National Institutes of Health spend $800 million a year trying to find the cause of obesity. Really? Isn’t this fairly obvious?
Actually, it’s not. Because most people today are struggling with eating more than they want but still being hungry. There are two reasons for this.
The most common cause of overeating is refined food. Pasta, bread, potatoes, white rice, and breakfast cereals are staples in the standard American diet, but give very little nourishment. The body requires carbohydrates, but most of the carbs we eat today are stripped of their fiber and nutrients, leaving only empty calories. They end up just acting like sugar and making us feel good without any real benefit to the body. If you stop eating them, though, the energy quickly depletes and you get the well known sugar crash of children after a birthday party. It’s a little more subtle in an adult. It looks more like a 3 o’clock slump. Grabbing a soda gets us through the afternoon, and a mixed drink after work keeps us comfortable until dinner. If you can’t go more than 2 hours without some sort of snack, you may be dealing with this.
The long term results of this type of eating are not good. Simple carbohydrates (including alcohol) require insulin to process into energy or storage for later use. The pancreas regulates the amount of sugars circulating in the blood, releasing hormones to either shunt them off into storage in fat cells, or bring some of those storage sugars back into the system. With constant demand, the pancreas tires and begins ignoring sugar more and more. Other organs strain to hold equilibrium, which eventually leads to heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
The second issue is related. A diet of mostly simple carbohydrates and processed food is lacking in most nutrients. So while we’re eating more than ever, our bodies are actually malnourished. Fortified breads and cereals are composed of stripped grains and synthetic vitamins which are more shelf stable. They lack the complexity and balance of whole foods. Even after eating an entire meal, the nutrients our body needs for fuel (or to process what we just ate) aren’t there, so we begin scavenging quickly after leaving the table. The average American eats far more calories than necessary and yet reaps very little real nutrition. Without substance in our food, the body can only compensate so much before it runs out of raw materials for energy.
Calorie restricting diets, then, become laughable because willpower cannot stop the body’s need for nourishment. More exercise will only increase the demand for food. The body resorts to its bi-hourly “fix”.
The solution to the obesity epidemic is not another alternative to the bacon double cheeseburger or more flavors of rice cakes. The only solution is for each individual, that’s you and me, to shift to whole foods. Choose rich, colorful salads with diverse raw and steamed veggies, fruits, whole grains, and a variety of different meats. Mix up what you eat during the week, so that no night looks exactly like the others. Try new things at the supermarket, and only shop the outside edges: produce, meats, dairy.
The biggest problem here is not that we don’t know this, but that implementation is hard. On cold days, I don’t want a salad. When I’m busy, I don’t have time for a lovely sit-down meal – I’m just happy I could grab a slice of pizza on my way to the next appointment. And to be honest, it’s more expensive to get a real meal than to just grab donuts and coffee on the way.
We must keep the payoff in mind. The food budget may go up a bit, but the medical expenses will go down as health improves and doctor visits become shorter and further apart. Change requires intentionality and effort. No pill will cure obesity. If you catch yourself still browsing the kitchen after you’ve eaten a meal, recognize it! Recognition is the first step toward better habits. Try to ride it out or choose a protein snack. I find a cheese stick or celery stalk is more gratifying than I’d expect and gets me through those moments. At the next meal, choose more complex foods that will nourish your body and hold you longer. I’ve recently added an extra vegetable at dinner – my plate is more interesting, there’s more to eat, and I’m feeling better for it!
Celebrate little strides toward health with something not related to food. It may take longer to see results than you’d like, but hang in there. Better health comes from the inside, and will eventually find its way to the surface. You will see that healthy glow again!!