By Matthias Muezner, M.D.
Ob/Gyn and Women’s Health in Medford & Melrose, MA
Obesity is an epidemic in America. Dr. Muenzer explains how it happened – and how to fix it.
A May 2016 New York Times article showcased contestants of the popular TV show “The Biggest Loser,” which features teams of morbidly obese people who compete to lose weight for a cash prize – with the support of dietitians, chefs, and personal trainers.
The article highlighted a study that looked at not what happened on the set, but what happened to contestants’ metabolisms after the show was over. Much to the contestants’ surprise, nearly all of them gained back the weight they’d lost – some to the tune of a few hundred pounds. Some contestants became even heavier than they were at the start of the show.
The article left a bad taste in my mouth, not because it showed how hard weight loss is, but because the overall tone was fairly hopeless. The article and the flood of online commentary from readers insinuated that obesity is less a product of our lifestyle choices and more a condition or disease over which we have little control and should accept as a new normal.
That’s exactly the opposite of what we need to be telling people! You can change your lifestyle. Your weight is not entirely at the mercy of a genetic lottery. And obesity is not – with rare exception – a condition that we should continue to view as normal and acceptable.
This topic is a personal mission for me. Our present lifestyle is not normal or healthy. We have a food industry working heavily against us, and our comfortable, sedentary lifestyles make movement unnecessary.
Let’s discuss the roots of the obesity epidemic in America and what we can do to remedy our personal situations.
Obesity wasn’t an issue 75 years ago
Older folks love to talk about “the good old days.” The stories are entertaining, but often the grass simply seems greener in retrospect. But the obesity epidemic is one case in which I agree – as little as 75 years ago, obesity wasn’t a health issue. Sure, you’d have your occasional folks who were overweight, but there was almost always a logical reason for it – inactivity, poor diet, or an underlying health condition.
Now look at us today. Even with 24-hour gyms and diets galore, we’re growing increasingly fatter at an alarming rate. And it’s trickling down to our kids. In fact, it’s estimated that children born today are the first generation of kids who are not expected to outlive their parents due to complications of obesity. This is outrageous, unacceptable, and completely avoidable. So how did this happen in such a short amount of time?
First of all, we’re much more sedentary than our parents and grandparents were. When we want to go somewhere, we hop in the car and drive to our destination. We don’t walk unless we have to – take a look at the line for the elevator in a three-story building compared to traffic on the stairs. Grocery stores employees even bag our items and schlep them to our cars – no work needed on our end!
Second, think about the foods that are readily available today compared with what our grandparents ate. Back then, people ate what they could grow, gather, or purchase locally – vegetables, fruits, grass-fed meats, and water – lots of water.
Today, we have a surplus of processed foods and drinks that are full of sugar, salt, preservatives, and empty calories. The food industry packs convenience foods with these additives to keep them “fresh” during shipment all over the country, and even overseas. These additives stretch whatever nutritional value was in the food to begin with, and all but deplete it, until the product becomes not real food at all.
Sugar is a common additive that, subconsciously, is a pleasure source for most of us. Think about drinking water vs. orange juice. Most of us would choose fruit juice because it’s sweet and tastes good. But fruit juice often is packed with added sugar. It’s pretty much the same as drinking soda, minus the caffeine and carbonation.
To make a bad situation worse, these food-like products often are marketed as healthy! Fruit juice, veggie chips, sports drinks, and even candy are marketed as containing “real fruit” or protein to supposedly sustain us during our tough days of sitting in the office or occasional bouts of exercise. It’s important to remember that our bodies adapted from the caveman days to flourish on natural food – not the garbage we’re consuming today.
How unhealthy food makes us fat
Let’s take eating an orange versus drinking processed orange juice an example. When you eat an orange, you consume long chains of natural sugar molecules wrapped in fiber. It takes a while for your body to process the fiber, which also helps you feel full. This long digestion process releases the sugar into your bloodstream gradually, along with a slow release of insulin that helps break the sugar down into energy. Insulin works a little bit for a long time – it’s a slow release process that helps maintain your blood sugar levels.
When you drink processed orange juice, you’re drinking processed sugar that was added for taste and preservation. Added sugar has substantially less fiber around the sugar molecules and takes much less time for your body to process. The sugar hits your bloodstream fast and creates a blood sugar spike. To balance the spike, a large amount of insulin rushes to your bloodstream. The insulin hangs around for a long time after the spike, and that causes your blood sugar to plummet – making you even hungrier. As the insulin works against the blood sugar spike, it directs the body to store calories.
And how do you think those calories are stored? As fat. With each tasty sip or bite, we secrete too much insulin and start storing calories as fat.
Speaking about weight loss from experience
As a women’s health doctor, I’ve heard it all when it comes to weight loss struggles:
- I’m big boned.
- If I even look at a cupcake, I gain 5 pounds.
- I can’t lose weight because my mom/aunt/sister/fifth cousin is a large woman – it’s genetic!
- Healthy eating is too hard – can’t you just give me a weight loss pill?
I feel for you, but these are excuses for not taking charge of your health, not valid reasons.
Making healthy lifestyle choices is difficult. I know from experience. Several years ago, I was unhappy with my weight and headed for high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes if I didn’t shed a few pounds. I did a bunch of research and came across a weight loss plan that worked for me. I lost 15 pounds and have kept it off for two years by making some major lifestyle changes.
It was a lot of work – I won’t hide that! But it made me healthier and happier, and I want the same for you. In fact, I turned my research into a wellness leaflet that I give all my patients who are interested. It explains what happens to your body when you consume unhealthy foods and drinks, how these choices affect your weight, and what you can do to lose weight and keep it off.
One of the pillars of my program is to avoid foods and drinks you see in commercials – these products are made for profit, not for nourishing our bodies. Remember, we don’t get hooked on apples – we get hooked on what comes out of factories, not what hangs in trees.
This is not a problem that is going away anytime soon. The people who profit – Big Agriculture and processed food manufacturers — are the same people who advertise between segments of TV shows like “The Biggest Loser.” When questioned about their tactics and products, these groups put the blame on the people to whom they’ve spent millions to market to and feed: “You didn’t have to choose our product. It is your choice. The ingredients are listed on the packaging.”
To a point, they’re right. We have to dig beyond sleazy marketing tactics and fake foods peddled as healthy choices. We have to fight for our health on an individual basis every day. It may feel like a small dent in a huge public problem, but you can effect change in your own life.
I’ll never sit here and tell you that you can’t have another treat ever again, or that you have to start running marathons to be healthy. Extreme restriction leads to binge eating episodes. A cookie or a soda here and there won’t hurt you – it’s daily consumption of that junk that causes problems. For exercise, start by focusing on moving more. Walk your kids to the bus stop instead of driving. Carry your own groceries to the car. Make a point to stand up and walk around for a few minutes every hour during the day.
I know it sounds like a lot of hard work to change your eating and lifestyle habits – and it is. But after a while, you’ll find that these things become habits. And you’ll reap the health benefits down the line: fewer medications for diabetes and blood pressure control, along with avoiding surgery and other drastic measures for obesity-related conditions.
If you’re interested in learning more about my program, schedule an appointment with me online or call (855) 446-2362.
(There is no guarantee of results. Results may vary.)
Tags: family health, women's health