Are We Eating Our Way into Obesity?

The signs are all around us – XXXL clothing, extra-wide seats at theaters, supersized portions at restaurants – are we eating our way into obesity?  In Canada, almost 30 percent of adults 18 years of age and older are considered obese.  In addition to that, 36 percent are considered overweight.  More than half the population’s weight is not healthy for their body.  Even worse, worldwide statistics rank Canada at #26 for obesity (the United States is 12th).  Clearly, obesity has become a global issue.

In the United States, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention studies the issue of obesity.   What they found in their analysis was astounding. The average man weighs 15 pounds more than 20 years ago and women 17 pounds more.  Since 2008, the adult obesity rate has increased by 28 percent.  Along with increased obesity, we also face an alarmingly growing rate of chronic diseases.  Why is this?  Are we eating too much or just eating the wrong foods?

Reasons for Obesity

Obesity is an important global issue, with the United States leading research on the subject. The causes of obesity, especially concerning food, have been studied for years.  Although food is the biggest culprit, researchers discovered that factors outside diet have also affected weight. First, we spend more and more time in front of a screen and less time doing physical activity.  Second, our socioeconomic and demographic environment has affected how we eat. For example, if the household income is low, less expensive processed and packaged foods will be purchased, and the costlier and healthier options forsaken. Genetics can also play a part in our body weight, however, less than you think. 

Our diets are by far the most studied factor of obesity.  Not only have studies shown that we are eating fewer fruits and vegetables, but we are also eating out much more.  A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that, on average, restaurant entrees contain 1,200 calories – about half of the recommended daily intake for both men and women in one meal.  In addition, it is easy to eat 20 percent to 40 percent more calories than you would do so at home.  The increased portion sizes, fried foods, and sugary drinks have all taken a toll on our body shapes.  And what about when we do eat at home?  Healthier foods cost more, especially when the fruit or vegetable is not in season or difficult to obtain due to the recent COVID shortages.  Convenience is king.  Food is ready to serve – just open the package.  The problem with convenience is that it is laden with unhealthy additives, including sugar. In our prepackaged world, we are consuming more than twice the daily recommended intake of sugar each day.

How Did We Get Here?

Our journey into obesity began back in 1971.  At the time, the United States president Richard Nixon was facing re-election, and one of the biggest issues was the soaring cost of food.  To maintain his standing, he joined forces with the farming industry lobby.  Nixon appointed Earl Butz, an academic from Indiana, to act as a broker between the farmers and the government to reach a compromise that would help lower the cost of food.  Butz pushed farmers into farming corn, a hearty and inexpensive crop that could feed and fatten cattle.  This influx of corn resulted in it becoming the primary ingredient used to manufacture everything from cereals to frozen French fries.  The final result for us – fattier foods.

In the mid-1970s, an industry-changing transformation took place and changed everything – the scientific innovation of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This extremely sweet syrup produced from surplus corn was very cheap and easy to manufacture.  It soon became a staple in every conceivable food.  It could provide a “just baked” sheen on food, it could sweeten everything at a fraction of the cost of natural sugar, and it could extend shelf life from days to years. Our food became pure science, and we had no clue.

With the increased sugar in foods, another health issue was becoming more prevalent: heart disease. The food industry, however, blamed fat and not sugar. Why? It’s simple – money.  There were huge financial gains in keeping sugar out of the public eye.  Using HFCS in manufacturing meant lower production costs.  Blaming fat allowed them to create a new genre of food – “low fat”.  From yogurts to snacks, to cereals and bread, the food industry used marketing agencies to boast these foods as healthy alternatives.  They spent more than 2.2 billion US dollars advertising on television, in magazines, the internet, social media, and to offer coupons.  Almost 60 percent of that expenditure was on sweet and savory snacks. With billions of dollars in revenue, the food industry has power, and they use advertising to support their business plans.

Case in point: they successfully convinced consumers that fat is bad (think about how many times you chose “low-fat” when buying something.)  What they failed to mention, however, is that when removing fat out of food, it tastes like cardboard and something needs to replace it to achieve any flavor (that something was some type of sweetener). Professor Anthony Sclafani, a nutritionist, studied appetite and weight gain at New York University.  He found that when lab rats ate natural and unprocessed foods, they gained weight normally. When fed processed foods with HFCS, they ballooned within days.

Why is the government not adopting policies to help? More importantly, why do we continue to eat foods that are just not good for us?   

Where Do We Go from Here?

In London (England), Dr. Tony Goldstone, a leader in psychology, neurology, and endocrinology research, has studied our brains and mapped out the specific parts that eating stimulates.  According to Dr. Goldstone, our body naturally produces a hormone called leptin that tells us when we are full. The more obese an individual is, the less leptin their body produces, and one of the main reasons for this depletion is sugar intake.  Professor Kelly Brownell at Yale University, one of the world’s foremost experts on obesity and its causes, argues that this science is indisputable.  Fundamentally, high-glycemic foods change our metabolism, drive fat storage, weight gain, and obesity.  The more we eat, the more we want, and the hungrier we become.  The question then arises: does the food industry knowingly create foods that they know will be addictive to us?  Do they manufacture foods that do not satisfy your cravings and make you want more?  If this is true, the issue is even bigger than we thought.   

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended global limits on quantities of sugar as early as 1989. Their recommendations, however, have never been adopted by manufacturers.  Their guidelines strongly recommend a decrease of 10% in the daily intake of sugars added to foods by manufacturers in addition to those found naturally in foods. Researchers argue that we should include warning labels on foods, much like tobacco. Some countries are even experimenting with taxes on high-sugar junk foods like soda. Since the rate of obesity has tripled over the last three decades in Canada, and obesity leads to a host of other health issues, something needs to be done and fast. If we continue on this path, costs to our healthcare system will surpass the revenue made from these sugar-laden foods. 

Since manufacturers are not going to lessen the chemicals used to enhance flavor in foods, nutritionists are studying alternate options. One recommendation is the Carbohydrate-Insulin Model. This model blames our current obesity issue on the excessive consumption of foods loaded with sugar.  In simple terms, we should focus on what we eat and not how much we eat. The foods most tied to weight gain?  Potato chips, sugar-sweetened beverages (including fruit juices), sweets and desserts, processed meats, and refined grains. Too many foods are like a dessert, and sugar is in everything. Focus on unprocessed foods, cook more at home, and eat out less.  You cannot depend on manufacturers.  Most have only reformulated their existing products to make them slightly less unhealthy. 

Remember, studies have proven that the sugars, emulsifiers, and gums used in processed foods alter the microbiomes in your body (the community of microorganisms).  This causes excessive hunger while decreasing your feeling of fullness. Body mass index (BMI) increases, blood sugar levels increase, vital organs like your liver are damaged, and a host of chronic illnesses, like diabetes and heart disease, can result. Regardless of body size and shape, one should always strive for a healthy, well-balanced eating pattern.  Buy fresh and not packaged, cook more of your meals rather than eating out, and watch what you eat.  In the end, a desire for the convenience of prepared foods may just kill you.    

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