Sunday, June 28, 2009

What Is Really Causing Our Obesity?

After reading a recent NYT article How the Food Makers Captured Our Brains, the foodie in me just had to check this out. It is about Dr. David Kessler, a former head of the US Food and Drug Administration and his recent book, The End of Overeating.

When it comes to stimulating our brains, Dr. Kessler noted, individual ingredients aren’t particularly potent. But by combining fats, sugar and salt in innumerable ways, food makers have essentially tapped into the brain’s reward system, creating a feedback loop that stimulates our desire to eat and leaves us wanting more and more even when we’re full.

Dr. Kessler isn’t convinced that food makers fully understand the neuroscience of the forces they have unleashed, but food companies certainly understand human behavior, taste preferences and desire. In fact, he offers descriptions of how restaurants and food makers manipulate ingredients to reach the aptly named “bliss point.” Foods that contain too little or too much sugar, fat or salt are either bland or overwhelming. But food scientists work hard to reach the precise point at which we derive the greatest pleasure from fat, sugar and salt.

So what Dr. Kessler is saying is that people who are selling us prepared food are trying to make it as tasty as possible so we buy lots of it. What is so new and unusual about that? Would it be sensible to expect them to behave any differently?

Even for a home cook like me, preparing food that tastes good to me and the people I cook for is a top priority. So what is this all about? It’s not that we have all turned against good tasting food. It’s more about trying to solve the mystery of why obesity has grown to be such a problem in America.

There are lots of theories to go around. Many of those like from Dr. Kessler center around the nature of the food we eat. And there may be something to that. But as someone who is both passionate about food and also “obese” (at least according to those Body Mass Index charts they have in those doctors’ offices) I have my own ideas on the subject.

If I had to speculate on the one most prevalent cause of our expanding waistlines, it would have to be our increasingly sedentary lifestyles — including those of our children.

When I was a child, my recreation was often playing pickup games of football or basketball or even kickball. Wintertime meant sled riding and snowball fights. We often walked to where we had to go and during school, we had recess to play games along with gym class to let off some steam. Fast food was around back then but we got a nutritious lunch at school and mom was home to cook us a tasty and nutritious dinner for the family to share.

It is more than a bit different for many of our youth today. Video games and TV are the main pastimes of many of our youth. Hardly anybody has to walk to where they have to go (or their homes in the suburbs are too far away to walk anywhere).

Many students have now experienced
The End of Recess.

As state and federal standards have been ratcheted up, the minutes allotted to the traditional practice of recess has shrunk in 40 percent of school districts around the country, according to recent surveys. Some newly built elementary schools do not even have playgrounds.
Physical education has also been the victim of
cutbacks in school.

So, at a time with obesity on the rise, why are schools continuing to cutback on the much needed Physical Education classes in elementary and secondary schools?

Well, two reasons. Budget cuts (imagine that) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The NCLB Act focuses all the strict standardized testing in subjects like math, reading, and writing while other subjects like social studies, art, health, and physical education subjects get pushed to the wayside.

And when the children get home, mom may be out working to earn that second income so many families now need to stay financially afloat. So dinner is often convenience food that each family member gets on the run.

But adults are also having increasingly sedentary lives.
My routine as a white collar worker was to get up early in the morning to try and beat the rush hour traffic to work. Then I sat at my desk until lunchtime when I stuffed my face (lunch was one of the few things in the day for me to look forward to.) Then it was the afternoon at the desk followed by sitting in the car through rush hour traffic. When I got home, I was so mentally exhausted that I could do little more than crash in the reclining chair. And not surprisingly, through the years I slowly but surely put on the pounds.

And with workers getting pressure to put in more and more time at work to (hopefully) keep their jobs, there is less and less time for recreation and exercise (assuming one has the energy for it).

Admittedly, some of the food we eat does deserve some blame for our obesity. I think the biggest culprit is not something that is in our processed and fast food but something that often is not — fiber. Without enough fiber in our food it is all too easy to consume far too many calories before we are satisfied enough to stop eating.

But I feel that far too many of us are getting neurotic when they think of the food they love causing obesity. Many of our favorite foods have become forbidden pleasures to some. To its extreme, food becomes the enemy.

I agree with the opposing view, Food Is Not the Enemy as written some years ago by food writer Jeffrey Steingarten whose name you may recognize as the curmudgeonly judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef America.

Scare stories about the dangers of eating are typically inspired by two groups. First are government agencies and nongovernmental organizations whose attempts to keep us ever vigilant toward dangers of food can sometimes goad us into needless panic. More fundamental are the dark forces of anhedonia, phobia and hypochondria -- that vast, joyless, middle-of-the-road conspiracy that tirelessly toils to deprive the rest of us of the spiritual and earthly pleasures of good and ample eating.

So instead of totally blaming the things we like to eat on obesity, we should treasure these foods as things that bring us pleasure and adopt the philosophy that all things are OK in moderation and balance.

And instead of us dwelling on the food we eat as causing all of our problems, we need to understand that our sedentary lifestyles are at least as much to blame for our obesity.

And instead of dwelling on what ingredients makers of processed foods are using to entice us to overeat, we should instead get in the habit of cooking more of our meals from scratch and using these meals as a leisurely family gathering like we used to in the good ol’ days instead of today when we all too often mindlessly gulp down our food on the run. Food that we cook ourselves usually tastes better and is better for us without all of those mystery ingredients along with the excess fat and sugar. And it saves a lot of money!

We are bombarded by ads from companies who promise us we will lose weight if we only eat their food. But what they don’t mention is that diets often don’t work because once we quit eating the diet food, the weight will come right back if we do nothing about the sedentary lifestyle that started it all.

So when you get down to it, obesity is most often a result of our overall lifestyle choices and not just about the food we eat. Once we realize that, we can then really start to do something about it!

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