Thursday, May 17, 2012

Why the Campaign to Stop America's Obesity Crisis Keeps Failing

When I read pieces like this latest one from Gary Taubes, he's preaching to the choir.
The idea is to “sound the alarm” and motivate the nation to act.

At its heart is a simple “energy balance” idea: we get fat because we consume too many calories and expend too few. If we could just control our impulses—or at least control our environment, thereby removing temptation—and push ourselves to exercise, we’d be fine. This logic is everywhere you look in the official guidelines, commentary, and advice. “The same amount of energy IN and energy OUT over time = weight stays the same,” the NIH website counsels Americans, while the CDC site tells us, “Overweight and obesity result from an energy imbalance.”

The problem is, the solutions this multi-level campaign promotes are the same ones that have been used to fight obesity for a century—and they just haven’t worked. “We are struggling to figure this out,” NIH Director Francis Collins conceded to Newsweek last week. When I interviewed CDC obesity expert William Dietz back in 2001, he told me that his primary accomplishment had been getting childhood obesity “on the map.” “It’s now widely recognized as a major health problem in the United States,” he said then—and that was 10 years and a few million obese children ago.

There is an alternative theory, one that has also been around for decades but that the establishment has largely ignored. This theory implicates specific foods—refined sugars and grains—because of their effect on the hormone insulin, which regulates fat accumulation. If this hormonal-defect hypothesis is true, not all calories are created equal, as the conventional wisdom holds. And if it is true, the problem is not only controlling our impulses, but also changing the entire American food economy and rewriting our beliefs about what constitutes a healthy diet.
His two books on the topic (Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat [the former is a better book, the latter is a much easier read]) are brilliant, and it's not an exaggeration to say that they changed my life, significantly, for the better. Is he 100% right on every point that he makes? Is he presenting a complete and final model of all aspects of human physiology related to weight and health? No, I'm sure he's not. But his models are, if imperfect, at least close enough to the way that the world actually works to be extraordinarily valuable.

And I hope that he continues to fight the good fight...

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