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Obesity.  Who’s to Blame?

 Diane Fields, ISSA Master Trainer
Specialist in Fitness for Older Adults
Specialist In Performance Nutrition
Certified Fitness Trainer

We’ve all heard the message.  Lean bodies produced by sound nutrition, cardiovascular exercise and resistance training will reduce the risks of cancer, stroke, heart disease and type II diabetes.  Now, new research shows that caloric restriction can stop the cell death process associated with age.[i][i]  As a result of a continuing multi-media message, countless numbers of people are dieting.  Low-fat, low-carb, high-protein, The Zone, Sugar Busters, Atkins, Weight-Watchers and the Diet Center are just a few examples in an ever-expanding growth industry.  Billions of dollars are spent each year on efforts to lose weight and yet the population grows fatter each day.

Usually thought of as an American problem, obesity and its effects are currently spreading far beyond the US borders. “Worldwide, a billion people are now overweight or obese, including 22 million children under the age of 5. Obesity and ills linked to it, including heart disease and high blood pressure, have joined the World Health Organization's list of the Top 10 global health risks. Rates of obesity are going up in developing countries as well as industrialized ones, with the greatest increases taking place in the last 10 years. In the United States, 64.5 percent of adults and 15 percent of children ages 6 to 19 are overweight.”[ii][ii]  

But, herein lies the problem.  A billion people are overweight and billions more are spent on dieting to reduce pounds.  Blame is placed on the food pyramid, reduced exercise standards, super-sized portions of food, carbohydrates and general confusion about which diet plan will work for the consumer.  Who is really to blame for an epidemic where costs are far reaching?  Obesity is not limited to the physical effects on the overweight individual, but rather expands to include increased health-related costs to businesses with overweight workers, stress on families when a loved one is diagnosed with a weight-related health disorder and psychological factors for the overweight person.

It’s time to start placing blame where blame is due.  From the food pyramid and super-sized portions to a sedentary lifestyle embraced by the next generation, let’s examine current thinking on the set of variables that lead to the worldwide obesity epidemic.

A sedentary lifestyle is in large part to blame for the current obesity crisis. 
Many experts compare yesterday’s agricultural society where long hours of hard labor in the fields kept generations lean, with today’s cyberspace society where days and nights are spent sitting in front of a computer screen. Rather than adjust dietary needs with fewer calories to match the less physical lifestyle, calories have dramatically increased through fast-food, prepared foods and dining out.

As a society we’ve become parochial in our vision, focusing only on the short-term to get ahead in the current competitive work environment.  Rather than acknowledge that a fit and lean body will produce more efficient results in the long-term, the myopic view remains on production, NOW.  As a result, the benefits of time away from the job are rarely studied and implemented by the overweight population.

Unfortunately, this sedentary lifestyle has been passed down to our children.  When was the last time an impromptu game of kickball, stickball or tag broke out in your neighborhood?  Yes, I’m dating myself, but for those of you in my babyboomer age bracket, think back to your childhood.  How many children in your neighborhood were obese?  Zero, in mine.  Perhaps, one or two in a neighborhood of fifty children were a bit on the chubby side.  But, by today’s standards those very same children would be considered normal in size.

We’ve changed the standards not only in size, but expectations.  “Our sedentary habits led public-health officials to pursue a dramatic shift in exercise recommendations in the mid-1990s.  For years, the emphasis had been on getting the heart revved at least three times a week through vigorous aerobic activity like running, as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine in 1978.  But as it became increasingly clear that only a sliver of the population was actually going to leap up and start sprinting, researchers realized there was an urgent need to scale back expectations.”[iii][iii]

Intensity was replaced with moderation.  Running and sprinting were replaced with brisk walking or gardening.  And we wonder why this costly health epidemic continues.  

Dr. Rena Wing, a leading obesity researcher has identified 3000 successful weight loss people, those that lost an average of sixty pounds and kept the weight off for three of more years[iv][iv].  Through her work, Dr. Wing identified several factors that lead to successful long-term weight loss.  Individuals in her study burned an average of 2800 calories per week through exercise.[v][v]  The studies clearly show that exercise must be given priority.  

Yes, much research can be found that supports the lower risks of heart disease with only 30 minutes of daily vigorous activity.  But, “60 minutes of physical activity was necessary to maintain body weight and avoid excess gain.”[vi][vi]  No wonder people are getting frustrated!  Expecting results through a 30-minute exercise regime, when daily 60-minute sessions are required for success brings the word epidemic to light.

So, the public is justifiably frustrated.  They’ve been given data that will improve their health risks, but not reduce their bulge.  But, even with the drastic reduction in standards, designed to engage the masses in the fight against immobility and obesity, “only 1 in 5 US adults get the recommended amount of physical activity, according to a 1996 Surgeon General’s report.”[vii][vii]  It is clear, we need to start taking responsibility for the food we put in our mouths and the amount of calories we burn through exercise.

Many are blaming the food pyramid for the current state of obesity.  Everywhere you look a writer, newscaster or diet guru is taking a shot at the current Food Guide Pyramid that was designed in 1992 by the USDA. “The pyramid is a disaster, says K. Dun Gifford of Oldways, a non-profit think tank based in Boston.  The American epidemic of obesity is the proof that it hasn’t worked.  Period. Amen.”[viii][viii]

Clearly, for athletes and bodybuilders, many flaws are seen in the current Food Guide Pyramid, but exception must be taken with K. Dun Gifford’s remark.  Fast food, fried in obscene amounts of artery clogging oil does not have a place on the current pyramid.  And yet, many fast-food meals are part of the typical diet of an overweight person.  Adding the extra calories from fast food to the pyramid, or worse yet, replacing the healthy and nutrient dense fruits and vegetables on the current food pyramid has lead to the fattening up of the world.

Couple the FDA Food Guide Pyramid with the marketing genius of convincing the public that low-fat foods can be eaten in abundance is also to blame for the current set of affairs.  How is it possible that the majority of the population is convinced that low-fat somehow means no calorie? Yes, eat low-fat green peppers, celery and broccoli in unlimited quantities, but low-fat cookies?  “We were trying to promote lean meats and low-fat dairy products, says Marion Nestle, a New York University nutritionist who served as an adviser to the surgeon general in the late 1980s.  We never thought of Snackwell’s”[ix][ix]

Society has forgotten the concept of portion size.  In a fast-paced, instant gratification world, people want satisfaction, in large quantities, RIGHT NOW!  We’ve learned to equate large portions with a sense of value.  Watch any TV news program and you’ll see a comparison of a serving size of yesterday with a serving size of today.  Back to those babyboomers, remember a single portion of McDonald’s fries?  That portion seemed to satisfy us and at 200 calories coupled with a bike ride or walk to the local McDonalds, the calories were burned off in our quest for this occasional treat.  Today, a super-sized portion valued at more than 600 calories adds to the bulging of society that uses the drive-up window on a daily basis.

It’s time to start rethinking the concept of value by taking the emphasis off of size and placing it on health.  We need to realize that it’s very easy and inexpensive for fast-food restaurants to just throw in more food, and start paying attention to research studies that compare serving size and the amount of calories ingested.  “When we gave people big buckets of popcorn—the ones you have to hold with two hands—at a movie theater, they ate 40 to 50 percent more popcorn than people who got smaller buckets, says Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Research lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.”[x][x]  Feel cheated that movie theatres don’t offer any nutritious alternatives rather than extra-large popcorn at $6.00 is only a dollar more than the small sized indulgence.

Overweight people feel confused by the myriad of diet plans.  Granted, countless weight reduction plans are in existence.  Each boldly touts success through sugar elimination, carbohydrate reduction increased protein intake or point systems.  Those in search of the magic bullet to bring physique transformation success become bogged down in the minutia of individual plans.

Weight loss consultants will admit that far too many clients get stuck in the science of weight reduction, rather than the simple process of taking in fewer nutrient dense calories than expended.  When many excess pounds are needed to lose, the process is so simple.  For a client with much weight to lose, the difference in pounds lost when consuming a baked potato versus brown rice is minimal and clearly should not be allowed to stunt the success of someone that truly as the desire to lose weight.

Each adult individual is responsible for the amount of calories ingested and burned on a daily basis. Almost any plan that reduces calories, limits fat and controls portion size will work when coupled with exercise done on a daily basis.  Health is not an area where we should make compromises.  It is time we start taking responsibility and place the blame for this expanding crisis right at the individual level, for it is the individual that determines the quantities of food ingested and whether or not that food is stored as fat or burned as the body’s fuel.

So, keep it simple and start today!

Obesity prescription

1.      Move more!  Start slow with the goal to build both endurance and intensity.

2.      Eat less!  Record every bite and re-evaluate portion size.

3.      Take responsibility for your actions!

4.      Stop making excuses and just do it!  


[i] Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Jan. 2, 2003, online edition. News release, University of Florida.

[ii]Grady, Denise.  The New York Times.  Why we Eat and (Eat and Eat).  November 26, 2002

[iii] Kalb, Claudia.  Newsweek.  Health for Life.  January 20, 2003.

[iv] McGuire, MOT, Wing, RR. Klem, ML, Lang, W., and Hill, JO.  What predicts weight regain among a group of successful weight losers?  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 1999.  67, 177-185.    

[v] Klem, ML, Wing, RR, MeGuire, MT and Hill, JO.  Obesity Research.  Does weight loss maintenance become easier over time?

[vi] Kalb, Claudia.  Newsweek.  Health for Life.  January 20, 2003.

[vii] Bren, Linda.  US Food and Drug Administration FDA Consumer magazine.  Losing Weight:  More than Counting Calories.  January/February 2002.

[viii] Cowley, Geoffrey.  Newsweek.  A Better Way to Eat.  January 20, 2003.

[ix] Cowley, Geoffrey.  Newsweek.  A Better Way to Eat.  January 20, 2003. 

[x] Liebman, Bonnie.  Nutrition Action Healthletter.  July 1999.



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