When Fats Take Revenge

CHAPTER 14

  

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When Fats Take Revenge

PART 1

Obesity: Who is to Blame?

The obesity statistics in the U.S. are so scary that maybe it’s natural for people to seek mysterious causes for the epidemic. Surely there has to be something going on more than we eat too much! A Los Angeles Times article ticked off some of the recent possibilities for blame: READ MORE

  • High fructose corn syrup. It seems to be in everything after all!

  • Environmental toxins. They cause our body to protect itself by absorbing the poisons in fat cells.

  • Thermostats. We’re so comfortable that we never sweat or shiver.

  • Low fat diets. The experts and the diet books tricked us!

  • Strange bacteria or viruses that infect our guts and change our energy efficiency.

  • Too many prescription drugs, such as antidepressants and beta blockers that make us put on pounds.

  • Our prenatal environment. Our moms are to blame!

  • Too little sleep.

  • We quit smoking and took up eating.

The truth of the matter is that these may all (at least hypothetically) play some role, though it’s certainly not clear how significant the contribution might be. And yet, eliminating any single factor (or even a handful of them) will not reverse obesity. How come? The answer, explains Dr. David Katz in Part 2, is genetics and environment in the broadest sense of those words. LESS
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PART 2

The Bigger Picture

But Why Are We Fat, Really?

Just in case you aren’t terrified about the girth of the nation, here’s a study that might do the trick, notes Katz. According to a recent paper in the scientific journal Obesity, if current trends persist, by 2048, ALL American adults will be overweight or obese. We seem to be eating ourselves to death. “Why would an intelligent species do such a thing?” READ MORE

Because we can. There are many explanations one might offer, says Katz, from the low cost of food, to stress, hectic schedules, technology and advertising. “But it all comes back to the most fundamental explanation of all. Animals (and that includes us) tend to get fat when circumstances allow. And circumstances have never so generously allowed for obesity as they now do.” Human beings evolved in a world where they had to work hard for scarce calories. We constantly faced the threat of starvation. The one challenge we never had to face was the all-you-can-buffet.

And speaking of intelligence, says Katz, it is no exaggeration to say that it has been our human intelligence that has gotten us into this mess; we used our smarts to establish reliable food supplies and to invent labor-saving technologies. “We have become, in the fullness of time, victims of our own resourcefulness and success.” LESS
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PART 3

Polar Bears in the Sahara

In 1994 researchers discovered a gene that, if defective, caused obesity in mice. It was hailed as a breakthrough. And it was indeed interesting science. But it may have also helped us lose sight of a very important fact, says Katz: “There is no single gene that makes human beings vulnerable to obesity. Rather, every gene that contributes something to the fundamentals of our metabolism that has survived through countless generations of caloric scarcity and high levels of physical activity is guilty of this charge.” READ MORE

Since the discovery of that particular gene in 1994, scientists have found about 50 genes involved in obesity. Some of them determine how individuals lay down fat and burn energy stores, explains Katz. Others regulate how much people want to eat in the first place, how they know when they’ve had enough and how likely they are to use up calories through activities.

The idea that we are the victims of evolution basically boils down to this, says Katz: “Once upon a time, there was an adaptive advantage to being able to get fat. Our ancestors survived unpredictable cycles of food catastrophes by laying down fat stores when food was plentiful, and using up the stores slowly when food was scarce. The ones who did this best were the ones most likely to survive and to pass on their genes to the next generation.” But this advantage honed by evolution is now a liability, says Katz. “Human beings in a modern world of fast food restaurants, vending machines, elevators and video games are as out of place as polar bears would be in the Sahara Desert.” LESS
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PART 4

What We Need to Know and What We Need to Do

As fascinating as the science is behind some of the more exotic causes of obesity (such as germs causing an energy imbalance), says Katz, we, as individuals and a population, need to be careful that we don’t let these theories distract us from a more basic reality. “I’m not questioning the validity of the theories. I’m just saying I don’t care very much one way or the other and don’t think you should either. My argument is very simple. Genes and germs are old. Obesity is new.” READ MORE

What makes it so easy to fall victim to obesity can be found in our environment, which has changed dramatically in the past century. We are surrounded by influences that make gaining weight easy. Even our clothes conspire against us. Today’s size 6 dress was once a size 10; men’s slacks that claim they are a 36 inch waist actually measure 41 inches. Our clothes lie to us so that we don’t feel so bad and don’t worry that it’s finally time to take action.

What we need to do is this, says Katz: “Make good dietary choices that won’t change with each new book that comes out. There are only 3 major nutrient classes: carbs, protein and fat. Foods from lollipops to lentils are high in carbs. Foods from salami to salmon are high in protein. And foods from pepperoni to peanut butter are high in fat. Some foods in each category may very well contribute to weight gain; some foods in each category, in particular fresh fruits and vegetables, are among our best defenses against obesity.” LESS
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