Controlling Obesity: A White Paper

 

Humans have used fire since the dawn of our time and it is this defining relationship that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.Our learned ability to cook foods allowed us to spend less time chewing, and more time hunting and gathering. Given that the brain uses a disproportionate amount of energy, this allowed our brains to flourish over the course of generations, until we are where we are today. We are now facing a different problem of the same nature: just as we would die without fire, this relationship is exponentially causing our demise in the form of obesity. We are creatures with superhuman capabilities and stone-age instincts, humans were not designed to live in our urban environment and now it is imperative that we learn fast.

Like other modern issues, obesity is progressing at an alarming rate. Starting around 1980, we can see a sudden increase, leading to populations around the globe almost doubling in their percentage of overweight people. WP graph

It is equally alarming when looking at overweight & obesity in children:

WP graph2

This increase in obesity is likely a product evolution, as “the evolution of humans and other animals [as it] has been most shaped by scarcity of food rather than surpluses, which has favored the accumulation of genetic, behavioral and physiological adaptations favoring energy conservation” (PSYC 4021).

To measure obesity, we utilize something called the Body Mass Index (BMI). One’s BMI is calculated by taking one’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters. The result puts you in one of four categories: one of four categories:

  • If your BMI is less than 18.5, it falls within the underweight range.
  • If your BMI is 18.5 to 24.9, it falls within the normal or healthy weight range.
  • If your BMI is 25.0 to 29.9, it falls within the overweight range.
  • If your BMI is 30.0 or higher, it falls within the obese range.

For example, if you were 5’9″ you would be categorized the following way:

WP table

Obesity is a result of storing excessive fat, and fat is a product of food intake, or more accurately, energy intake. This is a complicated process whose end product can be summed up in one simple equation: Energy in > Energy out. Our goal is to shift that arrow in our favor. The measurement that we use for for energy is ‘Calories’ and different foods & beverage have varying measurements. These calories, or the energy we obtain, are digested from three macro-nutrients:

  1. Carbohydrates: 4 Calories
  2. Protein: 4 Calories
  3. Fat: 9 Calories

How do these macro-nutrients differ?

  • Carbohydrates
    • Used purely as energy in the body. Found in foods like potatoes and bread, they are also in the form of sugars. They are the commonly over-consumed in most obese cultures. The reason carbohydrates are easy to over-consume lies in the diverse nature of these simple molecules. The Glycemic Index is a measure that ranks carbohydrates based on the rate they are converted to glucose (sugar) in the human body, where higher values cause the most rapid increase in blood sugar. Sugar being at 100, one can consume a lot of sugar and still feel hungry within the hour, despite consuming a lot of calories. This happens because, once carbohydrates are converted to glucose, there is an insulin response which lets the body use the glucose for energy. Overall this causes a massive increase followed by a decrease in blood-sugar, leaving one lethargic and hungry, ready to repeat the process. Due to being used purely for energy, one is recommended to use carbohydrates to supplement the extra calories needed after the daily calories from protein and fat levels are reached. To clarify: you are not being told to eat carbohydrates only at the end of the day, but that they should be prioritized the least. In the absence of blood glucose, fat storage, and then protein, are used as energy sources.
  • Protein
    • Used by the body for their amino-acid building blocks, they are the basis of our DNA, products produced from said DNA, enzymes, messengers, and so forth. For our concern, they help our body function normally and aid with muscle recovery and increase in muscle mass. Our bodies can produce most of the amino acids found in proteins, but of the 21, there are 9 Essential Amino Acids one should seek to supplement in one’s diet. This is partly why one is recommended to eat a balanced diet. Protein can be found in meats, beans, nuts, seafood, and any living organism. How much protein one needs, like calories and other nutrients, varies quite a bit between individuals, but a benchmark can be set at 56 grams and 46 grams a day for adult men and women respectively.
  • Fat
    • Used for a wide range of bodily processes and are vital to our health. They make you feel more full, and are thus, contrary to popular opinion, useful for weight loss. One should keep in mind that one gram of fat is roughly equal to 2.3 carbohydrates, thus be mindful of excess intake. Fats can be found in oils, nuts, and animal fat. There are four types of fats, categorized by their number of double bonds. Saturated fat has none and is therefore found in a solid state at room temperature. Unsaturated has one, and polyunsaturated fats have multiple. Popularly one is recommended to limit one’s consumption of saturated fat, but this theory has limited validity. Lastly, trans fats are produced as a by-product of hydrogenating unsaturated fats into saturated fats. Trans fats are presently understood as being dangerous to one’s health. For health purposes one should attempt to eat a diversity of fats, but when it comes to obesity their differences are not significant, but trans fats are linked to obesity.

After our molecular excursion, our logical progression leads us to ask:

how many calories does one need?

The answer isn’t a single number, as it depends on one’s energy expenditure and basal energy requirements, which depends on height, muscle mass, sex, ethnicity, and overall health. Medical News Today provides us with the general consensus:

“Health authorities around the world find it hard to agree on how many calories their citizens should ideally consume. The US government says the average man requires 2,700 calories per day and the average woman 2,200, while the NHS (National Health Service), UK, says it should be 2,500 and 2,000 respectively.

The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) of the United Nations says the average adult should consume no less than 1,800 calories per day.”

In order to apply this knowledge, we must know how excess calories are converted to fat. Scientists have failed to reach consensus on the exact conversion, but one can assume that one pound of fat (454 grams) is between 2,843 and 3,752 calories. This means that if you eat 500 excessive calories each day, we’d be looking at 3500 excessive calories in one week, which equates to roughly one pound of fat gained. Conversely, if a person on average consumes an excess of 60 calories per day, they are looking at gaining over 6 pounds in a year. One can quickly become overweight and obese without eating noticeably too much, therefore knowledge is of utmost importance, as it can happen to you.

It is a common misconception that obesity is a result of lack of exercise, but this is not true. The most powerful correlation is between obesity and food intake. Thankfully making improvements to our diet, although daunting, is simple. Our goal here is to gain insight into our habits and to take appropriate action.

Here are some ways to get started:

  • Track your diet.
    • You will discover how much you tend to eat and you can adjust your diet appropriately. Now, tracking one’s diet seems extremely tedious, but I recommend that you spend that extra twenty minutes a day to inspect, weigh, and catalog your food intake – including beverages. Websites like MyFitnessPal streamline the process, all that’s left on your end is to weigh your food and search for it in their catalog. Going through just a week of this process should allow you to see the caloric values of foods you are habitually eating and if you tend to overeat.
  • Track your weight
    • Weigh yourself at your own discretion and record it. The goal here is to look for long-term changes. The premise is that this is an objective measure that can correct for a small miscalculation in food intake, allowing one to take action long before the average person.
  • Read food labels
    • Not only is this important for health related reasons, but when also tracking your diet, you develop intuitive knowledge that significantly boosts your judgement of how much you are eating without having to track your diet. The combination also helps you track macro and micro-nutrients, whose benefit stretches far beyond the realms of obesity.
  • Maximize Self-Regulation
    • Defined as: “the exertion of control to override competing urges, behaviors, or desires in order to maximize the long-term best interests of the individual”, self-regulation is a finite resource. Lacking sleep or performing work that is mentally tasking or requires self-regulation all decrease self-regulation ability. (Marcora et al., 2009 & 2014; Pageaux et al., 2014) Conversely it is increased by self-esteem and engaging in regular physical activity. (Oaten & Cheng, 2006) We see here that self-regulation regulates itself: if we treat our body and mind kindly, it becomes easier for us to do so, and vice versa. Being able to exert greater control on one’s actions is pivotal in developing new habits.

Staying within the nutritional segment, it is important to talk about metabolism. Metabolism is the overarching term for all life-sustaining chemical reactions that happen in a living organism. Based on the idea that each human is different, arguing that each person’s metabolism is different is a common excuse for obesity. While metabolism has been found to differ in some populations, significant differences, aside from related medical conditions, have not been found in individuals within the population. Metabolism has also been found to be similar in lean and obese subjects, and so far we have discovered no significant correlation between metabolism and obesity. Interestingly, there is also little correlation found between energy expenditure and obesity levels.

Exercise & Lifestyle activities

Physical activity is of utmost importance for personal well-being, but its effects on obesity are inconclusive. When one is undertaking an exercise program, one is also likely to eat more and be less active. (CITATION NEEDED). Exercise does not have to be intense to produce health benefits, particularly so in less fit or healthy subjects (Williams & Thompson, 2013). Physical activity has the same benefit whether it be in one continuous bout or shorter bouts multiple times a day (Murphy et al., 2009). It does not have to be structured (Dunn et al., 1999). Because of these factors, I recommend partaking in a lifestyle activity, which are self-selected activities that are moderate to vigorous in activity. Incorporating lifestyle-activity into one’s life is easier for many and therefore may yield better long-term results (Anderson et al., 1999). Alongside with lifestyle activity, making small changes to everyday life can result in major changes over time. Utilizing public transportation, walking, or biking to work, having a standing desk or unconventional chair, there are many ways. Now that it has been found that minimizing continuous sedentary activity is associated with lower the waist circumference, BMI, blood lipids and glucose tolerance, despite total sedentary time and physical activity (Healy et al., 2008), these tiny adjustments will pay dividends down the road.

When it comes to obesity, exercise, and nutrition, it is a lot easier not to eat a muffin than it is to run for thirty minutes, and that is the exact approach being advocated for here. Instead of feeling daunted by information overload and confused by rapidly changing opinions of nutritional experts, we focus on what we can control for. Having basic knowledge of one’s nutrition and applying it to oneself, in conjunction with small lifestyle changes, we can optimize our ability to make good choices by sustaining self-regulation and enter its perpetual positive-feedback loop. Obesity is perceived as having lack of self-control, and this is where we attack.

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