Seduced by Food: Obesity and the Human Brain

Photo: grahamc99, CC BY 2.0.

In 1960-1962, the US government collected height and weight measurements from thousands of US citizens. Using these numbers, they estimated that the prevalence of obesity among US adults at the time was 13 percent. Fast forward to the year 2007-2008, and in the same demographic group, the prevalence of obesity was 34 percent (1). Most of this increase has occurred since 1980, when obesity rates have more than doubled among US adults, and extreme obesity has more than tripled. Welcome to the ‘obesity epidemic’. Today, more than one third of US adults are considered obese, an additional third are overweight, and largely as a consequence, each child born today has an estimated one in three risk of developing diabetes in his or her lifetime.

Since the obesity epidemic is a serious threat to public health and well-being, scientists have made it a research priority, and our understanding of its causes and consequences is rapidly expanding. Obesity can be the result of many interacting factors, including genetic makeup, developmental factors, physical inactivity, stress, insufficient sleep, social factors and smoking cessation. But dietary changes are clearly an outsized contributor. The obesity epidemic has closely paralleled a large (~20%) increase in per capita calorie intake, and according to the best available mathematical models, this increase can single-handedly account for the increase in body fatness over the last 30 years (2, 3).

Calories are interesting, but let’s delve deeper. We didn’t just wake up one day and decide to eat more—something is driving our increased food intake. But what? Research accumulated over the last two centuries has revealed that the answer lies in the intricacies of the human brain.

The Human Brain and Obesity

In 1840, a German doctor named B. Mohr made a critical observation while performing autopsies on obese subjects: some of them had damage in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus (B. Mohr. Wschr Heilkd, 6:565–574. 1840). Over the ensuing century and a half, researchers gradually uncovered a network of circuits in the hypothalamus dedicated to maintaining the stability (homeostasis) of body fat stores, by regulating food intake, energy expenditure, and the deposition of energy in fat tissue. This research culminated in the discovery of an extraordinary hormone called leptin in 1994. Produced by fat tissue in proportion to its mass, leptin enters the circulation and acts in the hypothalamus to regulate body fat stores. If you consistently restrict food intake, fat mass declines and so does leptin, and this signals the hypothalamus to stimulate hunger and make the body use calories more efficiently, in an attempt to regain lost body fat (4). Conversely, if you consistently overeat, the increase in fat mass and leptin suppresses appetite and increases calorie use until body fat stores have declined back to baseline (5, 6). Leptin and a few other hormones are part of a negative feedback loop that acts unconsciously to keep fat mass in a specific range, sort of like a thermostat does for temperature (7, 8). This is called the ‘energy homeostasis system’.

So if we have this built-in system to regulate body fatness, how does anyone become obese? Some researchers believe the energy homeostasis system defends against fat loss more effectively than fat gain. However, most obese people regulate their body fat just fine, but their brains ‘defend’ it at a higher level than a lean person. Going back to the thermostat analogy, in obese people it’s like the ‘temperature’ has been gradually turned up. That’s why it’s so hard to maintain weight loss—when body fat stores decline, the brain thinks it’s starving even if fat mass remains high—and it acts to regain the lost fat. If we want to understand how to prevent and treat obesity, first we have to understand why obese people defend a higher level of fat mass than lean people.

The most Fattening Diet in the World

To understand how this happens, let’s turn to animal research. Although rodents aren’t humans, they resemble us in many ways. Just like humans, rodents evolved to regulate body fat around an ‘optimal’ level to maximize survival and reproduction, and their systems for doing this are very similar to ours. Rodents also offer us the ability to control variables much more tightly than in human research. There are many ways to make a rat obese, but some are more effective than others. High-fat pelleted diets, composed of refined ingredients, are most common because they’re reliably fattening and their composition can be tightly controlled. But another diet, seldom used, is the most fattening of all: the ’cafeteria diet’. This diet has a lot to tell us about the expanding American waistline.

First described in 1976 by Anthony Sclafani, the cafeteria diet is basically a rat-sized buffet of human junk food, in addition to regular rat chow (9). The menu for a recent cafeteria diet study included such delectable items as Froot Loops, mini hot dogs, peanut butter cookies, Cheez-its, Cocoa Puffs, nacho cheese Doritos, cake, and BBQ pork rinds (10). These are what's known in the business as ‘palatable’, or pleasurable to the taste. On this regimen, rats ignored their regular chow, ate junk food to excess and gained fat at an extraordinary rate, far outpacing two comparison groups fed high-fat or high-sugar pelleted diets. Yes, human junk food happens to be the most effective way to overwhelm the body fat homeostasis system in rats, and neither fat nor sugar alone is able to fully explain why it’s so fattening. Importantly, over time, rats become highly motivated to obtain this diet—so motivated they’ll voluntarily endure extreme cold temperatures and electric shocks to obtain it, even when regular bland rodent pellets are freely available (11, 12).

The cafeteria diet is an exaggerated version of an unhealthy human diet, and not many people eat quite that poorly. However, have a look at the top six calorie sources in the current US diet, in order of calorie contribution: grain-based desserts (cake, cookies, etc.), yeast breads, chicken-based dishes, sweetened beverages, pizza and alcoholic beverages (13). Our eating habits aren’t as different from the cafeteria diet as we might like to believe.

In 1992, Eric Ravussin and collaborators tried to repeat the rodent experiment in humans. They gave volunteers unlimited access to a large variety of palatable energy-dense foods, in a setting where the researchers could monitor exactly what was eaten. Over the course of the next week, the volunteers more than doubled their usual calorie intake, gaining an average of five pounds (14). Further studies showed a similar effect (15, 16). Just as in rats, exposing humans to a large variety of palatable energy-dense foods causes an increase in food intake and rapid fat gain. To explain this, we need to bring our attention back to the brain.

My Neurons Made Me Fat

To understand why junk food causes fat gain in rats and humans, we have to explore two other circuits in the brain, beginning with the reward system. The reward system acts to gauge the desirability of food (among other stimuli) and reinforce and motivate behaviors that favor the acquisition of desirable food.  For example, if you eat a strong cheese for the first time, maybe it won't taste very good to you.  As it's digested, your reward system gets wind that it's full of calories, and the next few times you eat it, it tastes better and better until you like the flavor (17, 18).  This is called an acquired taste, and the reward system is what does the acquiring, motivating you to obtain a food it has deemed safe and desirable.  This is the same process that allows children to learn to like vegetables—which are low-calorie, often bitter foods that are initially unpalatable-- if they’re repeatedly paired with fat, salt or some other desirable quality. The reward system does the same thing with foods/beverages that contain drugs, such as coffee and beer, gradually making bitter fluids palatable and then delicious. 

Eventually, you may go out of your way to purchase the cheese or beer at the grocery store, and maybe you'll consume cheese or beer even if you aren't hungry or thirsty, simply because you like it.  This is an example of the reward system reinforcing and motivating behaviors related to foods it considers desirable.  What does the reward system consider desirable?  Calorie density, fat, starch, sugar, salt, free glutamate (umami), certain textures (easily chewed, soft or crunchy, solid fat), certain flavors, an absence of bitterness, food variety, and drugs such as alcohol and caffeine. Our brains are highly attuned to these qualities because they’re all elements of nutritious, calorie-dense foods that would have sustained our ancestors in a natural environment, but today, the exaggerated combinations of these qualities used by processed food manufacturers, chefs and sometimes even home cooks overstimulate our natural reward pathways (19).  Commercial foods are professionally designed to maximize reward, because reward is precisely what keeps you coming back for more. Processed junk foods such as ice cream, fast food, sweetened soda, cookies, cake, candy, pizza and deep fried foods are all archetypal hyper-rewarding foods. 

Palatability is a related concept—it’s determined in part by inborn preferences (e.g., a taste for sugar and energy dense foods), and in part by the reward system (acquired tastes).  Palatability is governed by the hedonic system in the brain, which is closely integrated with the reward system. Imagine yourself sitting at the dinner table, stuffed after a large meal. Then the cake and ice cream appear, and suddenly you have enough room left for another 250 calories of food. Would you have eaten a large, unseasoned baked potato (250 calories) if someone had put one in front of you at that point? Foods that stimulate the hedonic system have a well known ability to increase food intake, and this effect can be replicated using drugs that activate these circuits directly (20). The reward system is what motivates you to get food and put it to your lips, every time you eat.  When scientists shut it down in mice, they stop seeking food, even though they’ll still eat if it’s put into their mouths (21).  The hedonic system influences how much you eat once you begin a meal (22).  Together, reward and hedonic circuitry in the brain determine in large part how often you seek food, what foods you select, and how much you eat at a sitting.

Reward and hedonic systems, if stimulated in the right way by food or drugs, can increase food intake and body fatness. The marijuana ‘munchies’ (whose existence have been confirmed by science) are a good example of what happens when they’re chemically stimulated via the CB1 cannabinoid receptor in the brain (23). One of the most effective weight loss drugs ever developed, Rimonabant, is basically ‘reverse marijuana’, blocking the very same CB1 receptor that marijuana activates. Although it clearly reduces food intake and body fatness, it has failed to gain FDA approval because of negative psychological side effects (big surprise).

The ability of reward and palatability to influence food intake and body weight is mediated by connections between reward/hedonic and energy homeostasis systems. For example, if you haven’t eaten in a while, your brain detects declining energy stores and acts to increase food intake. It does this by increasing your motivation to obtain food, and your enjoyment of food once you obtain it— known as ‘hunger’, this sensation is caused in large part by energy homeostasis systems activating reward and hedonic systems. But the connection goes both ways. Reward and hedonic systems also influence energy homeostasis systems, such that excessively rewarding/palatable food can increase food intake and the level of body fat that’s ‘defended’ by the brain (24, 25, 26, 27). According to findings from my own research group (lab of Michael W. Schwartz) and others, the hypothalamus can also develop inflammation and chronic cellular damage that likely contributes to the defense of a higher fat mass as well, contributing to fat gain and making fat loss more difficult (28, 29), but the reason for this is not yet clear.

Addiction is what happens when the reward system is over-stimulated by drugs, sex, food or other high-reward stimuli. In susceptible people (about 3 percent of the US population), highly palatable/rewarding foods are quite literally addictive, leading to binge eating behavior. For the rest of us, these foods may not literally be addictive, but they do often drive us to eat them more than we think we should, despite negative consequences to our weight and health.

Living in a Toxic Food Environment

How has the American diet changed over the years, as obesity rates have soared? Taking a broad perspective, the largest change is that our food has become more like the ‘cafeteria diet’, awash in a large variety of packaged foods, restaurant meals and sweetened beverages. This is illustrated by the following graph, showing the remarkable shift away from home-cooked food over the last 130 years. It shows the percentage of total food spending dedicated to food eaten at home, away from home, or as fast food between 1889 and 2009:

Diet trials have shown that a ‘simple’ diet, low in palatability and reward value, reduces hunger and causes fat loss in obese humans and animals, apparently by lowering the ‘defended’ level of fat mass (30, 31, 32, 33). This may be a reason why virtually any diet in which food choices are restricted (e.g., Paleo, vegan, fruitarian), including diametrically opposed approaches like low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets, can reduce food intake and body fatness in clinical trials. As stated by Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “The common denominator of such diets is that neither allows consumption of the very caloric and seductive foods that combine high fat with high carbohydrates” (34). Hyper-rewarding/palatable foods—candy, chocolate, ice cream, chips, cookies, cakes, fast food, sweetened beverages and pizza—are uniquely fattening and should be the first foods to go in any fat loss attempt. Some people will benefit from further simplifying the diet.

Dietary changes over the last several decades have contributed to the obesity epidemic. The solution to this problem is at once simple and challenging. Returning to a diet of simple home-cooked food, made from minimally refined ingredients, would probably stop the obesity epidemic in its tracks, although it would not be enough to return all currently obese people to a lean state. The challenge is finding the time and discipline to do this while commercial junk foods and sweetened beverages are tasty, cheap and constantly under our noses.

[Stephan's blog is Whole Health Source - Mark]


      1. I am a big fan of BPC. I alternate making it with grass fed butter and virgin coconut oil. Increasing the fat in my diet (Paleo) has not only helped me to lose and maintain my weight but I also to improve my mood.

  1. Amusing that the story directly below this one is about a 2 pound Cthulhu idol made of chocolate.    High calorie food is so plentiful we use it as building materials.

    1. And the picture included in this one is clearly of some misshapen horror from beyond the stars!  Clearly they’re related!

  2. I find it curious that the words “work” or  “employment” are never once mentioned in the article.   Has no one ever advanced the idea that if Americans didn’t work so much and take so few days off perhaps we would have the energy to actually do something physical.  For myself after working 12 hour days all week (and sometimes weekends) I don’t care to do anything but sit on my a** when I get home.   Does anyone know if the numbers here are similar in Europe or South America?

    1. I do nothing but sit on my ass when I AM AT WORK.  I suspect the proportion of sedentary jobs has risen incredibly since 1980. 

      According to the chart, avg calories per day now is about 2600, compared to ~2200 kcal in 1980.  Aside from all the dietary science explained in the article, there is some simple math at play here.

      If our modern jobs are less active due to sitting in front of a computer screen all day, and our average daily caloric intake has increased, then, mathematically the solution on the right side of this equation is extra pounds.

      Exercise more.  Watch caloric intake.  Ideally, adjust the diet’s composition too, for all the biochemical reasons mentioned in the article.

      1. I can’t buy that argument. If we use less calories sitting on our asses all day, then our daily caloric requirements should decrease, not increase. By this logic, there can be no causal relationship between sedentarialism and increase in caloric intake.

        Take away the increase in calories, and we’d still gain weight by sitting around. So clearly for weight gain there’s something other than mere sitting around at play here.

        1. Nothing you said negates what awjt said. People ARE more sedentary AND they’re eating more calories. The whole point of this article is that the extra calories don’t come from an increased need – they come from the mind thinking it wants more since the junk foods are so easily attainable.

          The combination of eating more and moving less is exactly why we have an obesity EPIDEMIC and not just an obesity “problem”.

          1. No that is not WHY we have an epidemic.  You are simply restating the issue; caloric intake outpaces caloric use = obesity.  This doesn’t explain WHY people are consuming more and/or expending less.  Most people think it is because of  greed/laziness.  Some people like Steven think it’s related to ‘corruption’ of normal brain regulation due to the appeal of food, others think it is hormonal effects due to food (e.g., Atkins/Taubes).  Telling people to eat less and exercise more only works if answer #1 is the reason.  I think there is ample evidence to show this is not the case.

          2. Anthony, if you think there’s ample evidence why don’t you point to it?  Stephan’s article points to actual studies supporting his position; if you want to make a convincing case to the contrary you’ll have to do so as well.

          3. @yahoo-X3I3A73KKDGPDT2DH2RI7KPTRM:disqus I think it would be astounding if any single person’s struggle with their weight could be attributed to just one of those effects. Much less every instance of obesity.

            But that doesn’t mean that no single (contributing) cause should be considered.

        2.  I’m not saying sedentary lifestyle CAUSES caloric intake.  I’m adding those factors.  I have no idea why they are happening simultaneously. (correlation != causation)  The equation goes like this:

          sitting on ass + eating more food = extra pounds

          It could easily be

          sitting on ass + eating more food + green skin color = more pounds

          But I’m not talking about extra factors that could possibly confound the relationship.   I’m simply stating the relationship between two of the biggest factors, taken together, and the outcome.

          1. I’m not gonna type as much as I could (you’re welcome) the biggest point about the sedentary-over-worked America is that folks are too exhausted to cook healthy at home. I, myself, can bear witness to the difference: Jobless = good home cooked meals vs. Employed in America = stressed, exhausted, and running through the drive-through on the way home. There is no way I can cook and clean up after working 10+ hours. Plus, food = “comfort” for too many people now-a-days. Thank god I got past that loooong ago. Obesity is just another example of the American system needing a big over-haul.

          2. With all due respect, there isn’t research showing that increased exercise alone contributes to weight loss. It has little or no effect over the long term. That’s only counter-intuitive if you don’t realize that exercising more tends to increase hunger, particularly in those whose bodies tend to store rather than release the energy taken in through food. 

      2.  Can I just say, I’m amazed at all the people who decided to argue with you based on this comment, because none of them seem to have understood what you were saying!

  3. I strongly feel that obesity, like cancer, is actually caused by many different things, and there is every reason to believe that genetics have a dominant role to play.  Although I am very obese (BMI=37) I’ve been this way since I was 25 years old, and my body shape and size strongly resemble my maternal relatives.  Moreover, I eat the kinds of junk foods identified in this article very rarely — a sugary dessert maybe one a month, no sodas, fast food maybe 6 times a year, etc.  Mostly I eat fresh meats and vegetables (two servings of the latter, and the former are usually baked or broiled), and avoid pasta, rice, and other such foods.
    I do take offense at the closing comment in this article that it is only a question of  “finding the time and discipline” to eat in a more healthy manner, since this is not the answer for a large number of people like myself.  Conclusions such as these reinforce the increasing sentiment that obese people are lazy and that their weight is their own fault.  This in turn leads to discrimination.  

      1. Saying chemotherapy can help people lose weight is like saying Typhoid can help people lose weight. Lots of people undergo detox, which are actually another way of poisoning yourself to lose weight or show symptoms that you excreting toxins.

        One neighbor is undergoing detox, she used to have arthritic pains. Now she is not feeling those pains. But is it because her whole body is paining or is it really because the detox cured it.
        This is in the land of the detox err India.

    1. That “time and discipline” comment really irked me, too.  I have the time.  I’m a disciplined person.  Yet, I’m fat.  I’ve been fat since I was 12.  Way fat.  Like, morbidly obese two times over at some points in my life.  Like, can’t see my knees when I sit down fat at one point in my life. 

      The first time I sat down and couldn’t see my knees, it scared me to death.  It was an epiphany of sorts.  I was somewhere above 450 pounds, maybe at 600.  I ran out (laugh all you want), bought an exercise bike, used the hell out of it, improved my eating and lost down rather quickly to 325 pounds.  My “set point” seems to be in the 350-pound range; I’ve drifted between 310 and 380 for more than a decade.

      Recently, however, I saw a new endocrinologist who put me on new drugs to treat my diabetes.  She called the drug regimen prescribed by my old doctor as “traditional and effective” but also said “the available treatments have changed a lot in the last few years.”  I had no idea what she meant.

      I now take a daily shot of something called Victoza.  I’d never heard of it before.  One of the side effects is appetite suppression.  It also brought on nausea and weakness, but those two side effects gradually go away for most patients.  For me, after a few weeks on the drug, the weakness is improving and the nausea is gone.  The suppressed appetite remains.

      It’s an amazing thing.  I’ve been ravenously, uncontrollably hungry ever since I can remember.  It doesn’t matter if I just ate something.  It doesn’t matter if I’m physically in pain after stuffing myself at Thanksgiving; 20 minutes later, I’d graze the leftovers.  I couldn’t walk through a kitchen without having to put a piece of bread in my mouth.  Imagine looking in the mirror every day and knowing you’re overfed, knowing that you know you should eat less and exercise more (which is oversimplified to the point of error, but that’s another discussion), knowing that you’re smart and disciplined enough to overcome any problem and yet you just can’t stop eating.

      Now imagine all that ends, suddenly.

      Nowadays, I have to remind myself to eat.  I never snack.  I never grab a tortilla, fold it up, and shove it in my mouth, something I used to consider one of life’s nicest little perks.  It just doesn’t occur to me to do those things.  I now understand why people used to look at me weird.  I now understand those skinny freaks who did completely idiotic things like, say, go to a buffet and not make an effort to eat everything in the place.  How could they not eat when there’s food around?  Now I understand.

      I don’t know what does it for most fat people.  I sure as hell know it’s not a lack of time and/or discipline.  There are chemical processes that take place in our bodies that are different from skinny folks.  Those processes and regulatory mechanisms make and keep people fat even when they eat better and exercise more than skinny folks.  Throw that population into a world where calorie-dense foods have become the norm and it’s no wonder that obesity rates have skyrocketed.  But taking this new drug has altered that equation for me.  Weight is falling off, even though I’m not exercising much, yet.  (The weakness side effect, while rare, hit me pretty hard and is going away much slower than the nausea.)

      What that tells me is exactly the opposite of the “time and discipline” finger-wag tossed out at the end of the article.  Removing the desire for those foods seems key to me.  I think I’ve been to KFC just twice since I went on the drug and I ate far too much cake at my sisters birthday.  Other than that, I’m just not hungry enough to motivate myself to get in the car and go get some junk food.  I don’t stock crap at the house any more, either.  The drug has completely disrupted the “hedonic system” referenced in the article and a self-reinforcing cycle has been broken.  Where it will stabilize anew is anyone’s guess but I’m clearly going to wind up thinner when things again reach equilibrium.

      People are fat for complex reasons.  Sometimes, their bodies make people fat rather than the other way around.  I wish more people would understand that.  In this case, the author does but then still falls back on the old “blame the victim” gambit by calling for “more discipline” so that they’ll presumably do more homecooking.  That’s truly sad.  Us fat folks rarely need more discipline.  We need our bodies to stop screaming at us to shove in more food, more calorie/salt/fat-dense food, all the time.

      To paraphrase the conclusion for heroin addicts – “The solution to your problem is at once simple and challenging. If you stop taking the drug, you won’t be addicted.  The challenge is finding the time and discipline to stop inserting the needle.”

      Does that sound right to you?  Me, neither.

      1. Except. . . were you actually so disciplined that you were cooking all your meals at home from basic ingredients? Because it doesn’t sound like it. 

        I don’t think it’s unfair to say that we need the time and the discipline, and that that is challenging. I don’t think it necessarily belittles the person who is struggling with that level of discipline. Quitting smoking requires discipline, too, but that doesn’t stop it from being hard as hell.

        The misperception, perhaps, is that slender people HAVE that level of discipline. They probably don’t either, but they don’t need it. BEING thin isn’t hard. BECOMING thin is. 

        1. In the context of the study of ethical behavior, some punny researcher came up with the notion of there being the ‘Will’ hypothesis and the ‘Grace’ hypothesis…

          Some theorize that acting ethically is about resisting temptation(Will) and some that it largely boils down to not feeling it(Grace). Apparently Will stacks up attractively during introspection; but Grace looks better on the MRIs…

      2. I feel for you, at least heroin addicts don’t have to watch commercials for all you can shoot up for $5.99 heroin buffets. It’s insane how much food advertising there is.

      3. Well written response. But for some of us it is simply a matter of time and discipline. In my case I’ve dropped 20% of my weight in the past eight months by taking the time to track every thing I put into my mouth every day and the discipline to make the right choices with the data I culled from that. 

        A big part of being able to do that was accepting that it’s OK to feel hungry. I quit smoking cold turkey a few years back and wanted a cigarette every single day. Every day I would wake up and decide to not smoke that day. I’ve had to learn to do the same with food. I’ve been hungry for the last hour (early breakfast) and I still have half an hour to lunch. I’m just simply refusing to let my desires influence my actions. Easier said than done, but that is the definition of discipline.

        I don’t mean that to come off holier than thou because I’m not. If I truly had discipline I would have started exercising by now. The list of things I should do is much longer than the things I do do.

        1. I’ve dropped 20% of my weight in the past eight months

          Pro-tip: When you get that crushing chest pain and you think you’re about to die, it’s gallstones. Nobody mentions that side effect of rapid weight loss.

    2.  Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything in the article that actually contradicts you.  In fact, I think the article suggests multiple plausible scenarios in which genetics could seriously impact the ability of the body to regulate the energy homeostasis system discussed in the article.

      But the author wasn’t discussing genetic conditions that affect this system.  The author was discussing how processed and fatty foods affect this system and how that might effect the burgeoning rates of obesity in the U.S.  While you may be right that the article doesn’t necessarily apply to your particular case I think it’s rather silly to dismiss the article in general because it doesn’t explicitly discuss outlier cases like your own.

      1. I’m afraid you’ve badly misunderstood my post.

        While you may be right that the article doesn’t necessarily apply to your particular case I think it’s rather silly to dismiss the article in general because it doesn’t explicitly discuss outlier cases like your own.

        I don’t think I’m an outlier and I’m certainly not dismissing the article.  I agree with just about everything in it.

        I was specifically and solely criticizing that it ended by pointing to a need for more self-discipline.

        I’ll go further.  This passage

        Together, reward and hedonic circuitry in the brain determine in large part how often you seek food, what foods you select, and how much you eat at a sitting.

        Reward and hedonic systems, if stimulated in the right way…can increase food intake and body fatness. …

        …the connection goes both ways. Reward and hedonic systems also influence energy homeostasis systems, such that excessively rewarding/palatable food can increase food intake and the level of body fat that’s ‘defended’ by the brain. …

        Addiction is what happens when the reward system is over-stimulated by drugs, sex, food or other high-reward stimuli. In susceptible people … foods are quite literally addictive, …

        is beyond perfect in how it describes how I got to where I am.

        If TMI irritates you, skip the next paragraph.

        I was a sickly child.  I had pneumonia multiple times and my parents were resigned to the notion that I was unlikely to survive to see my 5th birthday.  However, I did survive.  I was so skinny you could touch my hip bones with the tip of a finger and count my ribs from across the room.  But every time I took a mouthful of food and managed to keep it down, I took a step toward survival.  Every pound I gained was a signal I was going to live.  Every ounce I added prompted my parents to joy; it meant their son was going to live.  For good reasons and with the best of intentions, I was celebrated for finally getting to where I could shop in the “husky” section of Sears.  My parents loved seeing me get “husky” because it meant I wasn’t dead; even a brain-dead pre-pubescent jerk like me could pick up on that.

        I understand very well that the reward and hedonic systems can be over-stimulated.  (I think the article stumbles when it fails to make clear that such stimulation can be, as in my case, emotional in nature.  Not a biggie.)  The author did a fine job of explaining the mechanisms that produced in me, quite early in life, a state of energy homeostasis systems that cause my body to defend high levels of fat.  It wasn’t long until I crossed over into total addiction.

        The ONLY objection I had to the article was the notion that being disciplined enough to do all your cooking at home would probably be enough to enable at least some (the wording seemed to me to imply most) fat people to regain a healthy body weight.

        I think that’s wishful thinking.  I think people who are as far gone as I’ve been or who are as far gone as I am now and have been for as long as me need something more.  We need a way to disrupt the hedonic/reward cycle, to throw a monkey wrench into the addiction mechanism.  (The article would have been insanely great if it had discussed some of the things we can do along those lines.)  I believe I’ve stumbled, purely by chance, across a drug that does that, at least for now.  I’m doing my best to capitalize on the opportunity and have initially experienced excellent success without the need for any more self-discipline than I had before.

    3. He also says in the article that simple healthy cooking will stop the obesity epidemic in its tracks but it won’t be enough to return obese people to a lean state. If you read Stephan’s blog you will be well aware that he doesn’t claim to have all the answers about how to reverse obesity. Nobody does.

  4. I hope the author will comment on this question. I just finished reading “Why Women Need Fat,” which more or less comes to the same conclusion about not eating processed food. However, the authors state that we are not eating significantly more sugar or flours than our grandparents, but more oil, and specifically more highly processed vegetable oils. Do you think this is true? Is, say, home made pound cake made with butter more satisfying than a Sara Lee pound cake made with palm oil or partially hydrogenated soy oil?

      1. But if you go back to the 1920’s and compare, it’s not that huge of an increase, and people were thinner then than they are now.

        1. That depends.  If sugar acts like other toxins there is a point at which the dosage becomes toxic. If 100 g of sugar per day is that point then the point still holds.  

    1.  We are eating more sugar and flour than our grandparents, as well as more seed (vegetable) oils, according to USDA data.  And we’re eating those things in the form of processed and restaurant food more than ever before.

    2.  Yes!  Anything is more satisfying with butter than veg oils, also more healthy.  Most veg oils shouldn’t even be over heated, because high temperatures damage them and they become trans fats.  A lot of veg oils have low smoke points, the point when once they over heat, they discolour and smoke, and taste awful.  Veg oils are best used at room temperature for drizzling over salads and stuff.  Coconut oil is ok for cooking and frying, but the flavour, though mild, doesn’t go with everything.  Butter only improves and compliments  flavours, and is good for you, as is lard.  Diets are useless, just eat real food, stuff that was around for your grandparents or great grandparents,  and depending on where you grew up, maybe even for you when you were growing up.  I was born in the 70s in the country in Europe, and I didn’t know fast food until moving to Canada in the late 80s.  I remember my first trip to McD’s, that was in grade 6, and I haven’t been back.  I don’t get the appeal.  Stay away from processed foods, or overly processed, since that term can be argued.  I can’t wait for the “fat hate” to go away already.  It’s one of the dumbest trends ever.  When I see people eating margarine, I cringe; you may as well eat the tub it comes in.  A lot of high fat foods contain lipase, an enzyme which actually breaks down fat as it’s consumed, for example avocados.  People need to learn the difference between good fats and bad fats, and don’t go by trends, this includes the media.  Do your own research.  Eating full fat and whole foods is the way to stay healthy.  By eating full fats, you stay full longer and you don’t end up consuming as much, because you fill up quicker.  Your brain needs fat, as does the rest of your body.  By choosing low fat/ diet/ no sugar items, you’re essentially eating added chemicals.  Fat is what holds food together, if they remove that to make something low fat or 0% fat, that fat has to be replaced with something else.  Something which has no nutritional value.  Diet soda is just as bad as regular soda, because sweeteners are up to 800 x as sweet as sugar, so they make your body crave even more sweet things.  Read labels, if the ingredient list is too long or there are things on there that you don’t comprehend, don’t buy it.  When buying rye bread at a supermarket, read the ingredients, wheat flour is often on top of the list, and caramel colour is used to make the bread look healthier and denser.  Don’t call it rye, if it contains wheat flour.  I read an article last year, sorry don’t have the source now, which said that people in France consume 4x as much butter as Americans, it was something like under 5 pounds of butter/ year / American, comapred to just under 20 pounds of butter per year per French person.  Looking at heart disease statistics, most people would assume the French were in trouble.  Not so.

      Slowly, I think people are getting it, or maybe there’s always been a small group of real food eaters, which has been passed on.  This group is much bigger in Europe. 

  5. you should add free glutamate, so called’ umami’ by the industry, to your list of well known addicting drugs like coffee or alcool…

    1.  It was in the list of rewards…

      “What does the reward system consider desirable?  Calorie density, fat, starch, sugar, salt, free glutamate (umami), certain textures (easily chewed, soft or crunchy, solid fat), certain flavors, an absence of bitterness, food variety, and drugs such as alcohol and caffeine.”

    1. Probably just too hard to do.  You’d have to guess at what exactly was eaten, the ingredients, the proportions, the portion sizes, etc.  I have to make very rough guesses as to the calories in what I cook never mind in a prepared meal.

      Dollars though you just look at the type of sales and the total sales.  A lot easier.

    2.  I would have loved to come across data for calories, but it unfortunately wasn’t available.  As Mark said, it’s much easier to come across sales info. 

      1. I’ve often joked (but not really) about evaluating foodstuffs on a calorie-to-comma ratio, and working to push down the number of calories I derive from things with longer ingredient labels. Any recommendations on how/where to get my hands on data that would help illustrate this?

    1. The dietary effects of the non-Euclidean calories provided by Cthulhu idols are as yet very poorly understood, which is really for the best. 
      At an epidemiological level, though, their importance has dwindled sharply since the end of the vast aeons before the age of man and is now primarily of specialist interest within the small community of inpatient psychiatric practitioners catering to the more sensitive and troubled children of decadent and long established New England families.

  6. A good read, for sure. 

    I’d just like to chime in saying that BMI is such a lazy way of reporting the state of peoples’ bodies. I’m really amazed that it sees as much use as it does. Could someone explain it to me?

    I’m a bit overweight; despite being a jogger and working out regularly. My BMI is 30. I may feel pretty tired after running 10-12km, but I sure don’t feel obese.

    1. We can look around us (in the US, in particular) to see that the rise in average BMI has little to do with the average joe/jane working out at the gym to increase their muscle mass.  So, this tool still works for the folks who came up with it to help identify correlations.

  7. I think the single biggest contributor is supply chain logistics. So much of our food has been replaced by food derivatives engineered to endure a modern industrial supply chain while not being strongly toxic in the short term.

  8. Unfortunately there’s a large socioeconomic aspect of the obesity epidemic. The working poor may have little time, energy or money to spare to cook healthy meals.

  9. One third are obese, one third are overweight… holy crap, that sounds like… natural distribution of statistics over a bell curve.

    Yeah. I stopped reading there because CLEARLY this article’s author doesn’t understand math.

    1. Are you kidding me? That’s not a bell curve, that’s an exponential curve. Unless you’re putting the big numbers in the middle.

    2. I keep seeing this.  People saying “You don’t understand X!” when what they actually mean is “I don’t understand X!”  Is this like a new internet meme or something?

  10. I’d be a lot more inclined to read this article if it didn’t start by using blatantly misleading statistics.  On June 17th, 1998 the federal government adopted new guidelines for what classified as “overweight” and “obese” BMIs , suddenly rendering 25 million people “fat” who weren’t before .

    And don’t even get me started on the other gripes with BMI (Why hello, data gathered solely from white, college educated men and applied to everyone).

    1.  The stats I reported used the same BMI cutoff for overweight, obesity and extreme obesity (BMI >25, >30, >40) throughout.  The numbers I reported do not reflect changes in BMI definitions.  You can follow the reference I provided in the text if you want to confirm that.

    2. Science gets to make changes. That’s sort of what differentiates it from tradition.

  11. I don’t know why you bash on pizza so much. The pizza itself isn’t the problem, it’s the massive amount of full-fat cheese that’s put on top in many commercial pizzas. A pizza with light cheese is no worse than a plate of spaghetti and marinara sauce (which could be bad from an atkins or paleo perspective, but is not generally regarded as junk food). A lot of the blame lies with the dairy lobby, which in many cases subsidizes advertising that prominently features cheese (or even just the word “melt”). Just look at what the major chains are advertizing right now on TV:

    Dominos: Parmesan Bread Bites and Stuffed Cheesy Bread (which they proudly say has a much cheese as their medium pizza)
    Taco Bell: Nacho Cheese Dorito’s Taco Shells
    Burger King: New Bacon & Bleu Cheese and Bacon Cheddar burgers (the pork lobby also has a history of working with BK, see
    Chilis: Cheesesteak Sliders
    Arby’s: Ruben sandwich with “Melty Swiss Cheese”
    Subway: Italian Collection featuring “Chicken Pizzola Melt”, “Meatball Pepperoni Melt”, and “Chicken Parmesan”. Before that, their new item was the “Chipotle Chicken and Cheese” (don’t all their subs come with cheese even if its not in the name?)
    Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr.: Southwest Patty Melt
    Red Robin: Big Melt Bacon Burger with two kinds of cheese
    Dunkin Donuts: Ham & Cheese and Turkey, Cheddar & Bacon sandwiches (they have two other new sandwiches, but the cheese ones are the only two that they show pictures of in their ads)
    Wendy’s: Current ads are for their Fish Sandwich, but before Lent they were advertizing their new $0.99 Cheesy Cheddarburger
    Jack in the Box: BLT Cheeseburger

    1. The pizza itself isn’t the problem, it’s the massive amount of full-fat cheese that’s put on top in many commercial pizzas. A pizza with light cheese is no worse than a plate of spaghetti and marinara sauce

      With all due respect, that mindset is a large part of why our society’s food culture is so fucked up: “Sure, keep eating all the pizza you want; just get modern science to make a version of the bad stuff with different molecules, then we can all have seconds!”

      1. Given the commercial imperatives that frequently drive food re-engineering,  avoiding it is hardly the worst of dietary heuristics(nothing assures you that a given historical diet is optimal, or even a local optimum; but it is pretty likely that it wasn’t designed by experts with the primary goal of ensuring you come back for seconds, and it probably didn’t kill the peasants too quickly); but your position smells more of moralistic natural-law traditionalism than that…

        Honestly, you sound like the foodie equivalent of Rick Santorum freaking out about how scientists and their ‘contraceptives’ are allowing people to have more sex by reducing the expected costs. Yes, you could eat a smaller quantity of a tradition-validated energy-dense food, or you could get some guy in a snappy white coat to engineer hydrated cellulose pulp and guar gum or whatever into a larger quantity of low density food and eat that. The ‘correct’ answer would appear to come down to your taste and the relative skills of the traditional and food science camps.

        To be sure, the people who promise no-strings-attached-unlimited-portions are often lying, which makes a strategy involving their products likely to fail, and failure has negative consequences; but there isn’t anything morally superior about socially engineered intake limits vs. materially engineered energy density limits. 

        Conflating engineering problems with moral issues is a dodgy business.

        1. I wasn’t trying to argue from a standpoint of morality, but I can easily see how it can be viewed through that lens. Instead I view most of this issue through a lens of evolutionary biology, and a free market that’s scarily effective at playing to our hard-wired weaknesses and desires.

          I do agree with your conclusion as to the “correct” answer, though: understanding what’s going on, and having the skills to work around it as needed.

      2.  I’m pretty sure that by “light cheese,” ahecht meant “less cheese,” not “low-fat cheese.”

        At least, that’s what “light cheese” means at my pizza place — they use regular cheese, they just put less of it on the pizza.

      3. I didnt’ mean the chemical concoction of gelatin, starch, and cheese that is called “low fat cheese”, I meant a pizza with less cheese on it (most pizza places have options for light and heavy when it comes to toppings)

    2. And look who’s pushing cheese with these major fast food operations?
      =========”While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales”

      “Domino’s Pizza was hurting early last year. Domestic sales had fallen….

      Then help arrived from an organization called Dairy Management. It teamed up with Domino’s to develop a new line of pizzas with 40 percent more cheese, and proceeded to devise and pay for a $12 million marketing campaign.

      Consumers devoured the cheesier pizza, and sales soared by double digits. …one slice contains as much as two-thirds of a day’s maximum recommended amount of saturated fat….

      And Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture— the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting.

      In the abstract, it’s not surprising that Ag pushes these things, they’re captive of ag interests, but why is Ag allowed to run school lunch programs and health campaigns. We’re subsidizing private ag profits with both tax money AND poor health outcomes. Nice work.

    3. None of those “foods” you listed sounds appetizing to me. It seems like this type of American food is quickly evolving towards one colossal ball of beefy, cheesy, bacony goo.

    4. But the pizza can be a problem because many commercially prepared pizza’s now have pizza sauce with HFCS. Crust made with gmo wheat, corn, soy and HFCS. Low fat cheese isn’t particularly better for you, just less nutritious. It has fewer calories, and less vitamin A&D which are part and parcel with the milk fat. Not to mention that pizza contains a large amount of carbs on top of the added HFCS. Most people don’t need a large number of carbs unless they are very active.

  12. This may be a reason why virtually any diet in which food choices are restricted (e.g., Paleo, vegan, fruitarian), including diametrically opposed approaches like low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets, can reduce food intake and body fatness in clinical trials.

    It must be pointed out that these diets reduce food intake and body fatness, but only over a relatively short time period of, perhaps, a year or three. A year or three may not sound like a short time, but when we’re talking about weight management, which is a lifelong process, it is. Most any diet will produce a weight loss of, perhaps, 5-10% of a person’s body weight, over a period of, perhaps six months to two years. But a stunningly small percentage of people maintain that weight loss, and the majority of them gain back more than they lost.

    When considering the question of weight loss, we must look not just at what causes weight loss, but what, if anything, can cause sustained, healthy weight loss.

  13. I know a kid who is very very fat, his mother is NEVER home and VERY RARELY even feeds him.  He had to eat at my house a few nights a month because his mom didnt come home for 2-5 days and the fridge is bone dry.  I watched him grow up for about 8 years and he just got bigger and bigger while eating 1 time a day on a good day.  He even took to extreme workouts with 70lb backpacks while he mowed the yard, weight lifting, walking/jogging, etc.  He didnt change other than putting on a little muscle under his fat.  I am absolutely sure something is wrong with his general makeup and not his DIET/EXERCISE AMOUNT/LIFESTYLE, etc. 

    Furthermore my assumptions are that it was a MAJOR SHIFT in the amount of heavy people in the same years they started with all the Diet fads in the first place.  They invented/legalized/approved/sold, etc. many many types of FOOD ADDITIVES. 

    Between synthetic foods, Genetically modified foods and animals(DESIGNED TO FATTEN UP AT AN ALARMING RATE) to jobs where you sit/type/talk instead of move, to fast food for fast lifestyles.  There are a multitude of cause.

    An informed person now knows that aspartame eats holes in the brains of rats, that sugar free basically means it has a “sugar alternative” that can be 300x stronger than sugar, therefor you will have a 300x urge to store fat and get more fake sugar….

    Its my contention that the reasons are numerous, but dont expect the government to ever admit to doing anything wrong EVER.  If GM chickens are to blame, they will say its your fault for eating too much.  You are what you eat.  If I take a chicken and feed it hormones and fat increasing drugs its whole life to get it to market faster/cheaper, seems pretty obvious to me that feeding it to a growing child would clearly introduce hormones into his system. 

    In the 1960’s-1980’s people were dying from hard drugs like heroin, crack/coke, meth.
    In the 1990’s-2010’s people are dying from PILLS, the same ones pushed on us by dr’s, companies, government/fda, etc.
    Nearly every person over the age of 40 has a pill regimen, people over the age of 70 usually take more drugs than any celebrity junkie.

    1. “I know a kid who is very very fat, his mother is NEVER home and VERY RARELY even feeds him.  He had to eat at my house a few nights a month because his mom didnt come home for 2-5 days and the fridge is bone dry.”

      Food insecurity(so long as it isn’t accompanied by periods of caloric intake that are simply thermodynamically incapable of sustaining life) is the adaptive pressure behind the evolution of the ability to get fat at all… Fat is a storage mechanism. People who are kicked between periods of having their body freak out and go into starvation mode and periods of having access to contemporary calorifoods are pretty much demographic #1 in terms of expected vulnerability to obesity…

    2. He ate a single meal once a day?  That’s a problem right there.  His body was most likely going into starvation mode, causing him to retain fat.  Exactly how many meals are healthy is a subject of study with no clear number…but it is generally accepted that skipping meals regularly is bad for your system.  One study had two groups, one eating three times a day and another eating the same amount of calories, but only once a day.  The latter group experienced sometimes dangerous metabolism shifts and if they’d continued, would have risked diabetes.

      You also don’t mention what his diet was during these times.  What exactly was he eating?  The human metabolism isn’t a simple binary system.  If he was eating junkfood for his single meal each day, then that would have been a double-whammy.

  14. “We didn’t just wake up one day and decide to eat more—something is driving our increased food intake. But what?”
    I kind of like Michael Pollen’s answer to this question: Capitalism. Capitalism requires that companies (specifically large, publicly-traded companies) be constantly growing, but food companies can only grow as fast as the population. UNLESS: They can figure out a way to get us all to eat more. Add corn subsidies and an overworked population, and you get a highly refined diet of processed shit that you eat quickly and that provides tons and tons of calories. The magic of marketing.

  15. Stephan, thanks again for coming on BoingBoing and for responding to reader questions here. You did, I think, a great job of explaining (and backing up) your perspective on a complicated issue. 

    1. Thanks Maggie!  It’s a pleasure to be able to communicate this via Boing Boing, and I appreciate your help in refining the article.

  16. Do we really think that it is as simple as calories in = calories out?  My guess is that a more complex non-linear relationship is at play here.  The simple equation is for the masses to grasp – not for scientists.

    1.  Sometimes the equations really are simple.  And in fact, scientists generally favor the simplest explanation that accounts for the data.  So in the absence of evidence for a complex non-linear relationship scientists should not assume there is one.

      1. If there is feedback and interaction there is non-linearity.  Buying a simple explanation now has to paid back later – with interest.

      2. The equation is basically

        Fat gained/lost = Calories in – Calories burned

        This simple equation is generally considered true enough — if you look at people whose weight stays the same over a long period of time, and track how many calories they’re eating on average over that time, you can generally assume that they must be burning as many calories as they eat, on average over time.

        The nonlinearity comes in the “Calories burned” term. Calories burned = Basal metabolic rate + Calories burned in exercise/activity.

        It’s well-known that the number of calories you burn while exercising depends on how much you weigh. There is also decent evidence that your basal metabolic rate has some dependence on how many calories you habitually consume (i.e. starvation will slow your metabolism). Sex, age, muscle mass (which probably correlates with how many calories you habitually burn while exercising) are also parameters.

        So you’ve got a mapping equation. How much fat you gain now depends not only on how many calories you eat and burn now, but also in some way on how many calories you’ve eaten and burned in the past.

        It really becomes more of a nonlinear dynamics problem in that sense.

    2.  A few weeks ago someone linked to this BBC documentary “Why Are Thin People Not Fat?”   and it seriously blew my mind about the whole calories in/calories out mindset. I think it’s a useful idea for dieting, but I’m still certain that there is much more involved in the mechanism for regulating our weight.

      1. This is an excellent point.  Different people respond differently to overfeeding.  Some people are quite resistant to fat gain from overfeeding, because their energy homeostasis system ramps up energy expenditure to compensate.  This has been investigated in a very high-profile study (below), and an increase in non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) accounts for most of it.  Basically, some people are able to dissipate the excess energy because their brains make them fidget all day to burn it off.

        People differ in their ability to do this, and those who are not able to mount this response will be more susceptible to fat gain than those who are.  But keep in mind that if no one consumed the extra calories, few people would be obese regardless of susceptibility.

        1. Agreed, obviously, calories in has a relationship to weight, and calories burned has a relationship to weight.

          But, why is it that for many people after they gain weight it is so hard to lose it, whereas for the people in the video, the pounds just melted off  with hardly any effort? Why do these people fidget away the calories without even thinking of it and other people’s metabolisms slow down to a crawl so they hold on to  fat for dear life?

          Sure, in a sense eating more food is the reason we are gaining weight. Duh! But, why are we suddenly eating so much more food? And why don’t we all fidget all the extra calories off like these thin folks? Why is that some people can lose weight so easily while for others it is such a struggle. And conversely, why is it so hard for some people to gain weight while for others it is easy as, well, pie.

          Yes, it’s about calories at one level, but there must be more going on in the regulation of our weight. We are not simply all cut-from-the-same-mold machines that take in fuel and spend it. But if we are machines, some of us seem to be super efficient Priuses (Priii?) spending our fuel very efficiently and others of us Porches burning our fuel inefficiently.

        2. There’s more to it than just fidgeting.  I’m one of those people inclined to be thin and if I eat an unusually heavy meal late in the day my body temperature cranks up while I’m asleep.

    3. Thermodynamics absolutely requires that, in absence of an over-unity metabolism, you consume enough calories to power your activities and account for the cost of your adipose tissue…

      However, thermodynamics is silent on the questions of what sorts of interesting feedback effects given sorts of intake may have on future intake behavior, metabolic efficiency, modification of the distribution between fat storage and other uses, etc…

      So, yes and no. Yes in the sense that nobody ever got fat without obtaining enough calories to pay for that new tissue. No in the sense that(in an environment marked more by abundance than scarcity) whether you ate the food is a boring question and why or why not you ate the food is a burning question.

      1. So, then, watch the video and explain why the one thin guy gains almost all his weight as MUSCLE despite the fact that exercise is forbidden during the trial. What the heck is going on THERE? He eats twice his normal amount of calories and he still looks thin and he doesn’t gain fat but muscle.

        1. Random variation (in this case I mean randomness generated by underlying complexity) can account for this difference.  I am not saying that calories have no effect, they clearly do.  And in terms of population health awareness the simple equation works well – even empowering people to take control by interventions such as developing how-to-read-labels.  But the reinforcing feedbacks generate a curve, not a line.

        2. “However, thermodynamics is silent on the questions of what sorts of interesting feedback effects given sorts of intake may have on future intake behavior, metabolic efficiency, modification of the distribution between fat storage and other uses, etc…”

          The whole second half of my post was noting exactly that: While you cannot build tissue without energy, and everybody(heck, every organism with a metabolism) is subject to the same absolute lower bound on “You cannot possibly have gained x grams of mass without consuming at least Y”,  that almost never answers the questions anybody actually cares about, which are either of the “Why does person X’s intake get allocated in one way and person Y’s in another?” form or “Why does person X eat in one way and person Y in another?” form.

          1. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail :-).

            And when you know only insulin everything must be because of bad insulin regulation.

            Please. There are so many hormones in the body why focus on one only.

        3. I know one of those people.  He lives on jelly doughnuts and french fries with mayonnaise, rarely exercises and somehow looks like Arnold in Conan.

  17. The biggest questions are why questions, closely followed by how questions.  However, the truly disappointing conclusion for any review of the literature in obesity prevention is that the body of current evidence is dominated by what questions, e.g. “what works for…”, “Does x work?” “What intervention is better?”.  This serves two functions: firstly, it gets a publication against the name of an academic; secondly, it gets a publication against the name of an academics supervisor.  For the literature to move forward we need to start answering why and how questions.  The article above shows merit as it discusses an important how.  Good stuff.

    1. Which, by the way, makes the focus of the British Psychological Society’s recent consultation all the more disappointing…

  18. Although this article tried to acknowledge that fatness is not equal to laziness, in the end, that seems to be the underlying assumption. As a fat ally, I have to say that this article really bothered me. We should not be talking about obesity, we should be talking about health. Skinny people are healthy and unhealthy; fat people are healthy and unhealthy. Making the conversation only about weight creates unrealistic expectations and leads to discrimination. We should be encouraging everyone to eat right and exercise, no matter what their weight is.

    For more:

    1. Hi dallas,

      I’m glad you brought this up because this is something that people frequently misunderstand about this line of research.  The article does not imply that obese people got that way by being lazier than lean people.  If you took 100 people and raised them under conditions that favor obesity– a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet– some would become obese and some would not.  Each person has a different inborn susceptibility to developing obesity in the context of a fattening environment.  Therefore, being obese in and of itself does not imply that a person is lazier than average, or eats worse than average, although that could still be true in some instances.  Like any other physical state, obesity is a state that reflects the interaction between genes and environment. 

      I agree that leanness is not necessarily the same as health.  However, elevated fat mass is the dominant risk factor for type II diabetes, and contributes to other health risks as well.  Also, regardless of the health risks, some people would simply like to lose body fat, or just try to understand why our generation carries more fat than those before it.  Those people should have access to good quality information.

  19. Any solution that says we all need to cook at home more is a non-solution. A lot of us don’t have lifestyles that allow for that. A better solution would be to produce healthier prepared foods.

    1. I can’t imagine what aspect of anyone’s lifestyle could be a higher priority than eating well.

    2. I used to avoid cooking lunches by buying a stack of Lean Cuisines Sunday night or Monday morning. Because my husband is frequently not home and I am cooking for just my kid and me, I often made easy things like Hamburger Helper or grilled cheese sandwiches and canned soup. For breakfast I usually made shakes with whey protein. Most of this was just because it was easier and required very little planning.

      Recently, I decided to see if I can break this habit and start eating real food. For one thing, I am using whole milk now which I had really never eaten. It turns out a shake made with whole chocolate milk and a banana and some ice is just as rich as one made with whey protein and more satisfying. It takes just the same amount of time to make and is the same amount of calories – just more fat and less protein.

      I replaced the frozen dinner lunches with sandwiches or leftovers – maybe its a few minutes in the morning more but not much. And it’s just as easy to pick up bread, meat, lettuce, and cheese as a stack of frozen dinners.

      I like to cook so it’s more about finding the time on the weekend to do a proper grocery shopping to make nice meals. I try to do a crock pot dinner once a week and my kid loves coming home to the smell of a meal cooking and hasn’t asked for something processed instead. Usually there’s leftovers we can reheat another night, so I only have to plan about three meals a week.

      I decided not to be totally crazy about it and if I do occasionally have a frozen pizza, I think overall if I have increased the real food in my diet and lowered the amount of processed foods, I’ve won.

      Anyway, the point is, I think that it doesn’t take that much extra planning if you stick with simple meals. Every meal doesn’t have to be a gourmet masterpiece. I also find that not regulating the fat content so strictly opens up a lot of possibilities for home cooking I’d previously cut out, and I am more satisfied and less driven to eat sweets.

  20. Very late to this party, unfortunately.  I’ve had success with a simplified version of The Hacker Diet – basically tracking weight daily and using a moving average to smooth out the daily swings.  Knowing I have an appointment with the scale and that the results will be recorded for posterity motivates good behavior.  I’m also a numbers guy, so I love all the things you can do with the data once a decent amount has been accumulated.

    I don’t know if it’s related to the “set point” idea, but I have noticed weight levels that are hard to get through.  The 182 area for me was a huge struggle when I lost weight six years ago, and it acted as a ceiling when the weight started to creep back on last year.

    I think the big question here is: Why did the slope of the obesity line increase dramatically starting in 1978 or so?  What changed?  Why did we as a nation start getting fatter at a much faster rate?  If you extrapolate the obesity rate using the slop it was increasing from 1960-1978 only 18% would be obese today – almost half the rate of today.

    1.  Right. I remember precisely the moment it went crazy in my life. I had just gotten out of college in 1992 and was living in a “group” home in DC – several people about the same age renting rooms from the owner. One roommate was a Columbian woman whose favorite meal was rice with fried eggs on top. She would eat this out of a serving dish. I was just floored that anyone would eat so much food. The owner of the house also had these huge bowls he would use for his cereal and such. They were soup bowls but maybe four times the size of “normal” bowls at that time. And then suddenly it seemed like everyone had adopted these giant bowls and plates and they became the norm.

      1. A few years ago we found an awesome set of dishes at a resale shop. They’re oversized, so the dinner plates are HUGE and the saucers are about 7″ or so. Any meal we served looked puny on the dinner plates, but even smaller meals filled the smaller ones nicely.

        And the rest, as they say, is portion control history.

  21. Serious question: is there something like the glycemic index for how rewarding various foods are for our brains?

    Since there’s a chemical basis for all this, it seems like it could be determined experimentally (just like GCI) and used as a basis for dieting.

    1. I would imagine that there could never be a one size fits all approach because what one person finds rewarding, another person does not. Most people don’t care much for plain unseasoned white rice but I find it VERY rewarding. Potatoes on the other hand are the least rewarding food for me. PS – the GI index of foods also varies wildly from one person to the next. Diabetics and prediabetic people have a exaggerated response to some foods not in line with their GI as tested on healthy individuals.

  22. I strongly agree to everything that has been stated in this article. I was once fat, but i got my motivation to lose weight and become fit and slim. I do believe that “everything is psychological”, and “that all is in the state of mind.” I’ve considered many factors before i realized that it’s about time to change, to live a healthier life. One thing i want to share, “always think what could’ve been if you’re sexy, if you’re buff, if you’re much healthier.” You will love yourself more than you ever did in your entire life.

  23. There’s a reason why the poor tend towards obesity more than the middle-class or wealthy. Crap is cheaper than healthy stuff. Yes, apples may be on sale, but if you’ve got kids to feed, a box of white flour pasta goes a lot further to fill them up. If you’re working two jobs, and money’s tight, just getting dinner on the table may be a triumph, no matter what it is. Kids who grow up with “food insecurity” (they’re usually fed enough, but at times not, and they’re always aware that they may lose their food supply) are much more likely to be obese than kids who don’t, because they never learn to regulate their appetites- if there’s food, you eat it, and you clean your plate whether you’re full or not, because there’s a chance there might not be much food tomorrow. If you’re hungry and food is scarce, you might not be able to satisfy yourself. Not to mention that you learn to eat, and like, and become attached to the cheap stuff, because it’s what you’re used to. I work in a teen clinic that has an obesity program, and we see it over and over. Many of these kids have become totally disconnected from hunger and fullness signals, because they weren’t in an atmosphere where those signals were valued or even useful. So until food insecurity isn’t an issue, poor kids are more likely to grow up with unhealthy eating practices and have a good chance of being an obese adults.

    No, not everyone who doesn’t eat healthy food is poor, and not every poor family lives on processed foods- but overall, it’s where the trend is.

    I’d love it if we subsidized produce instead of King Corn, which sweetens and bulks up all the processed crap available.

Comments are closed.