More people die in America of too much food than too little. ~ John Kenneth Galbraith, economist
Myriad factors contribute to the increasing obesity of Americans – too much sugar, too little exercise, too many fries and too few Brussels sprouts. Even the company you keep influences your weight, which means obesity (and leanness) is to some degree communicable. But Galbraith cuts to the core problem: We eat too much.
And I do mean “we.” I’m a short, fat, balding middle-aged man and I make no bones about it. One reason I eat too much is that I exercise too little. Sports haven’t interested me since I played tennis in junior high and exercise for its own sake feels, to me, like a waste of time I could better spend reading or writing or doing something else directly productive. I can’t even watch the Olympics without simultaneously reading a magazine, researching an article, and making notes on a menu for some upcoming event. I realize intellectually that deliberate exercise is a productive activity, it just doesn’t feel that way to me. And besides, I hate being hot and sweaty.
Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps is on the other end of the extreme. He exercises so much that even consuming 12,000 calories a day – more than three times what’s considered “normal” for a physically active teenager – he doesn’t gain weight.
Our bodies are essentially engines and food is the engine’s fuel. Although the analogy has become a cliché, like most clichés it has become so because of its accuracy – just look at Phelps. But our bodies are biological engines and so, unlike an automobile engine, adaptable. Unlike a car, which uses exactly as much fuel as it needs, our bodies use the fuel they need now and store the rest as fat. It’s as though we could overfill our gas tanks and in response the car immediately converted the extra gas to energy and then developed extra batteries to store the unneeded energy. Fat is a battery, a way of storing energy for future use.
This ability to store unneeded fuel is a good thing. If our ancestors hadn’t been able to store food in times of plenty to cover times of scarcity none of us would be alive today. But these days, in the Western world, the ability that served our ancestors so well for millions of years is unneeded. And since we not only store unneeded fuel, but we are hard-wired to eat more than we need because making the best of times of plenty was such a successful survival strategy for so many eons. Today’s plentitude is a two-sided problem.
Nevertheless, the basic fact is we’re fat because we eat more than we need. Whether there’s any truth to the special claims in regard to food combinations or metabolism made by diet doctors such as Pritikin (Pritikin Diet), Agatson (South Beach Diet), or others the fact is that most of these diets also have the effect of reducing the number of calories a person consumes and calories are what it all boils down to.
You require a certain number of calories based on your current weight and activity level to maintain your current weight. Ingest more calories than required for maintenance and you’ll gain weight, ingest fewer calories and you’ll lose, anything else affecting the use of calories is peripheral and minimal. Let me repeat that: anything else affecting the use of calories is peripheral and minimal.
Which is not to say that we’re all created equal. Just as some cars sip fuel while others guzzle it, some people’s bodies are stingy and efficient in their use of calories while other’s are more profligate. For instance, in addition to my aversion to exercise I seem to be cursed with a highly efficient metabolism. My brothers and sister and I grew up on a farm eating the same meals and performing the same activities whether it was pulling weeds in the garden, digging post holes, or climbing trees. My brothers and sister were always slender while I was always chubby. But having an efficient metabolism simply meant I needed less calories than my siblings and so, by eating the same thing, I was overeating.
The cause of obesity is as simple as is its cure. If you’re overweight, as I am, it’s your responsibility for eating more food than you need, as it is mine. However, there are contributing factors, some subtle (such as food tastes good) and others not (“Buy Lay’s Potato Chips!”) that encourage us to overeat. And, as this animated graphic illustrates, obesity is epidemic.
Over the next few months I’ll highlight some of these corollary factors – the ones I see as a professional cook, as a person who is concerned and interested in the role food plays in our culture and as someone who worries – just a bit – about his weight. Knowing what influences me may help you make wiser decisions, but even if not, you’ll know more about what you face in navigating today’s food choices. And it’s choice that, fundamentally, is important. The basic fact is that most Americans consume more food than they need – and we’d all like to know why.