Colette's Blog

January 18, 2011

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if your fairy godmother could wave a magic wand and absolve you of the guilt you’re carrying around with you? You know what I’m talking about—the feeling that somehow you’re to blame for being overweight or at least heavier than you’d like to be? That if you just had more will power or you just tried a bit harder, you could stick to your guns and be slim once and for all.

Well I doubt if he sees himself as a fairy godmother—or even a fairy godfather—but Gary Taubes, the author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, and now the recently published Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It, wants to end the guilt trip, the blame game and all the other manifestations of excess weight as some sort of moral failure. And he doesn’t want to do this just to make you and millions of others who’ve struggled with weight feel better; he wants to do it because the assumption that you cause your excess pounds by eating too much and exercising too little has no scientific validity.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Gary earlier this week for a long article that will appear in a forthcoming February newsletter, but I was so excited about what he had to say about the psychological aspects of being overweight that I just had to share it with you right now.

We Have It Backwards

For decades, almost all the researchers, doctors, nutritionists and public health associations have been singing the same tune. (Dr. Atkins was a notable exception, of course.) We can all recite it by heart. Eat fewer calories and exercise more and everybody—and literally every body—will be leaner. In other words, get a grip on your appetite and get thyself to a gym and you’ll slim down. If it’s as simple as that, why has the number of overweight and obese people in this country increased decade after decade, with almost two-thirds of adults now in this category? One of Gary’s conclusions is that those of us who are overweight are not heavy because we have a moral flaw or even because we eat too much.

In reality, being overweight is the result of a combination if genes that predispose us to store fat and the carb-rich environment in which we live, aka, the standard American diet (S.A.D). As long as we have that predisposition and eat the diet prescribed by the USDA Food Guide Pyramid—and particularly if we consume lots of sugar in colas along with refined grain products—we’re pretty much doomed to overeat and be plagued by cravings for more of the same carbohydrate foods. And the more we eat this way, the more insulin—known as the fat-storage hormone—we produce, the more fat we store and the more we crave the quick-fix of more carbs to satisfy our hunger and cravings. As Gary explains, this process is really beyond our control. Unless you’re a martyr who can live in a constant state of denial, it’s simply not possible to ignore hunger.

Hunger Is Hunger

Have you ever had this experience? Your physician (or his or her nutritionist) who has probably never had the tendency to gain weight sits across the desk from you and tells you that all you need to do to lose weight is eat less and exercise more. Perhaps he or she prescribes a low-fat, low-calorie diet. In a follow-up visit or your next annual physical, your weight has not changed significantly and your health professional asks whether you’ve been following the earlier advice. If you say, “No,” you feel guilty, but if you say, “Yes,” the look of doubt on the health care professional’s face makes you feel just as bad.

How can someone who’s never been in the grip of overwhelming hunger or cravings understand that “controlling your appetite” or following “portion control” just isn’t a matter of committing to do so? Anyone who casts blame on you for a metabolic imperative in your body without having experienced it himself is making the assumption that his understanding of hunger is universal. Instead, the degree of hunger is particular to an individual, depending upon predisposition to store fat, insulin responsiveness and the diet consumed. And if it’s the low-fat, refined-grain-filled S.A.D., that person, like almost two-thirds of adults, will be caught in this trap.

The Tip of the Iceberg

I’ve mentioned just one of the reasons why I found Why We Get Fat so compelling. Since it isn’t a novel, I can tell you the book’s conclusion: the “what we can do about it,” promised in the title. If you’re already doing Atkins, it will come as no surprise: follow a low-carb diet. But before Taubes gets there, he arms you with ammunition that explains why so much of the mainstream advice is just plain wrong. And front and center, being slim and full of energy are not just about taking in fewer calories and expending more.

Here are just a few questions you’ll find the answers to in this provocative book:

  • Why are certain cultures, such as the Pima tribe of Native Americans, generally obese while other groups are not? Hint: they weren’t overweight until they switched from their indigenous low-carb, high-fat diet to the high-carb S.A.D.
    • Why do certain ethnic groups include women who are obese and children who are severely underweight? Hint: it’s not that the women are eating food meant for their kids. Both are actually undernourished because their diet lacks protein and healthy fats but packed with less expensive refined carbohydrates.
    • Why do so many women become overweight in middle age? Hint: it’s about hormones, including too much insulin and not enough progesterone and estrogen.
    • Why do poor people, even those who regularly engage in physical labor, tend to be heavier than those who are better off? Hint: less affluent people eat more carbohydrates and more of them are refined, and expending calories in physical activity makes people hungry for more calories.
    • Why do some individuals who regularly run or engage in other vigorous exercise remain heavier than others? Hint: a genetic predisposition to store fat can be controlled or modified but not overcome—see above.
  • So it’s time to stop blaming yourself and learn more by reading this valuable book. You’ll be pleased to know that instead of a magic wand, all you need is to make Atkins your forever way of eating. Then I bet you want to share it with any friends or family members who’ve had their doubts about the healthfulness and effectiveness of Atkins. And if that includes your physician, tell him to withhold his judgment until he or she has read this persuasive book.

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