Being overweight is normal
But if being fat is so bad for you, why are so many of us carrying extra weight?
If you’re carrying a few extra pounds you’re not alone. Two-thirds of Scots are overweight – and nearly a third obese (1).
Being overweight is the new normal.
But this new normal comes with severe consequences. Increased risk of chronic illness. Fewer healthy life years. Premature death.
Being fat reduces your chances of a long, independent and active life. Body positive or not.
So why are so many of us overweight?
Obesity is a worldwide problem
We’re getting fatter as a nation. In fact, we are getting fatter as a planet. Globally, being overweight now contributes more deaths than being underweight (2). Worldwide, governments are making no impact on the ballooning obesity crisis. And Scotland is no better. Recently, and with great ceremony, the Scottish government announced their latest strategy to cut obesity (3). On past form, it’s doomed to failure.
Do we know what causes obesity?
So why are we in this mess? Too many carbs? Not enough exercise? High-fat diet? Sugar? Bigger portions? Alcohol? Classifying gaming as a sport? (4)
Yes, they all contribute – ok, maybe not calling gaming a sport. But none of them cause obesity their own.
Ask any politician, phycologist or public health expert and they’ll shuffle in their seat and tell you the issues are complicated. They’ll explain there’s no one cause and no one solution. And they’ll be half right. The global overweight and obesity epidemic (5) isn’t an easy fix.
The mismatch between our evolution and our environment
But if you step back from the detail, the cause of the epidemic is straightforward. A mismatch between the human design and the environment we live in.
Don’t worry, I’m not going “fundamentalist paleo” on you. There are so many flaws in that doctrine. Yes, Paleo Diet enthusiasts did identify the evolution/environment mismatch. But then extrapolated limited evidence to fit a marketing message. Exercise physiologist Loren Cordain, credited with the popularisation of the diet, even trademarked it (6). But the follies of Paleo don’t change the reality of the mismatch.
Eating requires no effort
Humans evolved to live in an environment where food sources were unreliable, hard to come by and relatively low in energy content. Life was physical and hard. In contrast, 21st-century Scots are surrounded by energy-dense foods and their physical labour is subcontracted to machines. You work hard, live in constant subliminal stress and sleep too little. And you do it all sitting down.
Your love of energy-dense foods is shaped by the ecological niches occupied by our foraging ancestors (7). Eating them is pleasurable and rewarding because these signals evolved to encourage our ancestors not to waste effort seeking out low energy content foods. The signals were an evolutionary survival adaptation. But for 21st-century humans, with our easy access to energy-dense food, these sensitivities make us fat.
Humans evolved to move and economise effort
The daily physical effort our ancestors sustained would exhaust all but the fittest today. Foraging and preparing food and life, in general, was tough. Hard-won and essential calories were quickly burnt off. Economy of effort increased the chances of survival. Being lazy was a good evolutionary advantage. When you struggle to motivate yourself to get off the couch, blame evolution.
Why is the obesity epidemic happening now?
It’s taken until the second half of the 20th-century for this mismatch in evolutionary heritage and developing technology to create the obesity epidemic.
Food has changed
Increased wealth and technological innovation have brought the relative cost of food lower than it’s ever been (8). And at the same time food has changed.
My father trained chefs for 30 years. And every commis chef he trained spent a day a week at the local catering college. In the ‘70s my father fell out with the college. The commis weren’t being taught to cook. They were being shown how to reheat and present ready meals. Low-quality meals full of cheap ingredients. My father complained. “It’s the future,” was the reply.
And the college wasn’t wrong. 40 years later the future is here in every supermarket and 90% of eateries on your High St. Mass produced convenience. No need to learn to cook. Ubiquitous, nutritionally barren, ready-made foods. Many labelled and marketed as “healthy”. As low fat, high protein, gluten free and everything in between.
Physical activity is now a choice
And physical activity is no longer essential, it’s a lifestyle decision (9). After WWII most jobs were still physically demanding. For example, my grandfather took on a new farm in 1948. Back then, over 20 men and 40 horses did the work that 2 men and machines do today. Progress for sure. But there was a rural saying “you never see a fat farmer”. Not so now. And it’s not just farming, it’s all work. Busy, stressful – yes, but not physically hard.
The western world has sleepwalked into a huge and misconceived dietary and lifestyle experiment. We’re designed to work hard for our calories. Instead, we’re besieged by energy-dense foods and their omnipresent marketing. We work chained to a seat, spend stationary hours commuting and relax by sitting some more. We live in what public health scientists call an obesogenic environment (10). And like overfed lab rats, we get fat, sick and die.
The problem with democracy and freedom of choice
But it’s a wonderful time to be alive. We have freedom of choice and democracy. Nobody could want it any other way. But both can be bad for your health.
Thanks to the genes of our foraging ancestors, the abundance of energy-dense foods is too tempting. Irresistible when marketers skillfully apply their trade. Freedom of choice is used to defend nutritionally bereft junk food. And we choose to overeat it. What’s more, with physical effort now lifestyle decision, we have the freedom to decide no.
The nature of democracy is compromise. Politicians maintain a delicate balance between the voters and donors, lobbyists and public health, jobs and community welfare. Competing interests stretch the truth to defend their position and clarity is lost in the debate. Obesity is a preventable global epidemic. Yet no government has the power or political fortitude to tackle the problem head-on. Consequently, no government, except in ’90s Cuba, has reversed the rising obesity trend (11). And Cuba’s success was a side effect of serious economic hardship.
Politicians will not change our obesogenic anytime soon. And hopefully, we will always enjoy the freedom of choice. But obesity is not inevitable. The first step in maintaining a healthy weight is recognising and accepting the environment we live in will make us fat – if we choose to let it. And don’t expect government, industry or medical science to make an impact anytime soon. You can’t rely on others to keep the weight off.
For the sake of your health, you have to push back
Doing nothing is easy. Resisting our obesogenic environment is harder. Justifications for inertia surround you. It’s your hormones, your metabolism, your genes. And perhaps they’re not helping. We’re all different and maybe it’s harder for you. But that doesn’t change the reality of obesity and the associated ill health. You have to push back – the stakes are too high.
Rely on yourself. Recognise you are designed for a different environment to the one that surrounds you. Accept the obesogenic effects of this mismatch and refuse to conform. Adapting your lifestyle to prevent the insidious accumulation of fat doesn’t have to be difficult. And your health and quality of life will benefit now and in the future.
Ultimately it is up to you.
If you need help with healthy, sustainable weight loss or weight maintenance, reach out.
Hi, I’m Ralph – a nutritionist with over 25 years’ experience as a professional chef. I’m based in Edinburgh where I provide one-to-one nutrition coaching. If you’re not in Edinburgh I can help you online.