Tag Archives: obesity epidemic

Eating Habits and the Obesity Epidemic – Starving Kids in Africa Aren’t Affected By Your Clean Plate

WARNING: Large dietary changes should only be done based on advice from YOUR Registered Dietitian (RD)  who practice science-based approaches to your health. When I say YOUR, I mean one you have met with on a professional level, and who has done at least a basic evaluation of you and your physiology. I am not one of those people.

If you don’t have one, ask your doctor to recommend one. Doctors can ensure there’s no obvious physical reasons why your diet must be restricted in a certain way, and they’re likely the first person to tell you that you’re dangerously obese. But nutrition training in med school can be grossly inadequate, and some programs actually do not require nutrition courses as a part of the curriculum.

A registered dietitian is trained far more in the aspects of your diet. Think of it this way. If you need surgery, your doctor recommends a surgeon to do the procedure. So if you need to lose weight, they should recommend you a dietitian for the same reason—RDs are the experts.

This post is merely food for thought (pun intended), basic logic, and some information (cited with reputable sources) that is generally understood to be good dietary advice. A qualified RD was also consulted to help ensure factual content.

I implore you not to give audience to people like The Food Babe, David Avocado Wolfe, Gwyneth Paltrow, or any other person who is entirely unqualified to be giving you dietary guidance. They are well-known by qualified scientists for giving demonstrably false and occasionally dangerous advice.


Unless you live under a rock, you have no doubt heard we Americans have an obesity epidemic. Hundreds of years ago, this might have been seen as a good thing. But while it is a clear sign the United States largely doesn’t have a starvation problem, it is a serious health concern.

Let’s start by digging into a little of that Darwin evolutionary goodness. I think we all understand our energy comes from food, right? Without digging into a jargony hole, it basically works like this.

Food contains calories. While most know this, few know what a calorie actually is. It is not an atom or molecule of something like sodium (salt) or sugars (glucose, sucrose, and fructose). As this great video points out, a calorie is a unit of measure for energy, defined as what it takes to raise 1 kilogram of water by 1° Celsius. 

Counting your basal metabolic rate—the number of calories you need to survive—coupled with the basic activities one performs on a daily basis, a general consensus is that the average male converts about 2,500 calories a day to the energy they use to sustain life, and the average female about 2,000. But this can vary wildly from person to person. An MMA fighter for instance, often is in the 4,500-5,000 range.

We all know Einstein, with his famous E=MC², demonstrated that mass and energy are interchangeable. This means when you eat food (mass), you convert some of it to energy (calories) through chemical processes within your digestive system. When you read the calorie count of food, it’s simply explaining how much potential energy, using the chemical processes in your gut, is in the food you’re about to eat.

On a side note, Ever heard that celery is a negative-calorie food (Has fewer calories than you burn eating it)? Yeah, it’s bullshit.

I specify above “via the chemical processes in your gut” because there’s significantly more potential energy, like millions more, potential energy in the food via nuclear process like fission or fusion. So I wanted to point that out in case a physicist reads this and feels compelled to fire off a correction.

It should be noted that just because a particular food has 100 calories for instance, your body’s ability to convert all of it to energy can vary based on the chemical content of that food. Some foods require little work from your body to be converted to energy, some require much more. This is why not all calories are equal, and yet another reason to consult your dietitian.

Albert Einstein

You use this energy to do involuntary actions like beat your heart, open your lungs, and digest food; as well as voluntary actions such as reading stuff like this article, trolling pseudo-science quacks on Twitter (guilty), or lifting weights. You also extract the vitamins and minerals your body needs from your food, and finally the rest goes out your tail pipe as waste.

That last point is important when considering adding vitamins to your diet. Most people get all they need from a normal diet. When you add supplements, while having no deficit in your diet, your body just sends them through because it doesn’t need them. You could eat your cash and save yourself some time. Consult your doctor on this one. If they cite a deficiency you have, get a supplement as  recommended, but other than that—save your money.

If you were perfectly efficient, you would eat the exact number of calories you need for all the work you’re going to do in that moment, but that requires far more planning than any one human can do, constant eating as you do the work, plus a lab to calculate how many calories are in what you eat. So instead, we evolved to have a way to store calories for future use so we don’t run out of “gas,” and that “gas tank” is fat.

Slightly Internet-Famous Zero Body Fat Model

So Myth #1 we should dispel, is that fat is bad—it isn’t. Zero body fat is not only incredibly difficult to achieve, it’s not ideal either. A minor amount of body fat allows your body to operate at its best.

Don’t be fooled by fitness competitions. Those people (who are quite healthy) dehydrate and ironically make themselves temporarily unhealthy prior to a competition, to give a false impression of looking healthy, only to restore that body fat and water weight as soon as the competition is over. As Men’s Health points out in this article, an 8% – 20% is generally considered most healthy.

Fat is the first thing your body converts to energy when needed. Once all the fat is gone, muscle will be converted to energy next—which is what occurs during starvation. Eventually your body will consume vital organs like the heart and lungs, and then you’re dead.

So be thankful you have evolved to have some fat. It doesn’t do work inside your body, unlike muscle and organs, making it ideal for storing energy, so you don’t consume the things you actually need to live.

So back to the Darwinian goodness. Our ancient ancestors didn’t have a grocery store to go to, and ancient man didn’t evolve from apes with farming implements in their hands. So sometimes meals were few and far between. Thus we evolved a way to overeat when we have access to food, store that potential energy in our bodies, and put it to use when needed later—this overeating impulse is in our nature.

But if you know we’re predisposed to overeat, you can make a conscious decision not to, thus maintaining a healthier diet. Very few of us are in a situation where we have a legitimate concern over finding a regular source of food.

The next myth we should bust, is that you get fat from eating fat. The reality is that this was a false narrative pushed by the sugar industry, because sugar is a much larger contributor to obesity than fat, and that’s a less than ideal marketing campaign. So how is eating fat somehow less fattening than eating sugar? Instead of me trying to elaborate on this complex issue here, allow the good folks at the Cleveland Clinic to explain.

Various Types of Sugars

I know it seems counter-intuitive, because you’d think eating fat means you add those fat cells to your own fat cell count. But your fat cell count doesn’t change after adulthood, it’s the volume in them that does. So eating animal fat means you have to digest it and it’s constituents go into your own fat.

Basically, as was mentioned earlier, not all foods convert to energy as easily as others, requiring more work from your digestive system to convert them to energy. So despite fat and sugar having similar caloric content, your body has a much easier time doing so with sugar, than fat.

But before you jump on the anti-sugar bandwagon, let’s discuss that a bit. I’ve heard people argue sugar is a toxin or poison. In biology, the saying goes that “everything is a poison, what matters is the dose.”

Glucose metabolism in the brain ~Nature.com. Click image for story

As is explained quite well in this National Center for Biotechnology Information article, “Glucose (component of sugar) is virtually the sole fuel for the human brain, except during prolonged starvation.” It goes on to point out that glucose fuels muscles as well. It cannot be overstated how important it is for you to have some level of sugar in your diet.

So while enough of any substance can be toxic, sugar is not a poison in any traditional sense.

But care should be taken to get the right amount. What’s the right amount? I know you know the answer to this by now, ask your registered dietitian. Again, your needs are unique to you, and any magic number published somewhere, as if it somehow works for everyone, is false by virtue of its one-size-fits-all premise.

But nonetheless, if you’re medically overweight (not the kind of overweight healthy or underweight body dysmorphia  sufferers describe as overweight because they’ll never believe they’re skinny enough), it’s probably a fair assumption that your calorie and sugar counts are high.

So how do we fight obesity? We all know that portion control and exercise are the two bits of dietary advice that never go out of favor. But because they’re difficult and require work, many seek the latest diets pushed by celebrities who look great, or self-help gurus who tried something and it worked (anecdotal evidence isn’t evidence folks.)

Most of these diets don’t work for a number of reasons. Not the least of which, is some of them are absolute nonsense with no basis in biology. Others are decent enough premises, but the issue goes back to us evolving to store up as much energy as is available to us at the time, in preparation for potential future fasting. This mechanism sadly works against you when you do successfully lose weight.

For instance, let’s imagine your ideal weight were 150 lbs, but you had gotten up to 200 lbs. If you do successfully drop that 50 lbs, while this number is ideal for you, your body has adjusted to the idea of you being at 200 lbs., and will continue to trigger the hunger reflex until you eventually get back to 200 lbs. So the best way to combat obesity, is to stop it before it starts. While it’s not impossible to lose it and keep it off, it is significantly more difficult.

This brings me to my next point—those poor starving kids in Africa. When we talk about portion control, the one tactic you’ve likely never heard of, but should be your tactic “du jour,” is intuitive eating (stopping when you feel full). Your body evolved a mechanism to tell you when you’re hungry and when you’re full for a reason. Why would it make sense to listen to the impulse that’s telling you to eat, while ignoring the one yelling at you to slow your dinner roll?

Within the intuitive eating framework Cara Harbstreet RD from Street-Smart Nutrition advises there’s a phenomenon called the:

“satisfaction threshold”. It’s the point (or the bite) you reach to achieve maximum satisfaction from a food. When you eat past that point, each bite becomes less and less satisfying and you derive less pleasure from the eating experience. It can’t be ignored that we eat for other reasons than fuel. To say food is only eaten for fuel is like saying humans only have sex to reproduce. There’s many other motivators there, so identifying the point where you feel satisfied from a food can be the signal to stop eating. I’ve told clients to go home and bake a pan of brownies and count how many bites they take before they get bored or burnout with the sweetness and texture. Amazingly, more often than not, it’s only two to five bites, and not the whole pan although they could go that far if they wanted to. If that’s the case, we work on mindfulness and awareness because they aren’t tuned into what their body/brain is telling them.

Many of us grew up with the notion that we needed to eat everything on our plates, because there are starving kids in Africa, and therefore we shouldn’t waste food.

First of all, you’re not going to send your leftovers to starving kids in Africa. So I assure you, they do not care, nor are assisted in any way by you overeating. If you want to help those kids, send them money, or promote gene-edited foods (aka Genetically Modified Organisms GMOs) that are specifically developed to grow in these places. Before you ask if GMOs are unsafe, there’s not one shred of evidence showing them as unsafe, and because they’re engineered to resists pests, and reduce pesticides, they’re often more safe than their non-edited counterparts.

Human conditioning is a very powerful thing. If you teach someone something early and often, they can believe it the rest of their lives, even if they’re constantly exposed to compelling evidence of the contrary. So teaching kids to overeat is quite possibly at the heart of our obesity epidemic, because we’ve taught them that despite our obesity epidemic…well, you know…those starving kids in Africa need you to keep eating. I myself, knowing all that I’ve written here, still have a hard time stopping when I’m full because of this powerful bit of conditioning.

Addressing the idea that this food is wasted is slightly more complicated. Pretty much all food is organic. Don’t get me started on the FDA’s sadly anti-science definition of organic, (This was in response to those with fears of man-made foods and pesticides), I’m talking about the actual definition from chemistry, a simple carbon-based compound. This means that if you throw it in the garbage, and it goes in a landfill, it will biodegrade and fuel new organic life forms. There’s little to no harm done by chucking it in the bin, except for maybe the attraction of pests.

There are two scenarios regarding food waste:

  1. Excess food goes in the trash can
  2. Excess food goes through your digestive system, makes you fat, then goes in the toilet.

When viewed from this paradigm, hopefully you see the trash can as the better alternative. Either way, if your body didn’t need it, it’s ending up as waste, literally nothing, and I mean nothing good comes from eating it in that moment.

The actual waste is in the energy spent by the people who brought it to market, like the farmer’s tractor and the truck to haul it to the store, when you didn’t actually eat it. But, all that waste occurred before it ever ended up on your plate. So throwing it away after-the-fact, does no additional harm.

Nonetheless, waste is bad, so there’s a couple of things you can do to prevent it going forward:

  1. Don’t Overfill Your Plate: If you can go back for seconds, underfill the plate. Go back for more only if you’re truly still hungry. Heck, getting up for 30 seconds to get another plate even counts as a tiny bit of exercise.
  2. Get smaller plates:
    Same portions, but smaller plate on right looks fuller, and tricks you into thinking you ate more.

    (<–Click to see explanation of this mental trick.) Sure, you’re only tricking yourself, but if it works, it works.

  3. Stop Rewarding Restaurants Who Over-Serve: Tell them they give you too much food, and you may not return as a result. Maybe they’ll take it to heart, and cut back in the future. It saves them money, after all. Frequent a restaurant serving more responsible portions, or offer a smaller portion as an option. A free-market eventually listens.
  4. Ask for Less at Restaurants: I often tell the people at Chipotle for instance to give me about half the rice as usual. They may not give you a discount, but you’ll be less fat for the same price. Technically, that’s a win-win for you and them. Stop thinking of it as them getting one over on you—it was your request after all. Plus, if you like their food, you’re helping them stay in business if you save them money by allowing them to give you less.
  5. Leftovers: If you must frequent a restaurant that overserves, stop as soon as your full, and take the rest home for later. It doesn’t have to be destroyed in one sitting. Heck, you can even purposefully cut the meal in half, and plan to take the other half home before you dig in.
  6. Always Err Low: We’ve all been in the drive through, and debated one hamburger or two, small fries or large, etc. Always order the lesser amount. You’ll usually still be full when you’re done. You can always keep a snack on hand just in case. But you’ll avoid overeating because you’re full but you accidentally ordered too much and don’t want to throw it away.
  7. Always Err Low #2: Now that you’ve learned to back off at the restaurant, take that skill to the grocery store. Cara Harbstreet RD advises: A lot of food waste happens inside the home (restaurants are equally at fault) but when I dive into a food budget with someone, more often than not it turns out they’re throwing away large amounts of perishable foods like fruits, veggies, fresh herbs, dairy, meat, and poultry that goes uncooked or is cooked, but not used as leftovers. If you overstock your pantry, there’s also a chance you’ll cook more than you need so you don’t throw it away, meaning you’ll be tempted to eat more too.

Hopefully these little chicken nuggets of food science and skepticism will help you to rethink the way you eat, and help you be better parents, healthier adults, and better consumers. This obesity epidemic is not a virus floating around in the air needing a complex biological cure, it’s a simple habitual issue that small behavioral adjustments can end in one generation or two, if we simply make the effort.

Oh, and I almost forgot, don’t be afraid to spice things up a bit! As it turns out, capsaicin, the stuff in peppers that makes them spicy, triggers your body to heat up (that’s why you start sweating when you eat it). In doing so, it can burn off more of that energy you’re storing in your fat cells. Check the report out here.

 


Cara Harbstreet, RD

Special thanks to Cara Harbstreet RD, host at Street Smart Nutrition. Follow her on social media: Twitter: Cara Harbstreet RD and Facebook: Street Smart Nutrition. Her input was quite helpful in putting together this post, and her website is full of great food info.

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