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Are You Dying to Lose Weight?
by Wendy Priesnitz

woman on a scaleIn the U.S. alone, the weight loss industry is worth an estimated $50 billion – that’s 50 times the amount of money the United Nations spends on hunger and famine relief around the world and more than the gross national product of many countries. Sales of retail and multi-level meal replacements and appetite suppressants alone are around $2 billion a year.

One survey found 62 percent of adults are dieting and 18 percent are constantly on a diet. And in spite of all this effort, and these weight loss products, health club memberships, diet pills and potions, tummy tucks and stomach staplings, books and tapes, the number of people declared to be obese is increasing.

The National Institutes of Health and other studies show that 98 percent of people who lose weight gain it back within five years. And 90 percent of those gain back more weight than they lost. The failure of weight loss programs is so great that a leading researcher has said, “Dieting is the leading cause of obesity in the US.”

It could also be dangerous to your health, as an increasing number of health dangers are being associated with use of diet drugs (the now withdrawn combination of phentermine and fenfluramine “phenfen” – and the even more controversial use of phentermine and prozac being two examples). Yet hungry for the profits resulting from a prosperous but aging population wanting to look young and svelte, the diet industry continues to introduce new products daily.

The main – but relatively crude – method of measuring body fat is the Body-Mass Index, developed by US government researchers in the 1980s to relate a person’s weight to their height. To calculate your BMI in metric terms, divide your weight in kilograms by the square of your height in meters (kg/m2). For example, if you are 1.78 meters tall (5’10") and you weigh 90 kilograms (198 lbs), your BMI is roughly 28. Your weight falls in the overweight zone.  

An index of 25 or more is the cutoff point between what is considered normal and overweight (it was recently revised downwards from 27). On the BMI scale, a woman 5 feet, 6 inches tall who weighs 160 pounds would have an index of 26, which some experts consider overweight. At 185 pounds, she would have an index of 30 and would be considered obese. A 5-foot-9 man who weighs 175 pounds would have an index of 26, which some experts would say is overweight. At 200 pounds, he would have a BMI of 30 and be considered obese. 

The average American woman has a BMI of 26; fashion models typically have BMIs of 18. Nation-wide, 47.9 per cent of Canadians have a body-mass index of 25 or more. Almost 15 per cent of them are considered to be obese, with a BMI exceeding 30. 

However, the BMI is controversial because it doesn’t allow for the weight of muscle mass. For instance, many professional athletes like football and baseball players have high BMI ratings, but one doesn’t get to be a pro ball player by being a fat slob couch potato.

Another common way to determine what you “should” weigh is to consult a standard height/weight table. One trouble with these tables is that they take no account of many factors that affect weight, such as family history, race, or age for instance. At age 50, even the trim and muscular weigh more than they did at twenty-five, and there is some evidence that modest weight gain between age twenty-five and sixty-five is healthy. The charts are based on a statistical report created by Metropolitan Insurance in 1959 and only slightly revised in 1979. The research was not based on medical studies, mostly included white males, and was economically biased. 

So the term “overweight” is actually pretty subjective. One recent study found that 64 percent of Americans weigh more than the charts suggest, and another 14 percent weigh “underweight” according to the charts. That’s 78 percent of the population who don’t fit the charts!

In reality, there is a growing body of research that shows our natural weight range is determined by genetics. Twins separated at birth and raised in different environments were within a few pounds of each other’s weight. More than a dozen studies have tried and failed to show that fat people eat more or differently than thin people. Some even showed that fat people ate less than their thin counterparts. 

One of the biggest problems with weight loss programs is that they assume that weight loss and gain are controlled by the stomach. Our metabolism is controlled, like most of our bodily functions, by the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. We call this the set-point. Like a thermostat, our weight varies slightly with environmental factors such as temperature, food quantity, food choices, exercise. Yet, this accounts for only about 10 to 15 percent of a person’s weight range. So a person’s weight may fluctuate naturally by 10 to 20 pounds. Weight loss attempts that try to force the body’s natural weight range to change, instead of resulting in a lower weight, actually reset the weight range higher in the body’s attempt to compensate for starvation.

Some researchers even question why people should lose weight anyway, since it appears that overweight people don’t necessarily die sooner than those whose weight falls within the acceptable range on the charts. There are a number of studies which have found that people 20 to 40 percent over the weight charts live the longest. And although mortality, or the chance of dying, increases with weight, the people who actually lived the shortest life spans were those at or below the weight charts. 

In addition to longer life spans, fat people can have lower rates of most cancers and respiratory diseases. Fat people have lowered incidence of pre-menopausal breast cancer, stomach cancer, lung cancer, meningioma and colon cancer. They also have lower rates of bronchitis, tuberculosis, scoliosis, peptic ulcer, anemia, hip fracture, and vertebral fracture. So this whole push to be thin might be not only a misguided marketing ommercial marketing ploy but it could actually be unhealthy.

However, doctors tend to agree that highly obese people are at higher risk for many health problems, including high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol or other lipid disorders, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.

In reality, many people who are marginally or not at all overweight contribute to the health of the diet industry. Women are especially vulnerable to the images of skeletal models that fill our television screens and magazine pages. These representations imply that not only beauty but also success, personal happiness, and self-worth can be achieved through slenderness. 

Although men are as likely as women to be obese, the vast majority of Weight Watchers Nutri-System customers are women, who respond to a “tyranny of slenderness” that requires them to bring their bodies into conformity with an idealized female “norm.” 

Body image dissatisfaction is so widespread in our society that it’s almost considered normal. Recent studies show preschoolers are already exposed to hearing that certain types of foods, especially sugar, might make them “fat.” Kids (especially girls) are concerned about their weight as early as third grade. But the most vulnerable are teens. About half of female teens think they’re too fat and almost that many are actually dieting. There is a lot of pressure to succeed and fit in. One of the ways to fit in is to have “the perfect body”. 

Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are the extreme edge of our society’s dieting mania, and are recognized as being a mental health issue. But most weight issues are about emotional as much as physical health. Just like those who want to be excessively thin, excessive weight accumulation can be seen as a body communicating that something is out of balance.

For some people, excess weight can reflect a lack of joy and healthy pleasure in our lives. Or food can be used to express states of mind such as sadness, depression, anxiety, stress, or even happiness. On the other hand, many people whom our culture considers "overweight" are happy, healthy, and calm.

Eating can help calm the stress that many of us experience in our crowded lives, and can even be used to slow us down. Food can also become a source of comfort when you’re angry or depressed. But the trick is to know your body, because before you know it, a few nibblies can turn into a 3000 calorie binge. When we subconsciously use food as a reward or to subdue the pains of life, we have lost touch with our natural hunger mechanism. 

If you do want to slim down, avoid any program or diet that promises rapid weight loss. Research has shown that rapid weight loss is usually followed by a reciprocal weight gain. Repeated again and again over a number of years, this pattern is damaging to the thyroid gland and the immune system. Trying to exist on fewer calories than your body needs is also harmful, not to mention that it doesn’t work.

So forget about losing weight per se. Make balanced health your goal by means of good food and moderate exercise, and weight loss will become an easily achieved side benefit.

In our younger years, we maintain body weight by burning off as many calories as we consume. As we age, this changes. Assuming you ate the same and exercised the same, you would, on average, gain half a pound a year after age 30 due to the body’s natural metabolic slow down.

If you want to lose weight, then you have to increase the calories burned off and this requires exercising. Exercise will allow the body to build up the fat-burning enzymes that are required for an increase in fat weight loss. In the beginning, the exercise should be very gentle, such as walking at a rate where you do not feel out of breath. 

How much exercise do you really need? To improve overall health, you need to have some type of physical activity for 30 minutes most days of the week. This does not have to be an activity for 30 minutes in a row. You can be active for 10 minutes at a time, three times a day. The key is repetition and consistency. If you walk normally for 10 minutes three days a week, you will have burned at least 700 extra calories in a month. 

However, if your goal is to lose weight, you might have to increase your activity level. If you walk consistently at a fast pace for 30 minutes, three times a week, you will burn roughly 3,240 extra calories per month.

What you eat and how you eat it are also important to balanced health, no matter what your optimum weight. Most people today are conscious of the amount of fat in their diets. In fact, one could say that North American society has become dietary fat obsessed. The concern results from some work done in the 1950s by a researcher named Ancel Keys which found a relationship between the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet and the incidence of coronary heart disease. Numerous subsequent studies have questioned his data and conclusions. Nevertheless, Keys’ articles received far more publicity than those presenting alternate views. 

The most well-known advocate of the low fat diet was Nathan Pritikin. Actually, Pritikin advocated elimination of sugar, white flour, and all processed foods from the diet and recommended the use of fresh raw foods, whole grains, and a strenuous exercise program; but it was the low fat aspects of his regime that received the most attention. Adherents found that they lost weight and that their blood cholesterol levels and blood pressure declined, likely due to a number of factors having little to do with reduction in dietary fat. Pritikin soon found that the fat-free diet presented many problems, not the least of which was the fact that people just could not stay on it. Those who possessed enough will power to remain fat-free for any length of time developed a variety of health problems including low energy, difficulty in concentration, depression, weight gain, and mineral deficiencies. 

In recent years, the Japanese and French diets – both of which contain moderate to high amounts of dietary fats – have been cited as evidence that high fat diets do not on their own create obesity or high death rates from heart attacks.

A chorus of establishment voices, including the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and the Senate Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, claims that animal fat is linked not only with heart disease but also with cancers of various types. Yet when researchers from the University of Maryland analyzed the data they used to make such claims, they found that vegetable fat consumption was correlated with cancer and animal fat was not.

All fats and oils, whether of vegetable or animal origin, are some combination of saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, and polyunsaturated linoleic acid and linolenic acid. 

The best evidence indicates that our intake of polyunsaturates should not be much greater than 4 percent of the caloric total, in approximate proportions of 1-1/2 percent omega-3 linolenic acid and 2-1/2 percent omega-6 linoleic acid. EFA consumption in this range is found in native populations in temperate and tropical regions whose intake of polyunsaturated oils comes from the small amounts found in legumes, grains, nuts, green vegetables, fish, olive oil, and animal fats but not from commercial vegetable oils. 

Excess consumption of polyunsaturated oils has been shown to contribute to a large number of disease conditions including increased cancer and heart disease; immune system dysfunction; damage to the liver, reproductive organs and lungs; digestive disorders; depressed learning ability; impaired growth; and weight gain. One reason the polyunsaturates cause so many health problems is that they tend to become oxidized or rancid when subjected to heat, oxygen and moisture as in cooking and processing. 

The bottom line for most of us to all of this weight business is to be skeptical about quick fixes, while eating less and exercising more...and while being comfortable with our own body images.

Wendy Priesnitz is the Editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 40 years of experience. She has also authored 13 books.

 

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