Thoughts on Obesity

This is a guest blog post by Daniel Green.

In her August 21 New York Times Slipstream column, Natasha Singer opens

“WHY are Americans getting fatter and fatter? The simple explanation is that we eat too much junk food and spend too much time in front of screens — be they television, phone or computer — to burn off all those empty calories.”

Now I agree that, as a population, we are eating too much, but is exercise really the solution to America’s growing obesity epidemic?

Consider the following example: at a recent trip to McDonald’s you consume a Chocolate Triple Thick Shake, of which even the ‘small’ 16oz version contains 580 calories according to Expending that same amount of energy would take about an hour if you jogged at a briskly 5mph pace (580calories x 1mile/100 calories x 12minute/1 mile for those of you who want to see the math). Now it probably didn’t take you an hour to drink the shake, even if you were sipping it on the ride over to soccer practice.

Weight balance is largely determined by the law of thermodynamics which states that

Change in Bodyweight = Change in Energy Intake minus Change in Energy Expenditure.

So if we want to lose weight, we either need to decrease energy intake (eat less) or increase energy expenditure (move more).  According to Coca Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, Americans are just lazy. But is the CEO of the largest soft drink company in the world really a trusted source for advice on reducing obesity? I don’t think so, especially seeing as how ‘lazy people’ funded his earnings of nearly $20M in 2009.

As seen from NHANES data (see figure above), food intake and obesity rates are directly correlated. Starting around the late 80’s food intake and obesity rates sky rocketed, but why? There are a lot of causes:

  • food prices dropped as a result of aggressive farm subsidies,
  • food availability increased (even Auto Zone, the automotive retail chain, now sells a wide range of snack mixes and roasted nuts!),
  • and the elephant in the room -  increasing portion sizes.

A 2009 study by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab compared 18 recipes that had been published annually in the “Joy of Cooking,” inarguably one of the most read cookbooks of all time. Between 1936 and 2006 calories per serving jumped 63 percent on average.

While exercise may not have as much direct influence on bodyweight as we’ve been taught, it is still an important part of a healthy lifestyle. But if on January first you find yourself making the same weight loss resolution you’ve made every year for the last decade, consider making a conscious effort to eat less before going out and buying another diet book that will just collect dust on a shelf or spending $750 to renew the gym membership you use maybe once a month.

Daniel Green is an Applied Nutrition and Psychology major and Food Psychology researcher at Cornell University. He is also the Founder and Interim-CEO of Dynamic Automated Nutrition Innovations, an Ithaca-based startup that focuses on finding innovative solutions to global obesity.  He can be reached at dpg64 at Cornell dot edu.

  • The Table of Promise

    Thanks for this post. As a mom of two young boys I am very concerned about the obesity problem in this country and especially the obesity trends in children. But what I view to be the biggest problem in obesity converage in the media is that we focus too much on eating less and excersing more.

    My personal feeling is, it is all about the quality of the food. If we continue to eat the same foods (processed foods, high in sugar, low in nutrients) we will all be starving ourselves to death on the appropriate number of calories. Industrial food does not provide enough nutrients and so we get hungry soon after eating all that junk. The media is getting better at advertising that we should be eating more veggies and less sugar. However more needs to be done. If more media weight was put into ethical sources of meat and milk (properly cared for, pastured, no antibiotics, etc), perhaps we could also see some real progress. I also feel that fat is a GREATLY misunderstood nutrient. In trying to tackle obesity we are limiting healthy fats and saturated fats that are needed for propoer cell function, and all of that is only helping to make us hungrier.

    The problem is so complex as is nutrition and body function, my solution is to stop overthinking things. Eat real food and enjoy life. Hey, when I started doing that I lost 12 pounds without even trying.

  • Ken Leebow

    Re: the observation: “consider making a conscious effort to eat less”.

    This continues the myth of how to lose weight. The underlying message to that statement is: deprivation and willpower. If you are deprived or have to use willpower, no doubt, you will lose the battle against weight-loss. The stats bear that out.

    The reality is: you can eat more. During my presentations, I recommend to the audience: Eat More! And, if you are hungry be sure to eat.

    No, that does not mean eat Snickers, Snackwells, or Skittles. It means eating foods that are known to create the feeling of being full – satiety.

    It also means eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I wonder how many people leave their homes in the AM without eating a breakfast that creates the feeling of satiety?

    So, the good news is eat up America! But be sure it’s the right stuff.

    Ken Leebow

  • Jeanette

    Great article. I had found a chart recently linking obesity to high fructose corn syrup, which shows a similar correlation.

    Here’s the post:

  • Joanna @

    I believe Time or Newsweek recently had an article highlighting a research study that found that being sedentary was a symptom of obesity rather than a cause. If this is true, which there seems to be more and more evidence for, it kind of throws a wrench into the whole premise of “Let’s Move.” I do think it makes intuitive sense, I don’t see the logic behind expecting physical activity to magically compensate for filling up on excessive amounts of junk.

  • Wet Wolf

    Instead of decreasing intake, just change the foods that make up your intake.

  • Lauren Slayton

    I think activity is as important as exercise. I have many clients who sit from the start of their work day to the end. I think HFCS, decreases in smoking (good), poor food quality, eating continuously though the day, eating while distracted in front of screens and many other things are to blame. It’s the perfect obesity storm and so sad.

  • Jill

    As our society becomes more obese, it’s important to look at what has changed in our diets. With the addition of HFSC to our diets, obesity has increased. In fact 1 in 3 kids is now obese and this is the first generation that has a decreased expected lifespan. We can’t blame it all on food additives, but there is an obvious correlation and starting your kids on a more natural diet is a great place to start. And, even though it is challenging, we need to set the example by showing our kids that we enjoy eating a healthy diet and getting at least 30 minutes of exercise daily.

  • Alexa@Living La Vida Pura

    While you’re absolutely right that it takes a lot more exercise than most people are willing to do to burn off the excess calories they consume, don’t knock exercise altogether! Exercising increases your overall calorie burn throughout the day, and that effect is compounded as you build new muscle tissue – you burn 50 more calories a day per pound of new muscle mass.

    And even aside from weight loss, as an obese person you can still benefit massively from exercise, especially with the help of a personal trainer. The sedentary lifestyle inevitably leads to disease and injury, both of which can be prevented with sensible strength and balance-building exercises.

  • kc

    @The Table of Promise
    I completely agree and found the same thing to be true for my family. When we removed all food additives from our diets, we lost excess weight without any hunger, increase in exercise, calorie counting or restricting sweets. There are studies linking excess fructose to obesity and most Americans are eating a diet high in fructose and low in nutrients.

    Anyone fighting a losing battle with weight loss can try this easily. The only restriction on this diet is that you must cook everything from scratch using pure ingredients (100% whole wheat flour with no additives, butter that is just cream and sea salt, ground vanilla beans, single ingredient spices, fresh produce and meat, etc). Eat doughnuts and ice cream every day if you want, but you must make them from scratch each time. At first, we were ravenously hungry around the clock and experienced massive cravings, but that diminished after a few days with no corny additives. After one week, we experienced an unusual condition for the average SAD eater: satiety for hours and hours after each meal. For me, it was the first time in years that I had no desire to eat between meals and didn’t suffer cravings and hunger pangs around the clock.

    The bottom line is that corny additives cause increased appetite and reduced satiety. That is the real reason that they caught on in the food manufacturing industry so quickly and completely. In the beginning, the price difference between corn syrup and sugar was much smaller than it is now but using corn syrup increased customer demand dramatically for any product to which it was added. It was really a no-brainer when you look at the issue through the eyes of the average food corporation. Too bad that by increasing their yearly revenue they sold out the health of a nation and started this spiral of obesity, diabetes, and endocrine disorders we now face.