Why are we fat?

On a weekend at the beginning of June, a journalist called Rachel Cooke flew from Spain to Luton Airport and wanted to sprint to the terminal building but all of these fat people were in her way. This annoyed her. Fat people

Their problem was – I’m going to come right out and say it – that they were fat and this made walking difficult. When your thighs are colossal, the only way it’s possible to move at all is by rolling your hips to an unnatural degree: up, down, up, down. The slowness, for those of us who like to do things at a sprint, was painful to behold. Standing in line, I couldn’t help but wonder which hurt most: their flamingo-shaded sunburn, or their boulder-sized knees.

Does this sound snobbish? If it does, I can’t say I care overmuch.

Actually, it sounds cruel. But I’ll give her a pass: airports are annoying places, particularly when returning from holiday and all you want to do is get home but you have to stand in line. Being annoyed in an airport, however, should not translate into doing junk science on reviews of a serious subject: the causes of modern obesity. (See also: Mocking disability: the Telegraph’s hate speech.)

I am fat. I also like to do things at a sprint, and the awful slowness of airport waiting lines is one of the things that makes me practice my deep breathing I-am-not-annoyed-or-bored mantra. Whether the people slowing me up are fat or thin.

Two-thirds of British people are overweight and a quarter of us are obese. We are, on average, some three stone heavier than we were 50 years ago. The time for respecting sensitivities is long past. Only an idiot – or a lobbyist for the sugar producers – would deny that we need to do something, and fast. The question is: what?

Fat women at the OlympicsEveryone has a basal metabolic rate. Calculating it precisely is complicated, but if you feed height, weight, age, and gender into a BMR calculator it will come back with a working approximation. Your BMR is the number of calories you need to stay alive. Eat less than your BMR for long enough, and you starve to death. Eat less than your BMR on a regular basis, and “depriving yourself of food in hopes of losing weight also decreases your BMR, a foil to your intentions.”

Personally, I’m not sure that laying all the blame at the feet of the food and drink industries is going to get us anywhere very quickly, which is why the first part of Jacques Peretti’s series The Men Who Made Us Fat (BBC2, 14 June, 9pm) made me so mad. Is it, for instance, true that our weight gain is entirely unconnected to laziness? This is bunkum, surely. We all know how sedentary modern life can be.

Repeat: your BMR is the calories your body needs if you lie immobile on a couch all day. Your body needs calories to stay alive even if you are not using it to do anything. To stay normally healthy, you must eat your BMR’s worth of calories every day. You can figure out how many calories exercise makes you need on top of that by being honest with yourself and the Harris Benedict Equation:

a formula that uses your BMR and then applies an activity factor to determine your total daily energy expenditure (calories). The only factor omitted by the Harris Benedict Equation is lean body mass. Remember, leaner bodies need more calories than less leaner ones. Therefore, this equation will be very accurate in all but the very muscular (will under-estimate calorie needs) and the very fat (will over-estimate calorie needs).

If you are very muscular or very fat you should talk to a dietician who can help you figure out precisely what you need. But for most people in a normal range the two techniques of knowing your BMR and using the Harris-Benedict equation honestly will give you a working guide to the total daily calorie needs that your body is using each day with your BMR and exercise.

Three basic unchangeable facts:

  1. Eat more than your BMR but less than your total daily calorie needs, and you lose weight.
  2. Eat more than your daily calorie needs, and you gain weight.
  3. Eat less than your BMR and you lose weight catastrophically fast and put it all and more back on again just as fast.

For (1) to work as a means of losing weight – steadily and slowly and not at risk of catastrophically regaining it again, you need two tools. One: you need to be able to check your weight accurately on a monthly basis. (If you check daily, you’ll just get confused: a person’s weight can fluctuate too much on a day by day basis.) Two: you need to know what you’re eating and you need to be able to get satisfying healthy food.

This is where the food corporations come in. Rachel Cooke comments:

The film’s trajectory – the US government’s decision to subsidise cheap food; the rise of corn syrup (fructose) as a sweetener; the battle between those scientists who wished to demonise fat and those who had it in for sugar (sugar is now enemy number one) – will have been broadly familiar to anyone who has read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation or Greg Critser’s Fatland, though it was interesting to hear that the latest research suggests fructose may influence weight more than other sugars by neutralising leptin, the hormone that tells us we’re full. On the other hand, it’s nothing short of terrifying to discover that, encouraged by precisely this kind of discovery, scientists are increasingly keen to remove the idea of personal responsibility from the debate. The word “moderation” has become, in their mouths, an un-word, excised from the lexicon of public health forever.

Another factor, I believe, is the diet philosophy. I’ve seen too many diets which advocate that people cut their daily calorie intake down catastrophically to 1200 calories a day. If you are a 70-year-old woman who weighs 135 pounds and you’re five foot nothing, your BMR may be less than 1200 calories. But if you’re (say) a 50-year-old woman who’s 5 foot 6 and weighs 200 pounds, your BMR is 1600 calories a day and if you follow that 1200 calorie diet, you will lose weight for as long as you can bear to follow it while slowly starving yourself, come off the diet – and your body, relieved to know you are no longer starving to death, will take advantage of the starvation-reduced BMR to pile on the pounds again.

Yet that’s just what many people will do, because people like Rachel Cooke make them feel guilty and bad and they go on a diet, get social approval, lose weight… and everyone (including themselves) blames their post-diet greed for gaining all the weight back again.

Another factor is not having access to good scales to find your weight accurately, either month by month or week by week. Boots used to have an excellent system of scales that let people keep track of their weight using a pay-per-use card, but they dropped this a few years ago and apparently have no intention of resurrecting it.

Yes, world hunger is a problem. It is not, however, going to be resolved by telling someone who cannot afford to shop healthily for themselves and for their children that they’re “slothful and gluttonous”.

Are such statements wise? I think they’re madness. As Greg Critser, who was once obese himself, has noted, the vast majority of people are fat because they are slothful and gluttonous (and not for nothing was gluttony once thought of as a sin; hieronymus bosch - gluttony Hieronymus Bosch depicts it, brilliantly, as a dereliction of our secular duties, for while one man stuffs his face, another man starves – something that is as true today as it was in 1500). But no one wants to hear this. Too shaming. Too final. They would rather stick their fingers in their ears and pop open another bag of Doritos.

In developed countries – in the US, in the UK – it’s been shown in study after study that being poor is one of the risk factors of making you obese. So is eating processed food with its hidden load of calories. So is eating fast food. In a US study ten years ago it was shown that just moving into a better neighbourhood could improve women’s health, as they had access to better food.

[And Doritos are a particularly good – or bad – example of how food manufacturers create processed food that tastes better than anything else you can buy for the same money. (Link goes to Serious Eats, which analyses why Doritos Cheese Nachos taste great.)

Using the MySupermarket site to compare prices, you can get two 225g bags of Doritos at most of the big supermarkets for £2. A 225g bag of Doritos provides you with 1,138 calories. For £2.

Now, I’m pretty good at shopping and I like to cook and I have in my cupboards at home a range of spices and flavours so that I could buy some solid, healthy vegetables and stuff for £2 and tweak and add seasonings to them and in 30 minutes, come up with something much healthier, more filling, and sufficiently tasty that I wouldn’t regret resisting the Doritos:

The last two ingredients on the list (meaning that they appear in the smallest quantities) are arguably the most important: the free nucleotides disodium inosinate (IMP) and disodium guanylate (GMP).

Both IMP and GMP are what professional flavorists refer to as flavor potentiators—which just sounds awesome. To continue our arms race analogy, IMP and GMP are the heat-seeking ballistic missiles of the group. They fly in first, target taste receptors for umami and physically alter them, allowing the glutamate bombs better access (to destroy your mouth with flavor!). Put another way, with these flavor potentiators (YES!) in the mix, our perception of glutamates is amplified up to 30 times. Want a buzzword for it? Synergy.

Doritos are loaded up with naturally occurring glutamic acid flavourings, enhanced with pure monosodium glutamate for that extra umami kick, and flavour potentiators used to make sure that your mouth loves that Dorito taste. The fact is: big corporations make millions out of ensuring that you can buy yourself a flavour sensation for a couple of pounds and they don’t care that Doritos provide worthless calories. That people find hard to resist noshing on Doritos once the bag’s open and you’ve tasted the first one, is unsurprising: they’re designed so that you won’t want to stop. It’s not willpower that’s lacking any more than when a nicotine addict doesn’t quit smoking just by wishing it so.]

Why didn’t Peretti challenge this orthodoxy? Was he intimidated by the beards and white coats? I don’t know.

Perhaps because the truth – the basic scientific facts about how our metabolism works – is too basic to be challenged?

But in a world where Tory and LibDem MPs can tell us on national TV that the banking crash of 2008 was entirely due to Labour’s spending, and not be challenged by everyone who remembers the 2008 financial crash, “orthdoxy” becomes a shifty word. It is now orthodox to say that the original financial crash “was Labour’s fault”, even though literally everyone who read the news with any attention during that year knows it’s not true. It is orthodox to tell fat people “it’s your fault, you need to exercise more and go on a diet”: to scare people off eating fat and not worry about how much hidden sugar is in a fat-free yoghurt: to blandly identify obesity, rather than dieting, as a health problem.

Certainly, there were times when he seemed to have been struck dumb by his interviewees. At one point, he spoke to a nutritionist about how difficult it is to make low-fat foods taste good (for this reason, fat is very often replaced by sugar). The example she used to illustrate the point was mayonnaise, which is made from olive oil and egg yolks. In Peretti’s shoes, I would have pointed out that it is undoubtedly healthier to eat gloopy, delicious, real mayonnaise once a month than some bland but sugary substitute every day. And more satisfying, too. But perhaps I’m just too old-fashioned for this game. Or insufficiently politically correct. Or both.

Or possibly, just a good interviewer. According to her blurb at the New Statesman, Rachel Cooke was named Interviewer of the Year in the British Press Awards 2006: that must have been a year when the style was to berate people for expressing their views if the interviewer disagreed with them.

Last night I had a fabulous meal at David Banns. I regret not one calorie of it. Today I’ll walk to work and back via the gym.

A year later: The obesity era, by David Berreby:

Yet the scientists who study the biochemistry of fat and the epidemiologists who track weight trends are not nearly as unanimous as Bloomberg makes out. In fact, many researchers believe that personal gluttony and laziness cannot be the entire explanation for humanity’s global weight gain. Which means, of course, that they think at least some of the official focus on personal conduct is a waste of time and money. As Richard L Atkinson, Emeritus Professor of Medicine and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Wisconsin and editor of the International Journal of Obesity, put it in 2005: ‘The previous belief of many lay people and health professionals that obesity is simply the result of a lack of willpower and an inability to discipline eating habits is no longer defensible.’


Filed under About Food, Economics, Poverty, Women

5 responses to “Why are we fat?

  1. Great post.

    Your point about crash diets causing a drop in metabolism, and therefore spectacular weight gains when the dieter returns to normal eating, is particularly well-made, and this is a well-documented phenomenon.

    It’s worth reading “The Forbidden Body: Why being fat is not a sin” by Shelley Bovey, which busts a lot of the myths around obesity, over-eating, etc.

    Also, I think we live in an obesogenic environment, where it is easier to drive or catch a bus than to walk or cycle, easier to eat processed food than fresh food, easier to sit at your desk all day than to get up and walk about, and so on.

    I think that anyone who has never been overweight should be forbidden to talk or write about the subject of fat or obesity, because they have no understanding of the subject at all.

  2. I do like this post; I’m a big food fan. Infact my whole day revolves around food, purely through my metabolism and a bowel op I believe has affected my weight. However, on the whole, I have a balanced diet and active lifestyle, so I maintain a healthy weight. I do *totally* appreciate people will say it’s easy for me to comment, but I like your blog and it made me want to comment. So I’m hoping there is one aspect you’ll allow me to share: physical activity.

    You definitely showcase very well the dietary challenges and decisions we as a society face, and actually how much easier it can feel to make choices that don’t always benefit our health. You’re right about deprivation too: for example it’s been shown in Scotland that levels of physical activity are related to income and area deprivation, with those living in the highest income households more likely to meet the recommended activity levels, and those in the most deprived areas least likely to meet the recommendations.

    Getting more physically active – so not sport per se but walking for example, using stairs, getting off the bus a stop early and building up to something more vigorous – is key to complementing any dietary approach. Add that ingredient into the recipe and we’re onto a winner…

  3. juliusbeezer

    Good stuff. A few additional points:
    1) Measurement of waist circumference is a useful measure of obesity, and requires less sophisticated equipment (a tape measure) than weighing.
    2) The energy density of different foods is not easy to intuit. One cubic centimetre of oil/fat has nine times more energy than one cubic centimetre of sugar. More people should know this.
    3) Although you do discuss it, I think you underplay the importance of the favourable change in metabolic rate brought on by regular exercise. Muscles burn fat 24/7, not just when they’re being used during exercise. Big muscles burn more fat.
    4) The exercise that counts is the exercise you do regularly. The ready cheapness of fossil fuel transportation is obviously an important factor right now, though that’s going to change. If those portly airport customers were to cycle the 6000km round trip to Spain, things would be different. And hey! If you can ride 6000k to Spain, you could certainly manage shorter trips round your hometown.
    5) It’s also worth considering the agnotological forces at work that work to obscure the relatively simple truths about metabolism you outline above. The oil-based transportation industries obviously–getting everyone to focus on the niceties and complications of diet is such a wonderful smokescreen–but also big food, with its car park infrastructure, and “added value” profiteering (1kg of crisps costs more than 1kg of potatoes, so the absolute amount of profit is greater). Whilst obviously there is a lot of detail in the science, the true genius is its presentation in the simplest yet most irrefutable manner, while exposing those who have a vested interest in muddying the argument.

    • 1) Not the point of the post. 2) Not the point of the post either. 3) Not the point of the post. 4) So not the point of the post. 5) A topic I’m interested in, and – you may have noticed – have written about elsewhere in the blog.

      I was once told by a doctor – admittedly not one who was giving me formal treatment – that the cause of my back pain was because I was fat, and I should lose lots of weight and then my back pain would go away. (The cause of my back pain turned out to be a badly set up workstation in my new job, and went away when I moved my computer two inches to the left.) It was quite a few years ago, but it’s remained in my mind as a classic example of how doctors and nurses have bought into the idea of “diet as fix it” – an appalling, unscientific, anti-healthy idea. And that is the point of this post: that the diet industry is selling an idea of losing weight that will not work – that cannot work – and that people have bought into this idea to an extent that diets are packaged as “healthy eating”, whih of course they are not.

  4. Calum

    I find Doritos disgusting, but that’s just me.

    http://www.shiftn.com/obesity/Full-Map.html is quite interesting.

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