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What is to Blame for America’s Obesity Crisis?


According to recent statistics, nearly one out of every three American adults is dieting at any given point in time. [1] When hearing reports like this, some just shake their heads and wonder why so many people are being lazy and indulgent.

We are taught that obesity can be solved by strategies like "eat this not that," or "let's move." The assumption behind these strategies is that we gained weight because we're too lazy and make poor choices. Scientists call this the "calorie hypothesis." People gain weight because they eat too many calories. Is this true, and is more willpower really the answer?

Obesity crisis

In the first installment of this two-part series I will discuss just how large the obesity crisis has become and how our current explanations are neither accurate nor effective. In the next installment, I'll explore the emerging causes of obesity and logical solutions based on our current understanding.

[Read More: Create the Best Diet for You]

For many years, public-health officials made maps showing what percent of Americans in each state were obese with color codes for different levels of obesity. There were three levels in use: 1 to 5 percent, 5 to 10 percent and 11 to 14 percent.

In 1990, Mississippi reached the unprecedented level of 15-percent adult obesity. In the following decade, so many people gained so much weight that by the year 2000 only two states were below 15-percent obesity.[2]

All of the colors used before 1990 were completely out of use. Even more worrisome is the fact that the trend is not slowing. It's projected that by the close of the next decade 67 percent of adults worldwide will be overweight or obese.[3]

Let's assume this crisis happened because people were eating more calories in 2000 than in 1990. But why were they? If choosing food is ultimately no different than choosing your day's outfit, then diets based on food restriction should work. Yet the evidence is strong that they do not.

Traci Mann, UCLA associate professor of psychology, evaluated 31 long-term studies on this approach. Even though only a minority of the participants lost weight, of those who did, 83 percent of them were heavier than before they had started the program within a few years. In fact, more than half of them gained 11 pounds more than the weight they had lost.[4]

If weight gain is simply the result of poor choices, we would assume in situations in which choices were not possible, weight gain would not happen. Would you expect chimpanzees to gain weight when their food was measured and activity levels were controlled?

In a study conducted between 1990 and 2000, they did gain weight, and their weight gain has continued since at an average rate of 30 percent per decade.[5]

[Read More: Why Just Eating Healthy Won’t Guarantee Weight Loss]

If eating less doesn't result in weight loss, there must be reasons why we eat what we do, and these reasons should explain the changes of the recent past. We will need to understand these reasons both to help the global crisis and for any individual to effectively control his or her weight.

--Dr. Christianson

Readers -- Have you unsuccessfully tried to lose weight by restricting calories? If you've lost weight, have you been able to keep it off? Do you think exercise and diet are enough to lose weight, or do you think there are other factors involved? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Dr. Alan Christianson, N.M.D., specializes in natural endocrinology with a focus on thyroid disorders. He co-authored The Complete Idiot's Guide to Thyroid Disease and the e-book original, Healing Hashimoto's. In between these works, he authored the chapters "Hypothyroidism" and "Hyperthyroidism" for the Textbook of Natural Medicine, 9th Edition.

In 1997 he founded Integrative Health, a physicians' group dedicated to smart, safe, natural solutions for the entire family. He was named a 2011 Top Doctor in Phoenix magazine and has appeared on national TV shows, including The Doctors, Today, The Insider and in countless leading magazines. When he's not maintaining a busy practice, Dr. Christianson's many hobbies include mountain unicycling, marathons, off-road motorcycling, technical rock climbing and martial arts. He is also a licensed pilot. He lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Kirin, their two children and his six unicycles. 

Connect with Dr. Christianson on Facebook and Twitter.

 1. John LaRosa of MarketData; National Weight Control Registry; American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery; Jo Piazza, author of "Celebrity Inc.: How Famous People Make Money."

2. Levi J, Segal L, St. Laurent R, Lang A, and Rayburn J. F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2012. Trust for America's Health/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. September 2012.

3. Kelly T., Yang W., Chen C.S., Reynolds K., He J. Global burden of obesity in 2005 and projections to 2030. Int J Obes. 2008;32(9):1431-1437.

4. Mann T, Tomiyama J, Westling E, Lew AM, Samuels B, and Chatman J. 2007. "Medicare's search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer." American Psychologist 62(3):220-33.

5. Klimentidis YC, Beasley TM, Lin H-Y, Murati G, Glass GE, Guyton M, Newton W, Jorgensen M, Heymsfield SB, Kemnitz J, Fairbanks L, Allison DB. 2011. Canaries in the coal mine: a cross-species analysis of the plurality of obesity epidemics. Proceedings Biological Sciences/the Royal Society 278:1626-1632. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.1890.

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