2.4 Why Are You Overweight?

News sto­ries fre­quent­ly dis­cuss caus­es of obe­si­ty. They in­clude im­bal­ances in the hor­mones lep­tin and/or ghre­lin; con­tin­u­al dis­cov­ery of more obe­si­ty genes; dis­cus­sions of the phe­nomenon of in­fec­tobe­si­ty; and var­i­ous dis­eases such as hy­pothy­roidism, Cushing’s syn­drome, and poly­cys­tic ovary syn­drome. Even lack of sleep is re­port­ed as a cause of obe­si­ty.

All these sto­ries doc­u­ment le­git­i­mate phe­nom­e­na. The prob­lem is that some peo­ple read the sto­ries and as­sume that they ap­ply to their sit­u­a­tion. This leads to the con­clu­sion that their weight is out­side their con­trol and that it is ei­ther im­pos­si­ble to lose weight or it would take a su­per­hu­man ef­fort.

Thus, they are de­feat­ed be­fore they be­gin. Their mo­ti­va­tion to start on a weight con­trol pro­gram is sapped. They re­sign them­selves to the idea that they will just have to live with be­ing fat.

But is this true? Do the con­di­tions de­scribed in the news sto­ries ap­ply to you? The an­swer is: al­most cer­tain­ly not.

The obe­si­ty epi­dem­ic is a re­cent phe­nomenon. One or two gen­er­a­tions ago, peo­ple were, on the av­er­age, much lean­er than they are to­day. This was es­pe­cial­ly true in coun­tries where the peo­ple lived in hard­ship. For ex­am­ple, in post-World War II Yugoslavia there were al­most no fat peo­ple.

In America, the rate of obe­si­ty has dou­bled in a gen­er­a­tion. In the late 1970’s the obe­si­ty rate was about 15%. Now it is more than 30%. What is the cause of this in­crease?

Changes in our ge­net­ic make­up are part of the slow evo­lu­tion­ary pro­cess. There is no ev­i­dence that a pop­u­la­tion-wide change in our genes has tak­en place. Thus, ge­net­ic change can­not be the cause of the obe­si­ty epi­dem­ic.

Similarly there has not been an in­crease in the dis­eases that can lead to obe­si­ty. If any­thing, ad­vances in med­i­cal sci­ence have re­duced the in­ci­dence of these dis­eases.

It is gen­er­al­ly agreed that the obe­si­ty epi­dem­ic has been caused by lifestyle changes. Specifically, more in­ges­tion of high calo­rie foods and less ac­tiv­i­ty in our lives.

So if you are over­weight, the num­ber one sus­pect is your lifestyle.

However, just be­cause lifestyle is the cause of obe­si­ty pop­u­la­tion-wide, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that a par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­u­al is heavy be­cause of lifestyle. How can you be sure that lifestyle is the cause of your weight prob­lem?

Your doc­tor can tell you if you have a dis­ease that would cause you to gain weight. If it turns out that you do have such a med­i­cal con­di­tion, then your doc­tor may be able to pre­scribe a course of treat­ment that cures or man­ages it.

If your doc­tor can­not find a med­i­cal rea­son for your be­ing over­weight, then lifestyle is even more like­ly to be the cause.

Your doc­tor does not have the time or the fa­cil­i­ties to rule out all phys­i­cal caus­es of obe­si­ty. For ex­am­ple:

  • You may actually have a genetic structure that predisposes you to weight gain.
  • You may be one of the few people who has leptin deficiency.
  • The microbes in your body may be extra efficient in helping you extract the calories from the foods you eat.

How can you de­ter­mine whether such fac­tors are play­ing a role in your weight gain?

One way would be to un­der­go ex­pen­sive, state of the art med­i­cal tests. But there is a sim­pler way. For a month or two, rig­or­ous­ly track the calo­ries you in­gest each day. Use that in­for­ma­tion to cal­cu­late your av­er­age dai­ly calo­rie in­take over that time. Then, com­pute your basal metabol­ic rate (the calo­ries you burn to main­tain es­sen­tial bod­i­ly func­tions) and ad­just it for your ac­tiv­i­ty lev­el. If your dai­ly in­take of calo­ries is more than your com­put­ed calo­rie needs, then the con­clu­sion is defini­tive: you are over­weight be­cause of your lifestyle.

Finally, sup­pos­ing that you find that you are one of the rare in­di­vid­u­als, who eats less than the com­pu­ta­tion al­lows, but you still gain weight. This im­plies that there may be an un­der­ly­ing ge­net­ic or med­i­cal cause. Is the sit­u­a­tion hope­less? No, lifestyle changes can still cause you to lose weight, but it will be more dif­fi­cult for you than for oth­er peo­ple.

The Pima Indians men­tioned in chap­ter one are an ex­treme ex­am­ple of this prob­lem. Their ge­net­ic in­her­i­tance is such that they can sur­vive on 700 calo­ries a day. They re­al­ly do have a “thrifty gene” that caus­es them to con­vert food to fat and pack it away on their bod­ies. Yet even they will lose weight if they eat right and stay ac­tive.

In sum­ma­ry, if you are over­weight it is al­most cer­tain­ly be­cause of your lifestyle. By all means, check with your doc­tor to see if there is a med­i­cal cause. If there isn’t, the so­lu­tion is to adopt the SWLL.

Previous  Next