Well, at least in terms of very developed nations with larger populations. The evidence is all around us and even a brief public outing will confirm it. We are one fat country. We love to eat and all the wrong foods. The problem is more related to what we eat rather than how much we eat. The culprits are not always so obvious either. Gone are the days when it was only fast food that would add to our waistline. Today it’s everyday foods that are suspect.
MRI scan of a morbidly obese 250 pound woman (left) and healthier 120 pound woman (right). The areas of pronounced subcutaneous fat are evident on the obese woman. In this upright standing position, notice the subcutaneous fat around the neck, shoulders, arms, chest, waist, thighs, and even calves. Also, notice the repositioning of her shoulder joint and hip joint, pronounced angle of the humerus (arm bone) and angle of femur (thigh bone), and the positioning of knee and ankle joints. Other anomolies include the enlarged heart and greater omentum (fat deposition that hangs down from the stomach in front of the small intestines).
The growing problem of obesity is associated with multiple morbidities, including increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, sleep apnea, and cancer. Obesity promotes disability, decreases productivity, and shortens life span. Although much attention has been focused on diet and exercise, these strategies alone are not effective in preventing obesity and maintaining weight loss.
In fact, there are many experts to this day who continue to fault a lack of exercise as a primary contributor to obesity. “The United States is the fattest country in the world,” said Geoffrey Godbey, professor emeritus of recreation, park and tourism management, Penn State. “The amount of exercise Americans get has become a major concern.”
Godbey and fellow Penn State colleagues are among the thousands of researchers who receive millions in grants reiterating the same message every year to Americans. The failed message of “we don’t exercise enough” does little to improve the outlook on physical activity for the average person. Moreover, it’s not really the major contributor to weight gain, at least not the kind of weight gain we’re seeing in America.
The development of pharmacological approaches for obesity treatment has been dogged by poor efficacy and serious side effects. Although the causes of obesity are very simple, the biology is very complex. So besides lack of physical activity and sleep, let’s focus on the top food offenders responsible for the rise in our girth.
Top Food Offenders
A Harvard study last year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the quality of your food matters more than its calorie count.
Intuitively, we know that gorging on burgers and French fries and slurping down soda leads to more weight gain than eating fresh fruits, veggies and brown rice. But in the most comprehensive and detailed study of its kind, researchers have figured out exactly how much weight gain is associated with the consumption of certain foods.
Topping the list of culprits are sweetened drinks, fried foods, and any form of potatoes. The biggest cause of weight gain was eating french fries; every extra serving of fries eaten in a day was linked to a gain of more than three pounds, while eating an extra serving of potato chips led to 1.69 pounds. Other diet busters included refined grains (like white rice and white bread).
Some of the worst food offenders (pounds gained for every additional serving per day over four years):
The results show us what everyone knows — eating junk food and starchy foods can be bad news for your waistline — but the data are useful for quantifying just how much that extra bag of chips can hurt you, as well as how making the switch to whole healthy foods can help.
However, that isn’t the whole story. Two often overlooked contributors to obesity are food additives and genetically modified foods.