There are many reasons two thirds of Americans are overweight, a third obese.
The most obvious: Our diets and our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. It’s a no brainer that sodas, fast food and a desk job are a poor substitute physically for our great grandparents’ diet of milk or water, a nutritious home cooked meal and a day working on the farm.
But there’s a less talked about reason for our collective overweight that drives me crazy because it’s so easily avoided. It’s the widespread belief that people gain weight because they eat too much.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand that, so far as we know, when you gain weight, it’s because you’re eating more calories than you should, or exercising less than you should. So in that sense, yes, you’re gaining weight because you “eat too much.”
But when people put it this way–that people gain weight because they eat too much–the implication is that the person who’s gaining weight lacks some sort of self control and just can’t stop eating. The skinny people out there, as this line of thinking goes, get hungry, but don’t eat more than they need to. They stop before they have that extra fry; they have the smaller soda; they snack less between meals. They show self-restraint. Heavier people just can’t control themselves.
But is that true? In some ways, maybe, but in very important ways, no. I think that ultimately, if people are hungry, they will eat. Period. Skinny people. Fat people. We all have finite stores of willpower and, hunger is something we can put off only so long. The more we fight it, the more intense it gets. Hunger is our body’s way of telling us that it wants food. And it’s going to get it, even if it has to ratchet up that hunger to intolerable levels.
So why are fat people fat, and skinny people skinny? Two reasons: One, different people’s bodies handle different foods in different ways. Today’s modern diet is a nightmare for many of us. We eat white bread, white pasta, a sugar-loaded energy bar, and bam, we put on weight. For others of us, this diet causes no external signs of trouble. It may eat away at us inside–ever seen a skinny person get a heart attack? I happens–but it doesn’t show up in our waistline.
So some of it’s the luck of the genetic draw. My brother can eat whatever he wants, and he’ll remain among the skinniest people I’ve ever seen. If I let my diet slide, I see it immediately.
Two, some people do eat better than other people. And here’s the main point. Your genetics may decide whether you’re fat or skinny (or anywhere in between) if you eat a modern American diet of processed foods and refined carbohydrates. Clearly, most of us are “overweight” if not obese when we’re following this diet, but not all of us are. But it’s also up to you what diet you follow. You don’t have to eat these modern, processed foods.
This is where your own will has room to run, and where your behavior starts to matter, and this is why it upsets me so much that people say fat people just shouldn’t eat so much. Because, while you can’t fight hunger in the long run (this is why yo-yo dieting always goes back up after going down, and is such a common dieting experience), you can eat foods that won’t leave you feeling so hungry.
Whole, natural foods will fill you up. I don’t know why–likely it’s because they’re actually packed with vitamins, minerals and other compounds like antioxidants–but they will. Eat nothing but whole, natural foods (preferably raw, even) and you will feel just as full as if you eat nothing but fast food or other processed foods, but you won’t be consuming anywhere near the same number of calories.
If you do this, and lose weight, it’s not because you had more willpower to fend off hunger. It’s not because you became less gluttonous all of a sudden, or less lazy. It’s not because you ate less. It’s because you ate the right foods. Sure, that resulted in you eating less. But there’s a big difference in the underlying cause.
And that’s where the problem comes in. When we tell people they gained weight because they ate too much, we imply that the only way they can lose the weight again is by eating less. That means fighting off hunger, throwing sheer willpower up against powerful bodily desires.
But fighting the feeling of hunger may be the surest way never to lose weight, because in the end the hunger will win. Against any of us. The only way to do it (other than exercise) is to eat different foods. Not less of them. The sooner we stop telling this myth about eating “too much,” the sooner we all recognize that it’s not a choice of hunger or satiety; it’s a matter of recognizing there truly is a difference between that fast food and that fresh fruit, and that you can eat a lot less without any hunger if you choose more of the latter and less of the former.