Why Pills Will Never Prevent Obesity

Obesity levels skyrocket.  (About a third of American adults are obese today, twice the rate of just thirty years ago.)  Our response?  Start pouring money into pharmaceutical research and development.

Is this wise?


All we have to do is take a pill? Then why are a third of us obese?

I read up a lot on the latest theories and trends in weight control, largely because weight is so heavily correlated with the most destructive diseases of our time: heart disease, many cancers, diabetes and a slew of other less immediately life-threatening.

And most of the articles I read mention what steps people are taking to try to battle our collective weight gain.  Drug companies are doing all sorts of research on “satiety factors” and figuring out ways to control ghrelin, leptin and other scientific-sounding compounds that have some sort of effect on our hunger-regulation system.  Food companies are researching the same; it’s easy to find lists of “satiety-inducing” foods, and these companies are trying to break down the nutritional components of these foods that may lead to satiety, so they can produce products high in those compounds.

But are the drugs companies and the food companies barking up the wrong tree?

It’s tempting to embrace the hope that we can live off of low-nutrient, high-calorie foods and then prevent weight gain, and the diseases it so often goes hand-in-hand with, by popping pills or eating supplements high in this compound or that compound.  Our gut releases leptin when it’s full, and that tells our hypothalamus that we should stop eating? Great–let’s just pop leptin pills and never be hungry.  Right?

But hunger isn’t that simple.  And for good reason.  Researchers have shown that, while compounds like leptin and ghrelin give short-term signals to our brain that we’re eight hungry or full, the process just isn’t that simple.  There are long-term factors, too, that these compounds–no matter how much of them we may take in pill form–can do nothing about.

And those longer-term factors have to do with whether our body is actually getting enough nutrients.  Trick our bodies into thinking we’re full, even if we’ve just had a bowl full of ice cream or a can of Coke, and sure, it may stop you from eating right then and there.  But how long will that effect last?  An hour?  Two?  Then you’re hungry again.  Pop another pill?  Fine.  But you’re still not getting the nutrients your body needs to survive, and at some point your body will let you know that and overcome any short term tricks you’re playing on your body’s satiety factors.

This is why it’s so hard to lose weight by starving yourself, or even by conducting moderate levels of exercise.  Your body ultimately needs its nutrients, and it’s going to get them, one way or another.  Either you’ll eat the right foods, and truly satisfy your body, or else your body will force you to eat more and more of those low-nutrient foods you may prefer, until you’ve finally gotten enough nutrients.

Now, the science on all this is still foggy.  We haven’t fully broken down the exact path our satiety mechanisms take, or the role they play, in determining how much food we eat.  But there’s a reason we haven’t found a “miracle cure” for obesity, and why so many of us are still obese.  Because the one solution we haven’t looked at is the one solution there is: we have to get our nutrients.  And, since studies have cast major doubts that nutritional supplements provide these nutrients in ways that our bodies can use them, we may well have to get them through the foods we eat.

Try an experiment: eat nothing but truly raw, whole foods (produce from the produce aisle) for a full week/month/year.  Eat as much of this food as you want.  Then follow any other diet–or lack thereof–for the same amount of time.  See how much you weigh after each diet.  See how you feel.  See how regular you are.  And then tell me whether the foods you’re eating on the second diet match up anywhere near the foods you eat on the first.  They simply don’t, even if you’re packing in nutritional supplements, “super foods,” pharmaceuticals, weight loss pills.

We simply haven’t come up with a viable alternative to the real thing, real, uncooked foods.  And we’re not going to.  Because those foods are exactly what our body wants and needs, and you can’t improve on exactly what our body wants and needs.  The solution isn’t isolating compounds to feed them to our bodies in isolation.  It’s eating those foods our bodies are perfectly designed to live off.  And those foods already exist, all around us, in nature.  Sometimes the answer’s so simple, we just don’t see it.

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