The modern world has come to accept something that should have been unthinkable. Many people now believe that it is a normal part of life to struggle with weight. We accept this disease as normal despite the fact that this has only been going on in anything like the current numbers for about 40 years – our grandparents and great-grandparents, and all other humans back to the caveman days, did not have this problem.
This acceptance is literally killing us – being fat pains and exhausts the sufferer to start, and over time will destroy the body – joints, organs, metabolism. This process culminates in chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and increases risks for heart attacks, strokes, and cancers.
If this isn’t you that’s suffering, it’s almost certainly your parents, your siblings, your children and/or your friends. At this point more than two-thirds of us are overweight, and most of us severely so. So it’s worth it for you to understand what is happening and think about how to protect yourself and your family.
This article from 2007 has some interesting graphs that show what has changed in our diet since the 1970s. You can find countless other groups pointing out this information these days. Highlights below:
- Sugar consumption has increased by several hundred percent since 1850, with the steepest rise in the second half of the 20th century. Correspondingly, obesity gradually appeared in the first half of the 20th century, and skyrocketed after about 1970.
- Total calorie intake has increased by 25% since 1970.
- In the middle of the 20th century (40s and 50s) we switched out cooking with butter and lard to use artificial fats like margarine and shortening, which have dangerous trans fats. Butter and lard are nutritious real foods that have been used for centuries.
- Then, at about 1970, we started putting ‘healthy’ vegetable oils in everything. The quantity of the vegetable oils in our diet has gone up by about 5 or 6 times since that time. Many of the vegetable oils used in industrial food production are high in Omega-6, and a high ratio of Omega-6 to other fats in humans is unhealthy. Interestingly, since about 1960 the percentage of Omega-6 in our bodies has increased by 300% – from a starting point of about equal to that of chimpanzees. Chimps seem about as close to an outside correlation of what’s natural for humans as you can get so this should tell us something is unnatural about that much vegetable oil.
- In the 1960s we replaced traditional wheat varieties with modern wheat, which depending on the nutrient in question has from 20-50% less nutrition than traditional wheat. It also appears to be much more harmful to people with Celiac disease or other digestive disorders than the old wheat was.
- Egg consumption has dropped by a third – despite eggs being one of the most easily available and nutritious food items, and which contain nutrients that almost all Americans are deficient in, such as acetylcholine – not surprisingly, like many things on this list an acetylcholine deficiency is associated with cardiovascular disease and neurodegeneration in old age.
- The proportion of processed food in our diets has gone up almost 8 times since 1900, and by about 40% since 1970 – mostly because that’s when fast food became a thing.
- The government started promoting low-fat diets in the 1970s, switching us to more of the new wheat, vegetable oils, and sugar mentioned above.
Exercise is a trickier topic, and less easily correlated with obesity. It does seem that a diet of healthy foods and the correct amount of calories can result in a more or less healthy weight without lots of exercise. Conversely a terrible diet can overcome the benefits of exercise. It’s also true that youth sports are still thriving and that, at least in a few places, gym class still exists, while many adults run or attend gyms.
But while we cannot say that people are fat just because they aren’t exercising enough, it’s wrong to say that exercise is not an important part of health. And looking at only the ‘official’ exercise of sponsored activities is a mistake. Childhood matters too. We do know two things that have changed about home life since the 70’s – electronics, and parents shuttling their children around.
The time spent staring at screens, alone or in groups, is a defining feature of the modern age. Children used to amuse themselves, often outside, and if pre-driving age kids wanted to see friends we let them bike or walk the 1-3 miles to their friend’s house.
So don’t discount the exercise. You don’t need to join Crossfit, but try to walk around or bike. And make sure to kick your kids outside without their electronics.
Can I Do Anything?
So we’ve pointed out that many things have gone wrong that no one is addressing and which are poisoning our population. At the same time even today about a third of people are not overweight. That shows that it IS possible to be healthy in the modern environment. And if we know it’s possible, then we as individuals can’t wait for someone else to fix society. We have to start by fixing ourselves because we are the ones responsible for ourselves – no one else will ever care about our health as much as we do.
Fortunately, while this obviously isn’t easy or we wouldn’t be here, it is simple. Don’t let the complexities of the diet and exercise industry confuse you. So what do healthy people do above all? They don’t eat too much and they get some kind of exercise.
Misperception of quantity
The biggest problem individuals seem to have is estimating how much food and exercise they really get. People consistently severely underestimate their calories, and overestimate their exercise. This leads to the common misconception that people’s metabolisms vary so widely that some people can eat a recommended 2,000-2,500 calories a day and still struggle with their weight, while others can eat twice that and stay thin.
The truth is that metabolic variation does not vary nearly so much. It’s enough for individuals to look different from one another, but not enough to make one person obese and another healthy on the same amount of food. Research shows that people are abysmal at estimating food amounts – this study from the UK shows that any given person’s food intake could be as much as 50% more than they estimated. In other words, people who say they eat 2,000 calories a day actually eat about 3,000 upon checking. Other research has shown that even professionals can be off by hundreds of calories. Reasons could be:
- Misunderstanding of portion size
- The estimates on packaging or restaurant menus are actually pretty loose – maybe up to a 20% margin of error.
- Because of the above, apps to track your food and estimate your calories are all pretty useless – you get a double portion of estimation error because you don’t know how much you ate, and the app doesn’t really know what’s in that food.
- People forget the little things – nibbles they had while cooking, that handful of nuts or piece of candy walking by the break counter at work, etc.
It’s also clear that people overestimate how much they exercise. This is partly from not timing well and therefore overestimating duration. It’s also because people have heard that ‘moderate’ exercise done regularly is enough, but they don’t know how hard moderate and strenuous exercise are supposed to be. For example, for walking to count as ‘moderate exercise’ according to the recommendations you still need to be going fast enough to about double your resting heart-rate. If you are just strolling, your walk doesn’t count as ‘moderate’ exercise and it’s not helping your health as much as you hoped.
What does this mean for you?
Well, if you are the kind of person who likes having the numbers to stick to something, just be more careful about them. Time everything you do for exercise and get a heart-rate monitor. Moderate and vigorous exercise guidelines are defined by how high it drives your heart rate. Cook for yourself and actually weigh out the ingredients to get a truer estimate of calories, plus only eat at mealtimes to make it easier to track. Do this for at least a few days to get a truer sense of the numbers you’ve been trying to work with.
If (like me) you don’t want to be counting calories and exercise that closely, just try to adjust based on the following understandings. Moderate and vigorous exercise are defined in the recommendations as 65% and about 75-80% of max heart rate. So, if you think you are exercising but you can’t feel your pulse racing or your heart pounding, you aren’t. Go harder, or take shorter breaks between sets, etc. depending on what you are doing until you do feel it. And if you think you are eating a normal amount of calories, but you’re 30 pounds overweight, you are wrong about what you are eating. So pay extra attention not to snack unconsciously, and try to cook smaller portions of whole foods compared to what you are eating now. Do this for a few weeks and see what happens.
And of course, eat only real food.