The rate of obesity in Canada has risen to epidemic proportions, with one in eight of us now clinically obese and nearly half of us weighing more than we should. And it’s not because people are indifferent to weight gain. Far from it. The exercise and weight-loss business is booming, and diet books are consistently near the top of the best-seller lists.
I deeply empathize with those who are battling the bulge. A few decades ago ago, my unhealthy eating habits had also bulked me up by an extra 80 pounds. Weighing a hefty 250, with most of the additional fat packed around my waist and thighs, I was clinically obese. Belatedly, but resolutely, I decided to rid myself of that dangerous excess poundage. And, with the invaluable help of my wife Dena and a medical diet specialist, Dr. Doug Bishop, I succeeded.
It took nearly three years for me to trim back to my previous svelte 175-pound size. Eschewing junk food, converting to a primarily vegetarian diet, and with Dena’s culinary expertise, I have never again exceeded this salubrious weight level. In addition to my now healthy diet, I also “work out” on a stationary bike in front of our TV set for 20 minutes or a half hour most weekday evenings. That’s usually between 7 and 8 o’clock, so I can watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and exercise my mind at the same time.
I now attribute much of my ongoing health and longevity to my heart’s great relief that it is no longer compelled to pump blood to an extra 80 pounds of fat. I fervently wish that the many corpulent people I see on the street, in grocery stores and elsewhere would follow my example and muster the willpower to shed their excess avoirdupois.
But I know from experience how difficult it is to avoid weight gain in today’s processed junk-food culture, and how much more difficult it is to shed the excess pounds after they have been acquired. In my case, I knew it was a combination of a sedentary occupation, lack of exercise, and indifference to the quality, caloric content, and nutritional value of the foods I ate. But why was it so easy to fall into this kind of seductive eating trap and so difficult to escape from it?
A diet designed to make us fat
The short answer is that the modern Western diet is conducive to — is arguably designed to — make people fat. It lures us into eating more meat, more snacks, more processed foods, and less fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It’s loaded with added sugar, salt, and “preservatives.” It’s a high-caloric prescription for poor health as well as a pot belly.
When you add to today’s deleterious diet the baneful effects of chemical pesticides and herbicides, the depletion of fertile soil, and the conversion of whole foods to “refined” foods, you get the answer to both the obesity epidemic and the rising rates of obesity-related disease.
In an essay in the New York Times magazine a few years ago, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, boiled down his recipe for a healthy diet to these three brief directions: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
By eating food, he meant sticking to real food and avoiding fatty foodlike substitutes like breakfast-cereal bars and non-dairy creamers. “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” he suggested. It’s good advice, if easier said than followed.
Pollan urged that we emulate the residents of Okinawa, who base their diet on what they call “Hara Hachi Bu,” which translates as “eat until you are 80% full.” In other words, get used to smaller portions.
Eating mostly plants, he noted, and treating the occasional piece of meat as a side-dish, means you’ll automatically be consuming fewer calories. “Vegetarians are healthier than carnivores,” he pointed out, “but near-vegetarians are also as healthy as vegetarians.”
Staying alive with ill health
There’s a big deterrent to be overcome, however, in switching to a healthful way of eating. Today’s standard processed diet has become so entrenched that it is now widely accepted as nutritious. And because it is loaded with sugar-sweet glucose and readily available at restaurants and grocery stores, it has become almost as addictive as heroin or cocaine – and as hard to quit.
By the time many thousands consuming this tasty but pernicious diet become overweight and seriously ill, it’s too late to become vegetarians. In desperation, they then have no choice but to turn to our health care system to help them stay alive.
“Modern medicine,” writes Pollan, “is learning how to keep people alive whom the Western diet is making sick. It’s gotten good at extending the lives of people with heart disease, and now it’s working on obesity and diabetes. Capitalism is marvellously adept at turning the problems it creates into lucrative business opportunities: diet pills, heart-bypass operations, insulin pumps, bariatric surgery.
“But, while fast food may be good business for the health care industry, the cost to society is unsustainable,” Pollan insists. “The cost to the health care system in the U.S. of treating the victims of diet-related diseases is estimated at more than $200 billion a year.”
Because of Canada’s public provision of medical and hospital care, the cost of the diet-related ills incurred by people in this country would not be as high as a proportionate $10 billion a year. But, even discounting the “free” treatment by doctors and hospitals after they get sick, Canadians suffer as much from junk food consumption as their American counterparts. So the other steep costs – life-extending drugs, home care, lost work time, less income, etc. – would certainly amount to at least an annual $5 billion in Canada.
It would be a stretch to infer that the conversion of our diet from nutritious food to unwholesome food is a deep, dark capitalist plot. It’s not. But, still, it’s undeniable that the big corporations that grow, process, refine, salt-and-sugar-stuff, calorie-maximize, and sell the foods that make us fat and sick derive enormous profits from doing so.
And it’s equally irrefutable that the more people sickened by malnutrition, the more the drug companies, the pharmacies, the high-tech health-care hardware makers, the doctors and nursing home operators benefit financially.
The bottom line: Any system, no matter how harmful, that enriches the executives and major investors of such powerful corporations is never going to be changed from above. Not as long as profit-obsessed capitalism remains the dominant economic system. So it’s up to each of us, as consumers, to take charge of our own diets and our own weight.
As I found out, that’s very difficult — but it can be done.
Why refined food is bad for you
One of the key features of the modern diet is the shift toward increasingly refined foods, especially carbohydrates. Humans have been refining grains since at least the Industrial Revolution, favouring white flour and white rice even at the price of lost nutrients.
Refining grains extends their shelf life (because it makes them less nutritious to pests) and makes it easier to digest by removing the fibre that ordinarily slows the release of their sugars.
Much industrial food production involves an extension and intensification of this practice, as food processors find ways to deliver glucose — the brain’s preferred food — ever more swiftly and efficiently. Sometimes this is precisely the point, as when corn is refined into corn syrup. Other times it is an unfortunate byproduct of food processing, as when freezing food destroys the fibre that would slow sugar absorption.
So fast food is fast in this other sense, too: it is to a considerable extent pre-digested, in effect, and therefore more readily absorbed by the body. But while this widespread acceleration of the Western diet offers us the instant gratification of sugar, in many people the “speediness” of this food overwhelms the insulin response and leads to Type II diabetes.
As one nutrition expert put it to me, we’re in the middle of “a national experiment in mainlining glucose.”
–Michael Pollan, in The New York Times.