Monday, September 28, 2009

Fat People, Fat Profits

September 28, 2009, 5:30 a.m.

Need to Shed a Few Pounds?
Target the Right Enemy

(brought to you by*)

This morning's blog entry about nutrition and weight loss (and gain) is a blend of public policy and personal anecdote.

I've never seen the fascination in the details of others' hour-by-hour lives, and therefore assumed no one would find fascination in mine. Tweets, text messages, instant messages, blogs and journals detailing when the writer awoke, what they ate, and their frustration at having missed their bus and lost their true love (again) not only suffer as what general semanticists call "dead-level abstracting" but tell me more than what I really want to know. So you won't find much, if any, of that in what are now some 700 public policy entries in this blog -- except for today.

I've been interested in nutrition issues for nearly 40 years. As an FCC commissioner I sought to learn more about the impact of television on our society for good and for ill -- though I tended to find, and emphasize in my writing, more of the ill than of the good. In the course of doing so I couldn't help but notice the contrast between the advice from dietitians and nutritionists, on the one hand, and the foods promoted by TV commercials, product placement, and programs on the other.

Some of that interest found its way into Test Pattern for Living, a Bantam paperback now available for free download from my Web site. And on some occasion I delivered a speech titled, "Sweet Grease, Salty Grease: Television's All-American Diet" -- though I can't now find it either online or in hard copy.

For years, running miles every week meant that weight gain was not a problem. Although a few pounds over the height-weight charts' ideal, friends (including doctors) would respond to my concern with, "Oh, you look fine; you're a big guy, you can carry it."

As a knee deteriorated, and bicycle coasting downhill was substituted for running uphill, the pounds crept up a little more. Research on various diet plans indicated they pretty much all produce weight loss, but that for most dieters the weight soon returns with a few more pounds as a bonus. The Weight Watchers program seemed to be the most successful at keeping participants' weight off over time. So I tried that. It worked. But ultimately even the Weight Watchers' weight loss was regained.

What prompted a new approach a couple months ago is not clear. Here are some possibilities:

(1) Following his first heart attack my father -- although athletic and never "fat" -- was advised, and chose, to take off some weight. He did so, and also gave up smoking. But it was too late, and he ultimately died of a heart attack at 59 -- probably more from the cigarettes than the weight. So that may have been a part of the motivation; as I recently mentioned to someone, "As long as doctors will someday require that I shed a few pounds I might as well do it now, before my heart attack rather than after."

(2) In July the New York Times reported that the reduced-calorie diet that was found to extend the life of mice also had similar effects on rhesus monkeys and presumably could do the same for humans as well. Nicholas Wade, "Dieting Monkeys Offer Hope for Living Longer," New York Times, July 10, 2009, p. A1("Mice kept on such a diet from birth have long been known to live up to 40 percent longer than comparison mice fed normally"). As the years pass by such research becomes of ever-greater interest.

(3) And then there was David Kessler's book, "The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite" (New York: Rodale, 2009). Dr. Kessler was formerly the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Here's a four-minute video with Kessler that pretty well sums up his thesis:

It turns out that Kessler's point is very similar to mine 40 years ago in Test Pattern for Living and the speech, "Sweet Grease, Salty Grease: Television's All-American Diet."

He begins by noting that "For thousands of years human body weight stayed remarkably stable. . . . Then, in the 1980s, something changed." (p. 3) He goes on to report the work of Katherine Flegal, senior research scientist, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She observed that in 1960 women between the ages of 20 and 29 averaged about 128 pounds; and that by the year 2000 their average weight was 157. Between the ages of 40 and 49 the increase during the same years was from 142 to 169. Moreover, there was an increasing spread in the difference between the weight gain of low-weight and higher-weight people. "Weight gain was primarily about overweight people becoming more overweight."

All of which prompts Kessler to ask, "What's been driving us to overeat?" (p. 5)

He answers his question with the title to chapter 3: "Sugar, Fat, and Salt Make Us Eat More Sugar, Fat, and Salt."

Obviously, the restaurant and processed food industries know this, and utilize this brain-altering formula to manipulate us into increasing our consumption, our nation's obesity epidemic -- and their profits and stock prices. The easiest way to boost a food's popularity, Kessler says, is to keep layering on more sugar, salt and fat -- sometimes all of them, as with sugar in the bun, and bacon and cheese topping off the prior ingredients.

Dr. Kessler draws an analogy to the tobacco industry's knowingly drawing young, "replacement smokers" (a "replacement" for the older smokers they kill off every year) into a lifetime of nicotine addiction -- thereby increasing the tobacco industry's profits. It is a story in which he also finds hope, insofar as a nation's view of tobacco ultimately shifted from cigarette smoking as "sexy and cool" to "a disgusting, anti-social, addictive habit that kills people." He suggests that similar progress in reducing obesity could follow a widespread realization that what I call "sweet grease, salty grease" is as disgusting and undesirable as cigarette smoke.

At the end of long and often frustrating days of dealing with a university bureaucracy, Dad used to stay up late at night writing, smoking and drinking coffee. As he told the story, he woke up one morning after such a night and realized he just didn't want another cigarette. That was it. And he never smoked again.

That's kind of what happened to me in altering my eating habits. Nothing dramatic. No doctor's warning. I kind of like to do scientific experiments on myself anyway, and it seemed worthwhile to test Kessler's theory to see what would happen if "sweet grease, salty grease" were eliminated from my diet.

What happened was that, over time, the weight slowly declined. There were no precise goals of weight to be lost per week, some ultimate ideal weight, or anything like that.

As a kid I used to actually make the sound of a kitchen sink disposal as I cleaned up everyone's plate after a meal. The notion of taking part of a restaurant meal home in a plastic box was an alien concept. People who did it were probably just showing off, I thought; going home to not only eat that food immediately but probably topping it off with a quart of ice cream as well. In spite of this capacity for consumption I didn't seem to gain much weight, probably because of sports and other the exercise.

So it was a unique experience to discover recently that following the elimination of the sweet and salty grease came a significant reduction in appetite. For the first time in my life I was unable or unwilling to finish a restaurant meal, got one of those plastic boxes, and actually made two additional meals out of it. What a concept!

In the world in which we live we are surrounded with cookies, cake, chips, french fries, ice cream, sugared drinks, and pizza. That's how we celebrate. It's how we "treat" our friends. It's in the advertising that flows over us. It's the "food" most readily at hand. And so long as our brains have been reprogrammed, and our bodies addicted, to require their sweet and salty grease it's a real problem.

Formerly, the solutions to that problem had been but two: (1) Give in to desire, and continue upward toward the BMI ("body mass index") of "30" that is the lower edge of obesity. (2) Keep a stiff, and closed, upper lip; feel the desire to consume the sweet and salty grease, but resist it with enormous powers of will and the resentment produced by a sense of deprivation. (Usually this approach only lasts for the duration of the "diet," following which the old consumption habits return.)

Now it turns out there is a third option. (3) By eliminating the sweet and salty grease from one's diet, and its impact on our brain, there is only a relatively short period of perceived deprivation; for some three or four days, for others a week or two. But following that, the very desire to consume those ingredients slowly disappears and is finally, seemingly, gone -- at least for me. Three meals a day of single, moderate servings, seem adequate, without the constant munching on something throughout the day. Without any sense of deprivation, the new eating habits seem natural, fully adequate and rewarding.

Twenty pounds lighter, there's more energy, sounder sleep, seemingly less stress, and no desire to revert to the old eating habits. There will probably be more weight loss, not because that's a goal but because it seems to happen naturally -- until and unless a former high school football weight is reached and to lose any more would be unhealthy.

Do you know the country song with the line, "that's my story and I'm sticking to it"? Well, this is my story, and I hope I'm sticking to it. But whether I do so or not I thought this might be one blog entry about "what I ate for breakfast" that just might be of actual use to others.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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