Monday, April 05, 2010

Weight Loss Fantasy and Fraud

Thousands of weight loss schemes have been marketed -some sincere but flawed, others frankly fraudulent. Some estimates of cost suggest over 40 billion dollars a year is spent in the USA alone on retail products and schemes offered for weight loss while increasing numbers of people are becoming obese. Diet Plans such as the Atkins diet and the South Beach variants are pitched by persistent advertising and many people join the parade of followers. Some lose weight, but almost all regain the weight they lost.

Infomercials, shown on cable TV promise that you can lose all the weight you want while you eat everything you want are false and not to be believed. This is what everyone wants of, course, a quick cure, but there is no easy path. It doesn't matter what they are trying to sell you - crab shells (chitin), fat absorbers, fat burners, magic mushrooms, wonder bark from Brazil, magic cellulite pills, pyruvate, creatine, garcinia cambogia, green goop, algae, magic genies in a bottle - it's all a great fantasy that will not come true.

There is no magic diet. The medical community, food industry, dietitians government health and regulatory agencies, magazine publishers and diet businesses are all helpless as Americans and Canadians consume excessive amounts of food and become increasingly obese. This epidemic of obesity threatens to bankrupt the health care system in both countries. Weight loss products and claims appear to be out of control as regulatory agencies in the USA and Canada only made token attempts to stop fraud.
A new wave of "reality" shows on TV show people attempting to lose weight and reveal how difficult it is to lose, how hard you have to work, how much you have to change your food choices and how much you will depend on other people to support your effort. The simple truth is – it's easier to gain weight than to lose it. Research has shown several important features of body weight management. There are powerful biological controllers of eating behaviors, appetite and weight regulation. There are genetic tendencies toward excess weight and obesity-causing gene mutations have been discovered. European and North American diets are flawed. There is excess fat and sugar in "normal" foods and food is too abundant. Eating has become entertainment. This is a bad idea if you want to stay slim. The modern lifestyle is flawed. There is too much sitting, too much convenience and too little physical work. Recreational eating must be abandoned in favor of recreational exercise

Weight issues are usually discussed as individual problems. The reality is that obesity is an expanding global problem. Because overeating causes many diseases, this global problem is often described as a disease epidemic that spreads like an infectious disease. An intelligent approach to each individual who is overweight is to recognize that this one person is a member of a group whose members all participate in creating dysfunction and disease. Obesity can only be understood as a family problem and then a societal problem. Remedies do involve changes in the behavior of individuals but these changes depend on a supporting group that changes the way the community operates.

Fat storage has a purpose and offers benefits. Everyone stores some white fat to provide insulation and body shape. Our facial contours are constructed from fat. The shape of women’s bodies differ from men’s bodies because of carefully designed fat deposits in the breast, abdomen and buttocks. Extra fat is a good insulator and keeps you warm. Extra fat is buoyant and helps you float in water. Marine mammals are all fat because they swim in cold water. Eskimos are fat so that they can survive cold winters when food is scarce. Brown fat is a source of heat; calories are burned in brown fat to warm the body.

Children hear stories about prudent animals who prepare for the future and do well and imprudent animals who only live for the present and perish. The child knows that squirrels store nuts for the winter and bees survive the winter by eating the honey they made during the summer. Bears get fat in the summer so that they can hibernate during the winter. The challenge of a seasonal food supply is expressed in acquisitive behavior, gaining weight and hoarding food. Most humans seem to have an odd mixture of prudent and imprudent behaviors and only a small number appear to be good at long-term planning. 
Humans are relatively tolerant of short-term food deprivation and take advantage of surplus by feasting and celebrating. The party aspect of human behavior links us strongly with carnivorous predators who gorge when they have made a kill and then rest. All overweight people would become slimmer if they hibernated over the winter and did not eat food for 4 months. All overweight people would become lean people if they as trained hard and long as an endurance cyclist. Long-distance athletes are the leanest people in town because sustained exertion causes muscle cells to use fat as fuel. If you train long enough and hard enough, most of your stored body fat is burned as fuel.

Diets Don't Work

Most therapists who have worked with overweight patients have stories of spectacular initial successes, with equally spectacular relapses weeks or months later. Obviously, there are unsolved problems in the weight-loss business. Carbohydrates are often blamed for weight gain and high fat, high protein diets have been promoted for 50 years and books proclaiming weight loss success are re-issued year after year without any reassurance that these diets are healthy or safe. Research in the 20th century showed that diets rich in plant foods and low in animal fat and proteins are the best diets for health from all points of view. The long-term consequences of high protein, high fat diets are well known; you get all the bad diseases that characterize modern civilization such as cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes and obesity.

This is not to argue that you could not lose weight on a high protein, high fat diet. You can lose weight by any method of reducing caloric intake, but that weight loss is not be relevant to your long-term success. It is to argue that you would be making a mistake if you lived on a high protein, high fat diet for many years. Pittas et al, for example, compared a high glycemic index, high-carbohydrate diet with a low-GI/low-carbohydrate diet resulted in comparable weight loss and increase in insulin sensitivity in 34 overweight participants. Both diets in the randomized, double-blind trial were designed to achieve 30% calorie restriction and followed recommendations for "healthy eating." The high carbohydrate diet was 60% carbohydrates, 20% protein, and 20% fat. The low-carbohydrate diet was 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 30% fat. Both groups achieved a 10% reduction in BMI and 20% increase in insulin sensitivity. Dansinger et al. compared 4 popular diets (Atkins, Zone, Weight Watchers, and Ornish) for weight loss and cardiac risk factor reduction. and found that each diet modestly reduced body weight and several cardiac risk factors at 1 year. Overall dietary adherence rates were low. Increased adherence was associated with greater weight loss and cardiac risk factor reductions for each diet group.

Appetite and weight regulation are complex and vary from person to person. While there are some general rules, there are many exceptions to the rules. The solution to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease lies more in the choice what foods you eat, how they are cooked, and how much you eat. The idea that you can predict the outcome of eating specific foods by the knowing the carbohydrate, fat, protein ratios is wrong. No matter what other argument seems appealing, the single enduring fact of healthy nutrition is that a diet rich in plant foods works best. Some plant foods such as wheat, however, may cause severe disease in people who are susceptible (as I am), so that no generalization will work for everyone.

Read More in Eating and Weight Management by Stephen Gislason MD