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The life of a Dad who strives to be the best dad possible

HBO’s Weight of the Nation Summary – Part Two

HBO Weight of the Nation

Welcome back. In Part One of my summary of HBO’s Weight of the Nation documentary (HERE), we focused on some simple steps one can take to improve their health. Let’s dig a little deeper now into some of the science and studies underlying the show, Weight of the Nation on HBO.

Something critical to understand is what’s called your “Set Point”. The Set Point is, in a simple sense, where your body wants to be. This is the pull of your genetics. What this means is that two people who are exactly the same (e.g., age, gender, weight, etc.) are not always metabolically the same. If one of those two people got to that weight by losing say 10-15% of their body weight, their body will respond to food differently than the other who had always been at that weight. The “weight loss” person will only need about 80% of the calories as the other to maintain the same weight. Unfortunately, this does not change over time. Years later, that 20% reduction will remain the same.

This means you need to have an appreciation for your set point. Failing to consider this concept could lead you down a road you don’t want to travel: that leading to diabetes. But, is avoiding that possibility difficult? How “hard core” do we all need to be?

Well, a research study called the Diabetes Prevention Program was designed to answer that question. The goal was to see whether “high risk” people could reduce their chance of getting diabetes. The study focused on certain risk factors: increased body mass, sedentary lifestyle, elevated blood sugar levels, and family history. The question was could a change in environmental risk factors decrease the probability of becoming diabetic. The answer, resoundingly and wonderfully, was YES!

Participants were asked to do two things: (1) decrease their body weight by 7% and (2) increase their physical activity by 150 minutes per week above what they were already doing. Note, (2) refers to physical activity, not exercise. Physical activity is in a simple sense anything requiring you to move, like walking to your car, taking the stairs, etc. The participants were then studied for years, the average being three. Amazingly, during Phase One (the first three years) of the study, participants had on average a 58% decrease in the development of diabetes!  That’s a pretty startling statistic.

Interestingly, some of the participants were identical twins, but with only one twin participating in the study. This offered a very unique chance to truly judge the efficacy of manipulating some of these environmental factors (because the genetic factor was, due to being identical twins, a controlled variable). This revelation was profound as it demonstrated conclusively that for “high risk” individuals merely losing 7% of one’s body weight and increasing one’s physical activity by 150 minutes per week would result in a 58% reduction in the chance of becoming diabetic. For anyone, but especially those in “high risk” groups, this information should ideally provoke a life changing transition.

But, that doesn’t happen does it? Nearly everyone knows that soda, cookies, fast “food”, and so on are unhealthy. Nearly everyone knows that physical activity and exercise are good things. But, why doesn’t change occur??? If most people have the information, why don’t they act upon it?

Well, to start, marketers are really good at what they do. Food, or as lots of it should be called “food”, is designed to be sold, not designed to be healthy. In fact, given that making stuff “healthy” is generally more expensive simply than making it, one could argue that most food products are designed specifically to be UNhealthy. But, I digress. We, as consumers, are brain-washed into believing that “Low Fat”, “Lean”, or a slew of other marketing phrases mean some product is good for us.

For the best example, take drinks. Soda, without a doubt, is nothing short of terrible for you. In fact, it is the ONLY “food” directly linked to obesity. It LITERALLY contains NOTHING that is good for you. Nothing. Yet, it sells in droves, often by the gallon or liter! Well, what about energy drinks??? Even worse. In addition to being completely void of ANY nutritional qualities, they are frequently more acidic than battery acid and dissolve your teeth as your drink them. Yikes. Juice, though, juice is healthy right? Ummm, in a word, NO. Here’s a great equation to remember:

Juice = Soda

If that is confusing, watch this:

But, with exercise, we all can eat or drink what we want right? I mean, exercise fixes everything doesn’t it? Ahhh, I love exercising but let’s dispense with some of the myths. Running is often the one of the best and most effective ways to burn calories. On average, a person will burn about 100 calories per mile of running. Sounds great right? Consider that most candy bars are over 200 calories, most cookies are around 100 calories, and most sodas are well over 200 calories, and you don’t need a Doctorate degree in mathematics to see that a 20 minute jog will often equal just ONE chocolate chip cookie. So, that Insanity workout I did yesterday, I could undo all the benefits simply by “enjoying” a single Snickers, if not put me on the wrong side of the ledger should I have one of the super-sized versions! The reality is that exercise alone is grossly insufficient. Combining diet and exercise is, by far, the most effective way to improve one’s health.

So, the question remains, why are so many people obese??? If getting healthier is something anyone can accomplish, if eating better isn’t that tough, why doesn’t it happen? What prevents people from taking those steps? The most commonly cited excuses are (1) lack of time, (2) work issues, and/or (3) other stresses, like divorce, life, kids, etc.

What this means is that the real question isn’t necessarily what YOU eat, but rather, WHAT is eating you? Most people allow their stressors to dictate their lives. Stress triggers a powerful, biochemical response for the “comfort foods”: calorically-dense, sugary foods that we all love to eat. In times of stress, the body craves these calories, which makes sense. If you consider the hunter-gather days of our ancestors, times of stress were life or death situations and those ancestors NEEDED that calorically-dense food to help them survive. Our glands evolved to release adrenaline and cortisol in response to stress to get us to survive. Those hormones made us into fat storing machines because we had to have that. The response triggered is just as powerful as any drug addiction. Thus, know whether you are eating because of a vestigial innate response OR because you are hungry.

What this means is that minor changes in (1) your level of physical activity, (2) your diet, and (3) how you deal with stress can have massive and profound effects on your health. The DPP study showed what a relatively small change in behavior can accomplish. Combine that with a reduction in stress (or how you handle stress) and life-changing miracles are yours to be had. One little point, conveniently, one of the best ways to reduce stress is physical activity. Arguably then, simply doing (1) and (2) will, without a doubt, help you on part (3). How nice is that?!?!?!

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