I love a clean yellow legal pad. The blank page represents possibility. On it I sketch ideas, outline plans, draft deep thoughts. But mostly, I write to-do lists. These lists are but wishful thinking, so ambitious is their scope. But, I write them anyway, neatly, with visions of the accomplished individual I will be once I’ve checked every item off.
But then…a child gets sick, a meeting gets postponed or, to be honest, something really good comes on Netflix. And instead of just adjusting the list and moving on, I reach for a clean yellow legal pad.
I’ve talked to several people who have the same dysfunctional relationship with the to-do list and a notepad, an app, or some other “productivity-enhancing” technology. And we all agree, they are simply various forms of procrastination. It’s human nature.
I can’t help but notice this flawed connection we have with our to-do lists is strikingly similar to the American approach to diets.
A new diet is a blank page, no? With this diet, if I just check the boxes, I will emerge at the other end the thin person I really am. But then, a child gets sick, a meeting gets rescheduled, or something good comes on Netflix. Life keeps us from checking those diet boxes. So instead of regrouping, we reach for a new diet. Each new diet offers a fresh start and new possibility.
Clearly, this is not working. One-third of adults in the U.S. are obese, and another one-third of us are overweight. A 20/20 special in 2012 reported that we spend $20 billion on dieting annually. There are 108 million Americans on diets and most start over four to five times each year.
In her new podcast, Love, Food, dietician and counselor Julie Duffy Dillon explains that of those who do lose weight, only five percent keep the weight off after five years. Diets - and the mental roller coaster we ride when we diet - cause us to make decisions that hurt us. And there are a lot of decisions - two hundred decisions about food each day, according to Dillon. This leads to disordered eating habits, such as alternating bouts of under-eating and bingeing.
This is simply discouraging, both on an individual level and from a public health point of view. There is good news on the horizon, however. As David Ludwig, MD, PhD, Professor of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health explains in his book, Always Hungry, “The problem isn’t with our calorie-counting abilities or self-control, but rather the current understanding of the cause – and cure for – obesity.”
Dr. Ludwig explains that our weight issues can be blamed on what he calls “hungry fat.” Hungry fat is simply the fat cells in our body when they are queued by insulin to store more fat (and make us fatter). When there is a lack of insulin, our fat cells release fat to be used as energy by the body. But it isn’t simple calories that choreograph this dance between insulin and fat cells. In fact, rats given an insulin infusion still gained weight even when their calorie intake was restricted.
It turns out that sugars and refined carbohydrates, which became the mainstay of the American diet after low-fat misinformation overtook us fifty ago, are the equivalent to the rat’s insulin infusion. These foods cause our pancreas to release insulin in large amounts. The insulin causes the energy from our food to be stored away in our fat cells, so we feel hungry. And we eat.
Ludwig’s central thesis is that overeating hasn’t made our fat cells grow. Instead the growth of our fat cells has caused us to overeat. In the book, Ludwig offers a summary of the significant research he’s done on this mechanism, and it’s compelling.
No doubt, we still have much to learn about nutrition and obesity. But what Dillon and Ludwig are telling us, which we should already know, is that diets do not work. Our bodies are meant to be nourished with healthy, whole foods. The last half-century of nutritional misinformation has corrupted our relationship with food. The answer to our weight problems is to retrain ourselves in how to eat properly.
It’s an uphill battle, as any stroll down a supermarket aisle will demonstrate. But stick to the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid processed foods – particularly processed sugars and grains – and you are off to a good start. If you want specific guidance, I recommend Dr. Ludwig’s book to get you going.
Americans are neurotic, and I don’t envision the productivity market will decline anytime soon. I do hope that we can shed our food neuroses as we begin to learn it’s not only okay, it’s healthy to nourish our bodies.
Amy Rogers MD is not a practicing physician and nothing written here should be taken as medical advice from either Amy or AssetBuilder. Medical decisions should be made with care in consultation with your health care provider