An Overview of Overweight
Twenty years ago I was doing a lecture, one of my first for the Huxley Foundation. Afterward a couple came over to me to tell me the problems they had had with their son, who had been institutionalized his entire adult life. They showed me a picture of him. He was obese, weighing almost 300 pounds. He had been labeled a manic-depressive, incapable of functioning in society. When he went through periods of mania, he was deemed a danger to himself and others. When depressed, he would lie in his bed for days on end. They told me he had been to see over twenty psychiatrists but to no avail. They were desperate and asked if I had any advice for them.
I asked what their son’s diet was like and was told that he ate institutional food plus almost $100 a week of what his parents gave him in confections, such as candies and potato chips. He was also a milk junkie, consuming large amounts of dairy products such as butter, cheese, and ice cream. I asked if their son had ever been through a detoxification program. They didn’t know what detoxification was, so I outlined what a full-body cleansing program entailed and gave them suggestions for what they could do if they chose to put their son on this type of health-rebuilding program. I told them that the only sure-fire way to help their son lose weight and feel better both emotionally and physically was to remove the toxins from his diet and direct him toward healthier eating habits. They would start with a complete detoxification program and gradually remold his dietary lifestyle.
So they tried it. First they stopped bringing him sweets and restricted him to no junk food within the hospital setting. Believe it or not, in just three weeks, enough of an improvement had occurred that he could be moved from the institution to a therapeutic house. He had also lost fifteen pounds. While he was not able to go home at this point, he could now take charge of his own eating habits and create whatever diet protocols he wished. I guided them in mapping out a diet that included fresh vegetable juices each day, plenty of salads, grains, and legumes, and nutrients for rebalancing brain chemicals. Within one month of his arrival at the therapeutic house, the son no longer manifested any manic-depressive tendencies and was able to go home. Within a year and a half he was down to 165 pounds and was functioning normally.
This is an extreme example of someone who was a victim not only of an excessive weight condition but of an emotionally stunting chemical imbalance due to a junk-food diet. This man’s poor dietary habits along with an allergic addiction to milk had seriously distorted both his brain chemistry and his behavior, not to mention his body shape. He had just never found a therapist who understood what was happening and made the connection between what was going on with his body and what was going on in his mind. Fortunately, with some nutritional guidance and a lot of determination on his part, this man was able to turn his life around.
I begin my book on weight control with this example not because I think that most people with weight problems have severe mental problems–that’s obviously not the case. But I do want to stress my point that dietary and other lifestyle habits are closely connected not just with your shape and what your scale says but with how you think, feel, and act. All of these factors are intertwined to an extent that our society doesn’t generally acknowledge. If you are overweight, you should understand at the outset that changing your eating habits for the better could change all
of these factors for the better. You also should know that if you are overweight, you are far from alone. There are millions of people out there just like you, who share your feelings of frustration as well as your desire for a slimmer body and more fulfilling life.
While obesity has been present since prehistoric times, as evidenced by early drawings, never before has the problem reached such epidemic proportions. Overweight conditions and obesity are rapidly increasing throughout the world, afflicting adults and children alike. In the United States, tens of millions of Americans are classified as either overweight or obese, with 20 percent of men and 25 percent of women falling into the obese category. These percentages have increased dramatically since the 1960s, with most of the gain seen in the 1990s. Ironically, despite the advent of diet centers on practically every corner and a national obsession with the rail-thin model look, the average American weighs eight pounds more than a decade ago.
All age groups are affected by this trend, and of particular concern is the frightening rise in childhood obesity. In a recent study of four- and five-year-old girls, for example, 10 percent were found to be overweight, which is almost double the amount found in 1971. Another investigation, this one focused on New York City grade-school children, found a third of the subjects to be overly fat. Adolescent incidence of this problem has gone up too; in fact, the number of overweight twelve- to seven-teen-year-olds has more than doubled in recent years. These figures are particularly disturbing, as overweight children and adolescents tend to become overweight adults who run an increased risk of medical debilitation and premature death.
Socioeconomic factors seem to play a role, with women in less advantaged groups exhibiting obesity twice as often as women in higher socioeconomic brackets do. Black American women have a particularly high rate, at 40 percent. These differentials are probably due to a greater emphasis on being slim in more affluent groups as well as to differences in education, the availability of wholesome foods, and even housing. If you want to create wholesome meals you need good access to decent cooking and refrigeration facilities. If these facilities are less than adequate, people are more likely to rely on fast food and processed or junk items.
The most widely accepted standard for judging weight problems and obesity is the body mass index (BMI), a system that we will discuss in more detail in Chapter 6. Any adult with a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is classified as overweight, and measures beyond that signify obesity. The BMI is used to compare levels of obesity worldwide. Researchers have found that excessive weight is a global problem that is on the rise, particularly in urban populations.
Financially, the costs related to obesity are phenomenal. For the year 1990, the overall U.S. expenditure for obesity-related illness and lost productivity from missed work days was conservatively estimated at $68.8 billion. Moreover, the weight-loss industry, which includes everything from diet programs to surgical intervention and medications, costs the dieting population millions more. Were these methods successful, they might save money in the long run as obesity-related health disorders declined. The unfortunate reality is that after following these programs, most dieters regain their lost weight plus some extra, which then poses an even greater hazard to their health.
To what can we attribute this epidemic? While genetic and biological factors may explain why some individuals succumb to obesity, the overriding factor is the present-day environment where high-calorie, high-fat foods predominate, along with exertion-saving technological advances and the concomitant greater levels of inactivity. This raises questions about the standard approach to obesity today, which emphasizes medical intervention. If obesity and its related disorders are diseases of diet and lifestyle rather than infection, wouldn’t it be more logical to take a holistic approach in their treatment? The modern hospital may be a technological marvel, but it is more suited to the treatment of acute conditions and trauma than to the correction of obesity, high cholesterol, or even heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases.
Unless drastic changes are made in our society that influence the overall behavior of communities, the problem of obesity is expected to escalate further, a fact that should be a cause for alarm. Let’s take a more in-depth look at why we should be concerned.
The costs of obesity go way beyond the financial, extending into many areas of health, and beginning with the way we feel and function every day. There’s no getting around the fact that, on average, the more overweight you are, the less energy you’re going to have to accomplish daily tasks and even enjoy daily pleasures. There’s simply more of you to carry around.
Also, despite the quantity of food you consume, you may be malnourished. It may seem paradoxical, but being overweight and undernourished often go hand in hand. That’s because the calorie-packed processed foods that overweight people tend to eat do not contain the full spectrum of nutrients. Also, sometimes a weight problem can be compounded by a system that does not properly absorb the nutrients that are in food. As the body becomes run down due to nutritional deficiencies, the first thing we might notice is that we are just not in top form. This condition is what Dr. Paul Bergner, author of The Healing Power of Minerals
, calls “the blahs,” which, he says, “are probably the American plague. People feel tired and sick, a first manifestation of mineral deficiency.” Some of the results include depression, anxiety, irritability, immune problems, and fatigue. Dr. Jeffrey Bland, a research scientist at the Linus Pauling Institute in Washington state and the author of The 20 Day Rejuvenation Diet Program
, has a name for this segment of the population–”the walking wounded.” He asserts, “These people are not sick enough to be sick but not well enough to be well. These are the people who wake up tired in the morning, go to bed tired at night, have sore joints and muscles of unknown origin, and have digestive problems, headaches, and sensitivities to an environment that they used to be able to tolerate easily.”
Most people in these circumstances believe there is nothing they can do but learn to live in a state of compromised vitality. What they fail to realize is that lost vitality is an early sign of deteriorating health, which, if left uncorrected, will pave the way for a variety of chronic conditions, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Nor do most conventional doctors understand the nutritional basis of “the blahs.” They will either dismiss them as imaginary or treat the patient with an antidepressant drug.
In reality, lack of energy needs to be recognized and treated as a nutritional deficiency. Other important lifestyle choices also need to be taken into consideration, not the least of which is exercise, which we’ll be discussing in Chapter 11.
Being significantly overweight opens the door to a range of chronic health conditions that threaten quality of life, including cardiovascular disease and cancer–two major killers in the United States today. Too much fat is also related to hypoglycemia, noninsulin-dependent diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, gastrointestinal disorders, peripheral vascular disease, and glandular dysfunction. Other risks to health include an increase in bad (LDL) cholesterol and a lowering of good (HDL) cholesterol; low back pain; gastrointestinal problems, especially gallbladder disease; and respiratory difficulties, including sleep apnea.
In addition, overweight conditions, especially obesity, have emotional ramifications. Being overweight is socially unacceptable, and society expresses disdain for overweight individuals, often viewing them as lazy and immoral. Children, in particular, have problems interacting with their peers and are more likely to suffer from alienation.
Obesity is clearly visible as a cosmetic issue, but its importance as a health issue has been largely ignored. Considering the many complications arising from obesity, addressing this problem is of utmost importance. In fact, the 1997 World Health Organization Consultation on Obesity concluded that obesity is one of the greatest health problems facing the world today, the impact of which may be equal to that of smoking.
There is a well-established relationship between obesity and heart disease. Being overweight makes you prone to several risk factors for the illness: hypertension, dyslipidemia (raised cholesterol and triglyceride levels), high blood pressure, and glucose intolerance. Studies in the United States and throughout the world reveal that obesity, by itself, poses increased danger to the heart, and that the more overweight the individual, the quicker the onset of heart disease. Also, the way fat is distributed appears to make a difference, with fat around the abdomen being more dangerous than fat that’s distributed evenly on the body.
Risks are further heightened when being overweight starts in childhood. Autopsies of obese children who died in car accidents show the early formation of arterial plaque. And studies reveal overweight youngsters to have high levels of LDL cholesterol and low levels of HDL cholesterol.
There is some evidence suggesting that certain types of foods are especially hazardous to the heart. Perhaps the worst heart offenders are foods containing free fats, for instance, margarine, mayonnaise, and fried foods. When we increase the amount of fats, principally animal fats–dairy, meat, chicken, pork, french fries–in the diet, we create unhealthy clumping in the red blood cells. The cells literally stick together. This can lead to a clot, which in turn can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Switching to a more wholesome diet, one that emphasizes whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, can reverse heart-related risks, as evidenced in the now-famous study by Dr. Dean Ornish.
Alcohol is falsely believed to help the heart, when, in actuality, it contributes to a fatty heart muscle. It also destroys protective antioxidants, folic acid, and B complex vitamins and contributes to various cancers and stroke. The compounds found in wine that protect the arteries from the damaging effects of LDL cholesterol actually can be obtained more healthfully through fruits and vegetables, particularly grapes and grape juice.
Eating poorly contributes to heart disease in yet another way. A deficiency of minerals, especially magnesium, is related to heart attacks. In fact, research has found many heart attack patients to have 30 percent less magnesium in their hearts than do normal controls. Without sufficient magnesium, the heart muscle and arteries become prone to spasm, which increases the likelihood of a heart attack.
Something we should remember is that heart disease is tied in to the functioning of other body systems. Western medicine tends to compartmentalize organ systems, as if one had nothing to do with the other, when their functioning is actually highly integrated. A good example of this is the liver’s relationship to the heart. Devoted to a host of vital functions, including fat metabolism and toxin breakdown, the liver is one of our largest and hardest-working organs. When functioning properly, it keeps blood fats under control, thus helping to reduce cardiovascular disease. But when people are overweight, the liver becomes overburdened and stops functioning properly. Instead of burning fat and regulating fat metabolism, the liver begins to store fat. Often this is a precursor to fatty degeneration of the arteries and subsequent heart attacks and strokes.
Excerpted from Kiss Your Fat Goodbye by Gary Null, Ph.D.. Copyright © 2006 by Gary Null, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.