Obesity – How Big an Issue?


When I hit menopause, the weight started creeping up. Whereas I was used to being able to lose 3-5 pounds if I didn‘t eat for a few days (as when I had a cold or such), my metabolism seemed to have changed quite drastically. Now if I didn‘t eat for a few days I would put weight on! I found that to be an affront to common sense. It certainly doesn‘t agree with the calories in-calories out concept! What it did seem to do was to establish a new bodyweight for me, whether I liked it or not.

According to Professor Peter Saunders(1), the calorie theory is only partly correct. If things were as simple as that, our weight would fluctuate a lot more than it does. The theory says that if you left out 300 calories at breakfast you would lose ten pounds a year. But that doesn‘t always happen. The body has mechanisms to control both weight gain and weight loss, either by varying the appetite or by adjusting its metabolic rate. It is generally assumed that the obese eat more than those of normal weight. Research has shown that this is not always true; in some cases fat people eat less than those of normal weight(3). In addition, says Prof Saunders, not only does heredity matter but also our entire life experience from the moment we were conceived, and even what our mother ate while pregnant!

That is why diets don‘t work. As soon as we cut down the calories, the body notices what we are doing and adjusts the rate at which it utilizes calories, so becoming more efficient. This of course makes perfect sense as an evolutionary defense system in times of scarcity or famine. Our weight-loss diets are a form of self-imposed famine, and our bodies will defend themselves to stay at the weight that they want to be. Which leaves us with the question, why do bodies do these things? And in particular, why do the bodies of post-menopausal women insist on gaining weight? How bad is it to put on some pounds?

When one looks at the whole picture, turns out that the causes for overweight include genes, environment, the change in the food supply from home cooking to commercially processed foods, dramatically less physical activity — in suburbia, people think nothing of driving three or four blocks over to a friend‘s house, instead of walking! And let‘s not forget that people can put on weight for psychological, emotional, and even spiritual reasons. So it‘s not just the linear calories in-calories out model; it is, without doubt, a whole complex system of interactions, and simplifying it to just counting calories is doomed from the beginning.

Recently I met a woman, Barbara Bruno, who is very concerned with the issue of discrimination against fat people. What she pointed out to me was that there appear to be a long list of benefits to obesity! This surprised me, as I‘d never heard of such a thing. She pointed me to several books, including Big Fat Lies, by Glenn Gaesser, an exercise physiologist, and the work of Paul Ernsberger, Ph.D. Ernsberger contends that the ill effects of obesity have been exaggerated, that its potential health benefits have been overlooked, and that much of the ill health in obese persons is caused by the adverse consequences of treatment, including strict weight loss diets (2)

For example, he shows that losing and regaining weight can raise blood pressure, cause cardiovascular abnormalities, and increase the efficiency of fat storage. He also states that the blood pressure fall during dieting is a response to starvation rather than a result of weight loss.

In an article he wrote with Paul Haskew in the Journal of Obesity and Weight Regulation in 1987, there is a long list of the health benefits of obesity. Turns out that the condition is associated with a lower incidence of cancer, cancer mortality, respiratory disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, infectious diseases such as TB and UTI, bone disease such as osteoporosis and hip fractures, cardiovascular disease such as mitral valve prolapse and intermittent claudication, gynecological and obstetrical problems such as eclampsia, premature birth, hot flashes, and premature menopause. Overweight is also associated with a lower risk for anemia, type I diabetes, peptic ulcers, scoliosis, and suicide. That is rather a list!

When I did the research for my book Food and Our Bones, I had indeed found that one of the risk factors for osteoporosis and fractures was weight loss after menopause. Turns out that a woman‘s body can make estrogen from subcutaneous fat, which is a very good idea after menopause! This means that she doesn‘t have to take hormones, she can just make them! Of course, the downside is that one deviates from the socially acceptable picture of the young, thin, willowy female body. An older woman who goes through menopause without the aid of hormone replacement has generally a very different body from that ideal.

I struggled with that, as all women in our society do. Of course in other times, other societies, weight on a woman has generally been well regarded. And even with all that I know, I still struggled with self-acceptance. Finally, I figured that now that I was older I could throw my weight around some more. I also thought about trees — as they age, they put on more rings, so that older trees are considerably thicker than young inexperienced saplings. Does that make the trees fat? This, incidentally, happens to men too: compare pictures of Frank Sinatra or President John Kennedy in their youth and in their middle age.

So what is the solution here? Just let ourselves go? Well, that is an option, but not one I necessarily recommend. I decided that I would not fight my body if it wanted to put weight on; after all, it knows very well how to keep itself alive and healthy, so I was not going to second guess it. One can be healthy and fit at whatever weight. I decided that the way to be healthy and happy as the years go by is, among other things, to:

  • keep fit and flexible;
  • eat healthy food anyway;
  • buy clothes that fit.

1. While my exercise regime is extremely erratic, I have always made a point of keeping my back and joints flexible through stretching and yoga. Walking is always a good exercise, and half an hour several times a week is what is recommended. I am lucky that I live near a park, so I can walk under the trees, but that is a perk, not a requirement. Picking up heavy things can be a form of weight training; one of my students started lifting juice bottles, from 1 quart to 1 gallon. Just make sure you do that safely, so check with a fitness professional.

2. Healthy eating means whole, fresh, natural foods – my usual mantra, as my readers well know. One healthy and athletic looking young woman in a class of mine told me that she had been cooking out of my book The Natural Gourmet, which has rich and yummy whole foods recipes and is anything but a diet book —and she said that over the past year she had lost more than 80 lb eating everything she wanted! So in terms of eating, the trick is to eat real, good quality foods — forget the artificial sweeteners, the diet foods, the low fat snacks. Those imitation foods try to fool the body and that cannot be done! All the talk about calories ignores the fact that you need a certain amount of calories for your healthy function. If you eat less, if you don‘t eat enough, the body will make up for it somehow — and it won‘t be pretty. So it‘s most important to get all your caloric needs from whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and good quality animal foods if you want them. Forget the fat-free, too — it‘s not true that fat makes fat. You need good quality fat for many metabolic functions, so have some olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil, organic butter — not much, just enough for making the meal delicious

3. People who try to fit into smaller clothes usually look fatter than if their clothes fit properly. So indulge yourself and get the clothes you need when you need them! Looking good in itself can make you feel good. And isn‘t it nice when you feel good? So just make sure that you are at your right weight, and healthy, and fit, with loving relationships, and dealing with your stresses appropriately —that will make you healthy and happy. The wealthy and wise part — well, that is different work.

(1) www.i-sis.org.uk/ObesityEpidemic.php
(2) Rethinking Obesity: An Alternative View of its Health Implications. Human Sciences Press, New York, 1988.
(3) What Everybody Knows about Being Fat –www.suewidemark.com/whateveryoneknowsaboutfat.htm