Why Obesity Is Complicated: A HealthCentral Explainer

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  • The weight loss conundrum


    A few weeks ago, the non-profit Institute of Medicine released a report that predicted a 42 percent adult obesity rate by the year 2030. It also issued a list of recommendations to avoid this grim prediction. 


    Among those suggestions: Make physical activity an integral and routine part of life, increase the availability of healthy foods and beverages and transform the message about physical activity and nutrition.


    No surprises there.


    Most reports about the obesity epidemic bemoan how much and how poorly modern society eats and how little it moves, then recommend that we all eat less and move more.  But no matter how many times these diagnoses and recommendations are repeated, the obesity rate continues to rise with alarming speed. 

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    So, what makes weight loss so hard?


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    We’re wired to eat


    The basic laws of thermodynamics are simple: to lose weight, one must burn more calories than they consume on a daily basis for an extended period of time.  Most people who are clinically overweight and obese became that way after an extended period of eating too much and moving too little. 


    Dr. Arthur Frank, a weight loss specialist at the National Center for Weight and Wellness in Washington DC, explained that obesity is a complex problem with a more complicated solution than simply telling someone to eat less and move more. 


    “It comes down to signals and brain wiring,’ said Frank. 


    The human brain sends thousands upon thousands of signals to start eating, but not nearly as many to stop eating, according to Frank.  This is due, in part, because we are a species who until very recently lived in a world of relative food insecurity.


    A brief history of eating


    Throughout most of human history, there has not been enough food to go around.  Consequently, in order to survive, humans needed to eat as much food as possible for as long as that food was available because there was no telling when the next meal was going to come. 


    This started to change just after World War II, notes Frank, when “suddenly America became a bread basket.” The same species that was wired to consume as much food as possible as a survival mechanism was now in a world where food was in abundance and available on demand.


    In keeping with thousands of years of learned behavior and habit, humans continued to consume food at the usual rate, but it didn’t run out as it did for our ancestors.


    Given these circumstances: “I can explain an obese person, but I can’t explain thin people,” joked Frank.   


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    Fighting brain signals


    Some studies have hinted at the deeper causes and implications of the obesity epidemic.  One published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people with a specific “obesity gene” tend to eat more meals and snacks and consume more calories per day than people without this gene. 


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    Another study published last month in the journal Pediatrics found that children who lived in food insecure homes did not learn how to regulate and respond to ‘fullness’--in other words, they do not stop eating when they’re full.  These children were found to have a higher risk of becoming obese. 


    These finding reinforce Frank’s theory that people who are overweight are fighting brain signals that either fail to tell them to stop eating or actively tell them to keep eating -- even if they have consumed far more than the number of calories recommended in a given day.


    Because the brain signals to eat are so numerous and powerful, people working to lose weight have to understand the way their brain is wired, be constantly be aware of how much they eat and make a deliberate choice to stop eating, even if that choice does not seem natural.


    “The people who succeed in weight loss do so with ruthless intensity,” said Frank. 



    Institute of Medicine (May, 2012) Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the weight of the nation. Retrieved from website: http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2012/Accelerating-Progress-in-Obesity-Prevention/Report-Brief.aspx


    The Atlantic (April, 2012) How the fear of not having enough food leads to obesity. Retrieved from website:




    Science Daily (May, 2012), Obesity Genes may influence food choices, eating patterns. Retrieved from website: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120523114847.htm


Published On: June 04, 2012