I bet a lot of readers will be viewing the hamburgers and fries pictured above. You might notice that your mouth has suddenly filled with saliva. You might even be thinking of getting a burger later today. But is that desire to go and get a burger the reason for the current obesity pandemic? Let’s dig in.
Society is quick to point the finger at people suffering from obesity. Many people are convinced that it is their own lack of self-discipline that made them that way. ‘Losing weight is so simple,’ we think, ‘just eat less and move more’.
If only it were that simple. Just the fact that your mouth just filled up with saliva looking at that picture is indicative of how some things aren’t entirely under our control.
In my view, the current obesity pandemic isn’t simply the result of lack of self-discipline and personal weakness. Of course discipline is a factor in it. But I’m convinced that it’s only natural that the worldwide obesity rate is steadily increasing, considering the way our cultures are shaped.
Is there really an obesity pandemic?
You probably wouldn’t have guessed it. But we live in a world where obesity kills more people worldwide than hunger and malnourishment.
We used to think – or at least I did while growing up – that hunger was the world’s big issue. But now, in 2020, obesity is actually a bigger threat than hunger. Every year, over 4 million people die worldwide as a result of obesity.
And it’s not just deaths. Most people are aware that obesity increases your risks of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. But it can also increase your chances of getting a stroke, cancer, joint problems, fertility and menstrual issues, immune system disorders, apnea, and mental health problems like depression.
And especially now, obesity-related health risks are a problem. Experts have found that people who are overweight are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus that’s now sweeping the world. Obesity has been shown to worsen the effects of COVID-19.
Over half of Dutch adults are overweight. About 14% of Dutch adults is obese, which means severely overweight. In the Netherlands, obesity is the most expensive medical condition, costing about €505 million annually for the direct consequences of obesity. Including the indirect costs of obesity, that number rises to €2 billion per year.
So what causes obesity?
Alright, so obesity is definitely a problem. But is the obesity pandemic just a pandemic of weak-willed people? Not at all.
Hunger and hormones
First, we need to dive into what causes hunger.
As you might now, a huge amount of bodily processes is regulated by hormones. Hunger is no exception.
In simple terms, your hunger sensation is controlled by the hormones leptin and ghrelin.
Leptin is an appetite suppressor, and is the hormone that tells your brain you’ve had enough.
Ghrelin, on the other hand, stimulates your appetite, telling your brain you need food. But even though ghrelin is the one stimulating your hunger, leptin is the one we need to look at.
Generally, leptin levels increase during and after eating. There’s a slight delay in its increase, of roughly twenty minutes. That explains why sometimes, when you get distracted during a meal and you pause for a while, you feel less enthused to continue eating when you get back to it. That just means that your leptin levels have kicked in, and your brain is now no longer that interested in food.
The amount of leptin in your bloodstream is, among other things, regulated by the amount of fat in your body.
But in some people suffering from obesity, their brains don’t respond as well to that leptin anymore.
For an outsider it might seem like that person has too little self-control when they order a second burger. But if your brain responds adequately to your leptin levels, it’s much easier for you to resist the temptation than it is for them.
Differences in decision-making
Let me put it this way: let’s say you come across a person who just crawled out of the desert after having been lost for two days. Chances are that person is going to be incredibly thirsty.
If you’re properly hydrated, you don’t want to pay ten bucks for an overpriced bottle of plain water. But that other person probably does.
Is that really a lack of self-control? Or can we agree that their situation causes them to make different decisions? Can we agree that their dehydration changes their decision-making process?
To people whose bodies don’t respond properly to their satiety hormones, eating a proper meal might feel like what you would feel if you only had a few crackers for dinner and nothing else.
Imagine how hard it would be to resist the temptation of food if you only had a few crackers. Wouldn’t you make different decisions too if you feel famished?
Other causes of obesity
But simple errors in hormone regulation aren’t everything.
As many people know, stress is an important factor too.
Eating feels good, it tastes nice. And once you’re under a lot of stress, you’ll more easily grab onto anything that gives you a better feeling.
Stress also increases levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. Cortisol is another hormone, that not only increases your appetite but also your motivation to eat.
Other mental health issues like depression are also known to increase (or decrease) appetite.
Sleep deprivation is another important factor. If you’re sleep-deprived, your body will signal to you that you need more food to compensate for the lack of energy you got while sleeping.
Your body simply wants to survive, so it grasps at anything that’ll give it a bigger chance of surviving.
Your DNA can also play a significant role.
The way your hormones work, how easily your body converts food into fat or, conversely, burns fat for energy, where your body stores fat, what type of fat it stores: all these things can be influenced by your genes.
Then, there’s certain medications that might upregulate your appetite. Others can change the way your body handles fat, or the efficiency of your metabolism.
For up to 25% of people, taking antidepressants can lead to weight gain of 10 pounds or more.
The role of evolution in obesity
Obviously, pretty much anything our body does once arose out of the need to survive (or it was an insignificant by-effect that didn’t cause enough trouble to be weeded out).
We evolved from beings that didn’t have pantries filled to the brim with every type of food imaginable. Our ancestors couldn’t just skip to the store to get a ready-to-eat meal to throw in the microwave.
Our ancestors had to work hard to get enough sustenance to survive. So in times of scarcity, it was best to try and store as much food as fat for later use. If we lost weight, our brains would tell us to try harder to get more food.
But food back then was scarce enough that obesity wasn’t that much of a risk. Higher body fat levels still increase leptin levels, but it would be very hard for a prehistoric human to gather enough food to become obese.
I’m sure it happened every now and then, but I’m also sure it couldn’t have been that big a problem. It certainly wasn’t an obesity pandemic like it is today.
Our tastes and preferences evolved from those types of food that were beneficial to us in those times.
Our sweet tooth, for example, most likely evolved from the benefits of fruit. As we all know, fruit is sweet, and fruit is healthy. Those that liked the taste of the healthy food survived for longer, and therefore reproduced more, passing on their fruit-loving genes to the next generation.
On the flipside, many foods that were poisonous tasted bitter. Those of our ancestors that liked the taste of bitter ate more poisonous things, and therefore generally didn’t live as long, and didn’t get to spread their genes around that much.
So who’s the actual culprit here?
Culture. If you ask me, culture is one of the leading causes of the obesity pandemic.
Culture didn’t take into account that there was no upper limit to those preferences for sweet things.
Those preferences that kept us alive and healthy back in the day before written history? They were just built to basically keep stimulating us.
And the things we’re able to make today are far sweeter than those fruits must have been. So when you have to decide between an apple and a bag of winegums, you might be more likely to go for the winegums.
Why? Because all your brain is telling you is ‘sweeter = better’.
Your brain never developed an upper limit, because finding food back then was hard enough that that limit was virtually unattainable.
The same goes for savory and fatty. Fat is a great source of energy, especially a great source of energy the body can store for later use. No wonder our bodies evolved to kind of like fatty foods.
The most delicious food is often the unhealthy food
So, with all this in mind, it’s really no wonder that the foods we label as unhealthy are generally those that are either really sweet, really savory, and/or really greasy.
Nor is it any wonder that we have trouble choosing the healthier, less tasty alternative over the alluring unhealthy one. Our brains are compelling us to.
And, thanks to modern society, we have a lot of food available that is far too sweet, far too savory, and far too fatty.
The foodstuffs we have available are like supercharged versions of whatever we used to live with when our internal systems evolved. And so far, our brains haven’t really evolved to view those foods differently.
At the same time, a lot of those foodstuffs aren’t really filling either.
Filling foods are high in protein, fiber, and/or volume, and low in calories.
Protein increases your ghrelin levels.
Fiber provides bulk and increases digestion time, so you feel full for longer.
Foods that are high in water or air result in a more stuffed feeling too for obvious reasons.
You could eat two foods that are identical in weight, but your body won’t experience satiety in the same way. Though burgers and pizza’s might make us feel full in the short term, they don’t keep us satiated for long. Even though their calorie counts are through the roof. All they do is make the obesity pandemic worse.
Brains versus marketing
So it’s our brains that are telling us to choose the unhealthy foods.
Doesn’t that mean it’s still a matter of self-discipline whether or not you choose the healthy foods or the unheathy ones?
In a sense, yes.
But consider the real problem: the immense amount of effort the food industry puts into marketing all those unhealthy products.
The food industry sure is trying its hardest to break that discipline and get you to buy their products.
There’s a whole science behind advertising products in such a way that they seem nigh irresistible, with alluring pictures of fluffed-up products that look far better than the real deal, and packaging that’s so intense that it basically forces you to look at it.
And on top of that, they try their best to churn those products out as cheaply as possible.
Marketing is like the gateway to an obesity pandemic.
The role of poverty
A very telling example of how broken this system occurred when I was in the States for the holidays a few years back.
It was my first time visiting the US, a country that, to us, is known as the country of fast food and junk food.
When I went to the grocery store, my jaw dropped to the floor when I saw the prices on the products.
A single mango, admittedly an organic one, cost a whopping $9. There weren’t any other, cheaper mangos around.
A two-liter bottle of Pepsi, however, was just $0.99.
That means you could’ve gotten about 18 liters of Pepsi for the price of just one mango. Everywhere I looked, unhealthy food was far cheaper than healthy food.
It’s not surprising that poverty and obesity are closely linked. And with the recent recessions, the obesity pandemic is bound to get worse when poverty rates rise.
Because, aside from being able to afford it, if you’re slaving away at your job for over 60 hours a week just to be able to provide for your family, or maybe even just for yourself, do you really have the energy to put together a healthy meal?
Or would you go for convenience?
And how much money can and will you spend on healthy food if it’s so much more expensive and harder to put together than all that easy-to-prepare junk food?
It got even worse when I decided to go on the treadmill in my hotel’s gym.
There I was, trying to move more and burn some calories. And then the treadmill’s screen showed an ad for all-you-can-eat spareribs for a pittance.
Really guys? Are you really going to advertise not just unhealthy food, but cheap all-you-can-eat unhealthy food? While I’m on the treadmill?
Should we just blame the food industry for the obesity pandemic?
Not quite. There’s more at play here.
I obviously can’t speak for all of the world’s cultures. But at least in our Dutch culture, and a couple of other western cultures, food is directly linked to what we call ‘gezelligheid’, enjoyment in the company of others (the word doesn’t really translate easily). And here, we have easy access to a lot of food.
There’s a reason the obesity pandemic is a bigger problem in western cultures. You have some friends over, you put out some snacks, you get a drink. Those snacks usually don’t include apple wedges and slices of cucumber.
And then there’s another silent killer: the drinks.
Most regular beers have upwards of 100 kcal in a single bottle.
Consider this: adult women need around 1,600-2,400 kcal a day on average. Adult men require about 2,000-3,000 kcal a day.
That means one beer, just one single beer, is 4.2% to 6.3% of a woman’s daily allowance. And 3.3% to 5% of a man’s daily allowance. On a night out, drinking four beers to five can already be a quarter of your recommended daily calorie allowance.
An average American-style pizza can easily hold upwards of 1,000 kcal. So just your dinner can already be half your daily allowance.
And people are often aware of how much they eat, but very few people are aware of how many calories they consume by drinking beer, fruit juice, icetea, softdrinks etc.
When we have something to celebrate, our tendency is to have our merriment accompanied by unhealthy food.
Now, of course we don’t have something to celebrate every day, but it certainly creates the connection between a good time and good food.
And that, incidentally, also paves the way for the concept of comfort food.
Socially accepted comfort food
Of course it’s natural to grasp at anything that gives your body that much needed jolt of feel-good hormones when you’re feeling down. And food is an easy way to do that.
But in cultures like ours, we see food as something we can treat ourselves with. Something we normally shouldn’t have, but that we can give ourselves to make us feel better.
We feel like we’re entitled to that pizza after we’ve had a rough day. We feel we’ve deserved that delicious ice cream when going through a break-up.
It’s ingrained so deeply in our culture that food is the way to treat ourselves.
While, if you think about it, it doesn’t really make sense from a health perspective to go beyond your recommended daily allowance just to treat ourselves. Why do we make ourselves feel better by – to a certain extent – harming our bodies?
Would the obesity pandemic be as bad as it is now, if healthy food was the socially accepted comfort food? If we placed more emphasis on comforting yourself by taking good care of your health?
I’m happy to see that more and more people are learning that healthy food is important, that fruits and veggies are necessary for a healthy life, and that it can be delicious too.
I’ve seen an uptick in the number of parties I’ve been to that served raw veggies and dip instead of chips. Baby carrots with hummus, anyone?
Finding the right information
But then there’s another problem.
Proper information about healthy nutrition isn’t all that easy to find on the internet.
The internet is brimming with fad diets, fitness companies marketing their own supplements like unparallelled superfoods, and dozens of sources claiming dozens of different things.
Low-carb, or high-carb? Eschew refined carbs? No fat? High fat? Vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan? Intermittent fasting? Atkins? Paleo? Keto? Raw food? Macronutrients? Macrobiotic?
There are so many different approaches, and the truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to choosing a diet. Information on the internet gets confused because so many sources claim that their way is the best and only way, while in reality it differs from person to person. Especially when they claim their solution is a quick and easy fix, it’s probably just marketing.
Of course we all know: more exercise and lower caloric intake. That’s arguably the only weight loss solution that works for everyone.
But in a culture where healthy eating and living isn’t the standard norm yet, you have to do quite a bit of your own research to find out how to eat healthy.
If you’re not yet familiar with a healthy diet, unhealthy food is the more convenient option. It saves you the trouble of piecing together a diet and finding quick and healthy recipes.
It goes without saying that children of parents with an unhealthy lifestyle are more likely to adopt an unhealthy lifestyle themselves too. The obesity pandemic is passed on from generation to generation.
Whatever’s made normal by the parents is normal for the child.
And since taste is something that develops over time based on what you eat, these children probably never develop a taste for healthy foods.
Kids hating veggies
I grew up with the idea that kids just hated veggies. I thought that was normal, and that it was regardless of their parents’ lifestyle. There were so many jokes about it on tv, it was like common knowledge.
In my cultural context, if you’re young, all you want is fries and chips and sweets.
Getting kids to eat their veggies has been a recurring theme in pop culture, and therefore, in our discourse. I was actually laughed at as a kid because I really love Brussels sprouts.
I wasn’t cool enough, because I preferred Brussels sprouts over fries. And if your entire environment makes liking veggies into something wrong, you’re at a disadvantage when it comes to changing your lifestyle for the better.
It’s human nature that we want to belong, and it’s hard to go against the grain.
So choosing veggies when eating out with friends over a thick, juicy steak with fries is something that directly opposes what our brains want us to do: perform behavior that keeps us included and accepted by the group.
(I could open up a whole can of worms about social alcohol use too, but I’ll save that for later.)
So no, I wouldn’t say that it’s just the food industry.
It’s us, too. It’s our culture.
Though times are definitely changing, we do tend to look down on vegetables and hold junk food like pizza and fries and burgers and chips in high regard.
Society still generally agrees that junk food is something positive, even though we know that it’s unhealthy. We view it as something to desire, even though you shouldn’t. Something to look forward to.
We don’t see it as the detrimental food that it is. And seeing as we’re more or less wired to like those foods more, it’s not that strange.
We view people who put a lot of effort into eating healthy as strange, strangely.
But if we as a society could just decide that eating healthy is much cooler than eating unhealthy, I’m sure we can push those numbers down and start solving the obesity pandemic.
If we learn to take pride in eating healthy, instead of seeing it as a necessary evil we have to sit through while waiting for the next time we can sink our teeth in a nice, juicy steak, hopefully the generations to come won’t have to suffer under obesity’s yoke as much as ours does.
The vicious cycle of obesity
I talked about comfort food above. But the mental aspect of obesity goes beyond wanting to make yourself feel better by eating.
Obesity wrecks your self-esteem. That isn’t too strange, considering pop culture and society itself treat people with obesity.
Obese people are made fun of, laughed at, continually played as the unlovable ones in pop culture. It’s rife with fat-shaming, like sitcom characters having a laugh over a fat person doing anything that society deems fat people unsuited for.
But at the same time, eating feels good. Otherwise the human race would’ve gone extinct long ago. And when someone is mentally suffering from bullying and fat-shaming, eating is an easy coping mechanism. There’s a reason we have a term for ‘comfort food’.
Many overweight people who’ve had emotional (over)eating ingrained as their go-to coping mechanism are trapped between their own brain’s workings and the scorn and ridicule they have to suffer from society.
Many of them realize that emotional eating isn’t going to help if they want to lose weight. But when they already feel bad about themselves because of society’s opinions, denying themselves something that can make them feel better in the short term is nigh impossible.
So they eat, and it might make them feel better for a short while, but as soon as the food is gone, they feel terrible about themselves for eating.
They beat themselves up, which makes them feel even worse, which triggers the cycle once more. Drug addicts also often display this kind of self-destructive behavior.
The importance of self-love
A lot of it has to do with self-love.
Generally, people who exhibit self-destructive behavior score low on self-esteem and self-love.
Those that hate themselves don’t feel like they deserve to feel better, to get better, they don’t deserve the effort that it takes to break free of the cycle and lose weight. Instead of caring for themselves by eating healthy and moving more, they self-destruct.
It also has to do with a lack of healthy coping mechanisms. Which, in my eyes, is a failure of society. Just like the fact that self-love is extremely hard for overweight individuals is society’s fault as well.
We shouldn’t glorify obesity either, but we definitely need to stop ridiculing people with obesity and treating them as weak-willed laughing stocks.
Instead, while still acknowledging that their size might endanger their health, we should treat them as equals and accept them as they are.
It’s perfectly possible to both encourage people with obesity to lose weight and treat them as equal, love-deserving human beings at the same time. Accepting and loving someone as they are doesn’t mean there’s no need for change if your health is in danger.
We don’t encourage self-love and self-care enough. Instead of helping people with obesity, society tears them down and tells them they’re not good enough. How are we going to fight the obesity pandemic if we don’t take care of one another?
While there are still differences in people’s self-discipline, I don’t think it is at all fair to blame the rise in obesity rates on weak will alone.
The food industry is doing everything it can to capitalize on the way our brains and hormones work. These companies spend millions on trying to figure out how to best trick you into buying their product.
They research which colors to use, how to design their logos to be more appealing, how to make that hamburger look as appetizing as possible in their commercials.
They make their products dirt cheap, manipulate you into buying them, and overload our natural tase receptors so much that our brain almost forces us to go back and get more of it.
If someone pushes you over, is it your fault for not being strong enough to resist? Or is it that other person’s fault for pushing you over in the first place?
It might be possible to put together a healthy meal yourself for less money, but that would probably mean a lot more trouble and effort. And humans are easy: we pick the road of least resistance.
We have to change our culture too
The way we view and treat food in our culture is to blame as well.
We need to stop seeing unhealthy food as a desirable treat, to prevent people from overindulging on them.
We need to stop ridiculing and shaming overweight people into depression and self-destruction.
And we need to place more value on eating healthy, we need to put more effort into proper and accessible education on eating healthy.
If we let all these things continue as they are now, this obesity pandemic is going to be around for a while.
And with the number of deaths obesity causes every year, and the strain on our health care and our economies – not to mention people’s mental health – I’d say this is definitely a problem we need to tackle. Together.