Since the obesity and overweight epidemic began, there has been no shortage of articles written speculating as to why we are more overweight and sicker than any previous generation. There has been tens of millions of dollars spent trying to find the answer.
It’s a pressing questions, since more than two-thirds of the American population is now overweight, obese or extremely obese. Our youth, ages 2-19 have an overweight-obese rate of just over 50%. And with this (and the sedentary lifestyle that accompanies most overweight and obese people) comes a myriad of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, fatty liver disease, sleep apnea, and emotional issues such as depression. As we get older, just getting around from place to place can become a challenge as the chances of arthritis begin to increase from all the extra weight we lug around. We end up paying far more money than we normally would on doctor’s visits and medicines.
Being overweight or obese is an easy way to dramatically reduce quality of life.
With all of the studies we have produced and all the money spent on research, perhaps it is time to take a look at the very basics of how we gain and how we lose weight. We have all heard of a calorie. By definition, it approximates the energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 °C. What we need to know about calories is that it is the measure of food intake. 3,500 calories is one pound, 7,500 is one kilogram.
We gain weight when we consume more calories (energy) than we expend, and we lose weight when we expend more calories than we take in, and we maintain weight by keeping our consumption and expenditure even. We expend calories through our metabolism, activity and exercise. Keeping this in mind, here are a few facts that can help us size up how we have gotten to this regrettable point.
In the last three decades, the size of portions has increased by two to five times. “Unfortunately, waistlines have followed suit,” says Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, adjunct nutrition professor at New York University and author of The Portion Teller Plan (Three Rivers 2006).
When researchers at the University of North Carolina analyzed data from food surveys conducted in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the past decade, they concluded that the average daily energy intake of a U.S. citizen increased from 1,803 kilocalories (kcal) in 1977–78 to 2,374 kcal in 2003-06 (Duffey et al. 2011)—a rise of nearly 32%, and more than enough to contribute to our expanding collective girths.
Let’s go back to our basic math. If our daily consumption has increased by 572 calories per day and there are 365 days per year, that increases our yearly caloric intake by 208,780 calories more than our consumption 35-40 years ago.
Now let’s go back to our 3,500 calories per pound. We can gain almost 60 pounds per year (28 kilo) before taking calorie usage into account. Again, this is the basic mathematics of the situation. We eat more, we burn less, and this is the result.
For the most part, Young says, large quantities of cheap food have distorted our perceptions of what proper portions are supposed to look like. That is, our brains have become accustomed to large and oversized portions. “We also view a heaping serving of food as a bargain,” she adds. The overload is happening everywhere—in fast-food restaurants, fine-dining establishments, coffee shops and even cherished cookbooks.
In examining 18 recipes published in every edition of the iconic Joy of Cooking since it first appeared in 1936, Cornell University scientists found that average calories per serving have jumped 63% in the past 70 years (Wansink & Payne 2009). Changes in serving sizes were determined to be a leading factor behind the increases.
Making lifestyle changes in order to reduce caloric intake is definitely a daunting task. Where do you start? What are the changes that will yield the best results? Mathew Caddy, MS, RD, has developed 15-point plan for cutting our calories though portion-size reduction.
Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. certified personal trainer and a lifestyle fitness coach with over 17 years of professional experience. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It! He can be reached at (U.S. Line) 516-568-5027, 02-651-8502 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.