Reality television routinely showcases people with outrageous food cravings and uncontrollable obsessions — it’s our new voyeuristic entertainment. Meanwhile, diet propaganda shockingly encourages young women to starve themselves while other venues promote guzzling beer and inhaling pizza as a man’s rite of passage.
As a species, the human race is getting fatter. Obesity rates increased 214 percent between 1950 and 2000. Two out of every 3 people in the U.S. were obese or overweight in 2010. Not surprisingly, bookstore shelves are lined with new diet books daily. How did we arrive at this point, and what diets have been the most persuasive on our culture? What can we learn from the missteps — and smart moves — of the past?
The ’80s Journey, Depeche Mode, Back to the Future, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Full House. Ah, the ’80s, notorious for many things — including the turning point for our waistlines. It was the perfect storm, personal computers became mainstream, Nintendo ushered in the golden age of gaming with the NES, and the original Star Wars trilogy was completed. What further reasons did we need to sit and stare at a screen? Meanwhile, the food industry ramped up the packaged snack selections. Obesity began reaching epidemic proportions, and the need for an honest solution to the problem became obvious.
To cater to the demand for less fattening foods, manufacturers began making everything “reduced fat” or “fat free.” This was in response to the philosophy that fats made you fat. Since fats are the most calorie dense macronutrients, their reduction became a common way of cutting calories.
The concept of restricting the food we eat has been around since humans have had a desire for slenderness, but the low-calorie trend began to really pick up steam in the ’80s. These diets used different methods to get their participants to eat fewer calories: Some promoted pre-made, calorie-controlled meals; others implemented low-calorie snacks aimed at reducing appetite. Most promoted restriction of all types of fats.
What we got right in the ’80s: Reduced calorie diets result in weight loss when caloric intake is sufficiently lower then what the participant is accustomed to. In other words, if the participant typically eats 2,500 calories per day and the diet reduces them to 1,600, the dieter will lose weight, at least for a little while. However, if the dieter is already used to eating only 1,600 calories, reducing it marginally further to 1,400 calories will only result in minor weight loss — if any.
Where we went wrong: Low-calorie diets are based on a false premise that a person’s metabolic rate, or number of calories they require, is fixed. In reality, the primary function of our metabolism is to keep us in stasis (status quo), or to adapt to our nutritional environment. This means if we eat less, our metabolism will gradually re-adjust to run slower, negating marginal reductions to our caloric intake. This is known as the “survival mechanic.” If a person burned a set, unchanging number of calories based on genetics, even a small reduction in calories would result in unending weight loss. We know, of course, that this simply isn’t so; we hit plateaus and stop losing sooner than we’d like. Despite the fact that our bodies try to thwart our best efforts, fat and caloric restriction remain a principle method of battling the effects of overfeeding ourselves in America.
The ’90s: Sheryl Crow, Green Day, Jurassic Park, PlayStation, Friends, and the Internet forever changed the landscape of our lives. Welcome to the ’90s, also the era when we decided all carbohydrates were to be drug out back and shot. After years of chowing down on every cookie, cracker, and crust that manufacturers slapped a “low-fat” label on, we decided we’d had enough. Fats were in, carbs were out, and we quit caring about calories. Low-carb diets all revolve around the single theme of cutting — you guessed it — carbs.
More aggressive variations on this theme actually promote entering a state called ketosis. Ketosis is triggered by fasting, starvation, intense exercise, and yes, low-carbohydrate diets. Reducing carbs too much can leave you with mental fogginess and even cause irritability. In the absence of carbohydrates our bodies are forced to use alternative metabolic pathways to produce glycogen. The flip side is it can lead to greater metabolizing of fats.
What we got right in the ’90s: In many ways, your body views fat (lipids) as a second -ate energy source and needs a little encouragement to use them. Fats are your body’s preferred fuel source for sustained low energy output activities. But by the 90’s these activities (the foremost being walking and manual chores) had been replaced with power steering and remote controls. Cutting carbohydrates was a means of tricking your body into using more fat for fuel during a greater variety of activities. If you don’t have enough sugars (glycogen) available, well then, I suppose you can burn a little more fat. It’s this encouragement of using fats for fuel that’s earned low carbohydrate diets their iconic status in weight loss history.
Where we went wrong: While cutting carbohydrates did indeed lead to increased fat burning, being over aggressive also led to the depletion of fuels necessary for intense activity making exercise, a key ingredient in long term weight loss, difficult. Furthermore, going for bouts with little to no carbohydrates leaves the body in a “carb sensitive” state. This environment isn’t dissimilar to that of athletes preparing to carb load before a race. By reducing their carb intake the body readies itself to store additional rations when they become available. I teach my clients that there is a difference between the carb cost and the calorie cost of a cheat. When it’s carbs you’ve been cutting the cost is much higher; a couple dinner rolls and a glass of wine can easily result in waking up to 2-3 pounds of extra you in the morning even though they only amounted to a few hundred calories.
Dieting since 2000 and beyond: Eminem, Black eyed Peas, iPhones, The Office, and Mark Zuckerberg changing the way we connect with people. Today as technology marches ever forward, the trend in nutrition is going backward to our beginnings. What we have is a melting pot of diets under the broad theme of “eating natural”. Among their ranks are; raw food diets, paleo and gluten free, vegetarian and vegan, and organic food plans. They each promote a chemical free, minimally processed approach to eating, but the similarities end there. Many of their proponents are at each other’s throats vying for the label of “the human’s natural diet”.
Any such claims are hard to make stick since humans have populated nearly every inch of the globe with nutritional variances as diverse as the climates and terrain these cultures were born out of. Arctic settlers and coastal cultures have thrived off food from the sea, including organ meats and even whale blubber. Jungle tribes and tropical civilizations have flourished eating a mostly plant based diet. Farming cultures have been among the most enduring consuming a mixture of grains and animal products. Some of these diets conflict philosophically over what humans were originally designed to eat, but they wholeheartedly agree that processed foods laced with high-fructose corn syrup, MSG, and artificial sweeteners aren’t it.
What we’re doing right: We’re no longer in denial about the effects greasy–fried foods have on our bodies. And we know we probably can’t get away with snacking on sweets and crackers every night. More recently we’ve learned to shop the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid foods laced with harmful ingredients. Overall we’re trying to eat foods more like our grandparents did.
Where we’re still going wrong: We’re still overweight and filling hospital rooms with people suffering from preventable disease. With improved lifestyle and nutrition many of our country’s ills would fade away. Why are we not acting? What is the missing ingredient that will solve our problems? The answer may surprise you: based on what I see in my clients, I think the answer is time. Most people cite “not enough time” as the reason behind their poor eating habits. Our technology-driven society rewards those who move fast, multitask, and rush. In the future I believe the most effective nutrition plans will place emphasis on practical strategies, simple food prep, and offer its patrons compelling evidence that investing the time in procuring healthy foods is a worthwhile investment.