All across America millions of people struggle with their weight. Weight loss fads come and go, and the fitness industry is a multi-billion dollar operation, yet for all the time, effort, and money expended things continue to get worse. Here is a telling quote from the CDC (Center for Disease Control):
“Since the mid-seventies, the prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased sharply for both adults and children. Data from two NHANES surveys show that among adults aged 20–74 years the prevalence of obesity increased from 15.0% (in the 1976–1980 survey) to 32.9% (in the 2003–2004 survey).”
It can’t be just a matter of desire, it seems like at least half the people I know are on a diet of some kind and actively trying to lose weight. On the surface it seems simple, just eat right and exercise, yet according to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) the standard program of reduced calories and increased physical activity fails over the long term in more than 98% of all cases. Some would say this just represents a lack of willpower, but for me, with an engineering background, it looks a bit different. If one person is having a problem it’s probably their fault, when everyone is having trouble, something is wrong with the system.
So what’s wrong? As usual, with something of this magnitude, there is more than one cause. Here are some of the things conspiring against us:
1) Contamination of the food supply – No, I’m not talking about pesticides, hormones, or the process of feeding dead animals back to the live ones in a stock yard. (though that does happen) I’m talking about sugar, especially high fructose corn syrup. Sugar is cheap, and it’s an easy way to make a product taste better, often without the customer even noticing. It’s not just in the chocolate covered donuts either, nowadays you’ll find it in a huge proportion of the products on display at the grocery store, from beef jerky to spaghetti sauce, and even garlic salt. Everyone knows you shouldn’t eat a ton of sugar, but very few people realize how much they’re already consuming.
2) Automation – In the US at least, and in many other places as well, it’s possible to get a machine to do almost anything you might normally do by hand. We have machines that wash our dishes, drive us around, open our cans, and let us change the channel without getting off the couch. Ah, the joys of modern civilization. Of course, the downside is that we now get very little physical activity at work or at home. Sit in the office, sit in your car, sit in front of the TV, sit at the computer, it seems like almost everything is done sitting nowadays. I even see some people sitting on those little go carts while doing their grocery shopping, and not because they’re war veterans with a missing leg either.
3) Food surplus – Thanks to technology, there is more food produced every year, in fact we produce more than enough for everyone. Of course our social system doesn’t seem to be up to distributing it properly, so millions still starve to death in third world countries. In the first world though, and most of the second, if you’re gainfully employed starvation is not much of an issue, and even deprivation isn’t very likely, in fact superabundance probably more accurately describes the situation.
The human body is adapted for an environment of hard physical labor and nutritional shortages, it does an amazing job of keeping you from starving to death under the most adverse conditions imaginable. Presented with continual food surplus, and very little in the way of required effort and it doesn’t cope quite so well.
So what do we do about it? It’s all well and good to complain about the problems of the world, but I’ve always felt that if you’re going to complain, you better have a suggestion on how to make things better. I believe that the main issue is that the problem is being approached from the wrong angle. I’m an engineering kind of guy, I’m used to solving problems, it’s what I do. There is an old saying “If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” Maybe so, but in this case I feel that approaching the problem from an engineering point of view really allows us to attack the problem more effectively. In some upcoming articles I’m going to talk about how to do that, hopefully without making your eyes glaze over. Stick around, and we’ll fill your toolbox with everything you need to succeed.