The Norman Transcript

December 28, 2013

Myths about obesity

By Deborah Cohen
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — The obesity epidemic is among the most critical health issues facing the United States. Although it has generated a lot of attention and calls for solutions, it also has served up a super-sized portion of myths and misunderstandings.

1. If you’re obese, you can blame your genes.

As obesity rates have soared, some researchers have focused on individuals’ genetic predisposition for gaining weight. Yet, between 1980 and 2000, the number of Americans who are obese has doubled — too quickly for genetic factors to be responsible.

So why do we eat more than we need? The simple answer: Because we can. At home and at restaurants, a dollar puts more calories on our plates than ever before. Before World War II, the average family spent as much as 25 percent of its total income on food — in 2011, it was 9.8 percent. And people eat out now more than in the past. In 1966, the average family spent 31 percent of its food budget dining away from home — in 2011, it was 49 percent. Because restaurant meals usually have more calories than what we prepare at home, people who eat out more frequently have higher rates of obesity than those who eat out less. Meanwhile, the food industry has developed tens of thousands of products with more calories per bite, as well as new, effective marketing strategies to encourage us to buy and consume more than necessary. We should blame these business practices, which are modifiable, for obesity rather than our genes, which are not.

2. If you’re obese, you lack self-control.

According to a 2006 study, “research on restrained eating has proven that in most circumstances dieting is not a feasible strategy.” In other words: People won’t lose weight by trying to eat less because they can’t easily control themselves. Unfortunately, this puritanical view of personal resolve plays down how our surroundings and mental state determine what we eat.

Research shows that if we are overwhelmed with too much information or preoccupied, we have a tendency to surrender to poor dietary choices. In one study, for example, people asked to choose a snack after memorizing a seven-digit number were 50 percent more likely to choose chocolate cake over fruit salad than those who had to memorize a two-digit number. When adults in another study were asked to sample a variety of foods after watching a television show with junk-food commercials, they ate more and spent a longer time eating than a similar group watching the same show without the junk-food ads. In the same study, children ate more goldfish crackers when watching junk-food commercials than those who saw non-food commercials.

Our world has become so rich in temptation that we can be led to consume too much in ways we can’t understand. Even the most vigilant may not be up to the task of controlling their impulses.

3. Lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables

The Obama administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative is meant to help low-income communities that lack access to fresh food. Although the Department of Agriculture estimates that fewer than 5 percent of Americans live in these “food deserts,” about 65 percent of the nation’s population is overweight or obese. For most of us, obesity is not related to access to more nutritious foods, but rather to the choices we make in convenience stores and supermarkets where junk-food marketing dominates. Since we are buying more calories than we need, eating healthfully could be made more affordable by eliminating unnecessary cheaper low nutrient foods and substituting higher quality foods that may be slightly more expensive.

Obesity is usually the consequence of eating too much junk food and consuming portions that are too large.

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