We Americans like simple answers to complex problems. When it comes to obesity, we are bombarded with lots of reasons for it. There are so many that it’s overwhelming for the average person to get his or her arms around the issue and mount an effective counter campaign.
As generals know, it’s difficult to fight a war on more than one front. Yet we are told that we have to exercise, cut the fat content of our diets, reduce sugar intake, be tested for faulty “fat” genes, take drugs to control appetite, stop eating goodies to soothe emotional pain, stop eating in excess as a coping mechanism for stress, stop automatic eating in front of the TV . . . the list goes on.
Too much information
Although many of those factors likely are operating at any one time, contributing to obesity, it’s best to pick just one and concentrate on it. Then, when that one is conquered, go to the next. So what is the best one to choose as a starting point?
The more I’ve thought about this, the more it makes sense to determine which factor has changed the most in the past 30 years – a time when we have emerged not only as the fattest nation the world has ever seen, but we are continually getting fatter, and we are getting fatter faster.
Those who know me as an advocate for exercise probably assume I’d point to our sedentary lifestyle as the key factor in rising obesity. It’s important, but I doubt that we are substantially less active than we were three decades ago.
What about high-fat foods? Those who still embrace the Atkins diet and all the foolishness surrounding it no doubt expect me to point a finger there. Nope. As ridiculous as advocating eating chunks of cheese wrapped in bacon is, we are not consuming substantially more fat today.
Bulk from beverages
We are consuming lots more calories each day compared with 30 years ago, and this is the culprit. Where do these extra calories come from? Mostly from the beverages we drink.
In the past 30 years, soft drinks have added, on average, 130 extra calories per day to our diet. Alcoholic beverages, mostly wine and beer, add 100 extra calories per day.
Adding just 100 extra calories per day would total 36,500 in one year, contributing to an addition of 10 pounds of body fat.
Beverages are a special dietary challenge because they don’t contribute to a feeling of fullness when consumed. You would notice adding a huge baked potato to your lunch on top of whatever else you normally might eat. You’d be stuffed and might not be able to finish it.
But if you took in the same number of calories in the form of a big soft drink, or glasses of wine or beer, you wouldn’t notice. Soft drinks also are consumed conveniently all day long, on the job, and even while driving.
A famous quote by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin is “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
Putting this into contemporary terms, it would be appropriate to say “Tell me what you drink, and I will tell you what you are.”
If you drink a lot of soft drinks and/or alcoholic beverages on a daily basis, the answer to who you are is likely to be – “a fat person.”
and tooth decay
Soft drinks are especially problematic because they represent hollow calories – no nutrients that help the body. What’s more, the sugar they contain is a prime factor in rotting your teeth.
Red wine, at least, contains helpful antioxidants.
But other than that, as with soft drinks, it’s best to view alcoholic beverages as high sugar drinks that add tons of hollow calories to your daily intake and that, like soft drinks, need to be rationed.
So, step one in the battle of the bulge is to police what you drink.
If you are a high consumer of sugary beverages, cut back for one year and you will be amazed and delighted at the results.
Bryant Stamford is professor and chairman of the department of exercise science at Hanover (Ind.) College. Address questions or suggestions to “The Body Shop,” The Courier-Journal, P.O. Box 740031, Louisville, KY 40201-7431