Sunday, November 9, 2008

Weightloss, Genes and Fate

Millions of Americans are "on a diet" and trying to lose weight. It's a national, never-ending obsession. It's a cliché that diets rarely work, and that weight loss rarely lasts.

But excess weight is only the most obvious and visible symptom of an unhealthy, unbalanced lifestyle. Diets treat the symptoms, not the root causes. Dieting to lose weight is like taking pain killers for a broken leg. Yes, pain may be the most visible symptom, but the leg won't heal unless it's set properly in a cast. If you take pain killers only, you'll suppress some symptoms now, but the pain will return even worse than before because the root cause has not been dealt with. Likewise, if you lose weight without embracing a healthy diet and exercise, the weight will probably come back.

About one third of all Americans between the ages of 20 and 74 are technically obese, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And another third are overweight but not obese. That means a solid majority -- two-thirds -- are overweight.

What is less understood, or at least underappreciated, is that most overweight people are undernourished. Our industrialized modern diet provides far too many calories and far too few vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants than people need for good health.

The combination of toxic foods and non-foods, excess, low-quality fats, plus malnutrition, leads to at least two outcomes that further promote weight gain and weaken our muscles, organs and immune systems. First, our bodies are designed to seek out nutrition when they're not getting enough. So if you starve yourself of nutrients, your body triggers an intense hunger reflex. People who eat a standard diet often experience overwhelming feelings of hunger, which leads to overeating. Second, cheap, fast, convenient, high-sugar and high-fat food not only overloads the body with thousands of excess calories, which turn into body fat but it also has a negative impact on the metabolism and immune system, which promote further weight gain and sickness.

Of course, there are many other reasons for excess weight, including obvious ones, such a lack of exercise, as well as less obvious ones like insufficient sleep or sunshine.

Adding to confusion is the role of genes in excess weight. It's true that some people eat very little and exercise a lot, and can seem to never shed their excess weight. Other people pig out on junk food and stay slim.

But genes are not fate. Not entirely. In fact, just about every lifestyle related illness or physical problem has a genetic basis. Even smoking, alcoholism and reckless driving! We offer these examples to make a point. No matter how much your genes prompt you to seek out addictive substances like smoking or alcohol or take risks while driving, you won't suffer the consequences if you don't smoke, drink or drive poorly.

We all have unique genes that expose us to or protect us from an unimaginable range of problems, diseases, disorders, inclinations and more. But we're human. We have free will. We have the capacity to choose, and to learn and to grow. We can develop the knowledge, skills and habits for maximum good health.