The Battle Against Obesity Features some Unreasonably Long Odds

The odds weigh heavily against us in the battle against obesity.

It’s no longer a mystery why so many of us – more than a third of Americans – are obese. A better question might be this: Why aren’t we all obese?

After all, our biology works against us: We’re hard-wired to like fat, sugar and salt. (Don’t even try and deny it.) And we’re surrounded by glorious gobs of it, which we can eat whenever we feel like it.


Combine that with the terrible conveniences of modern life. We’re sedentary for much of the day, glued to our office chairs, our cars, our sofas.

Even those virtuous few who hit the gym regularly aren’t spared. In our free time, we’re exercising about as much as we ever did. That’s not the problem. It’s at home, where we no longer have to scrub our undies by hand, or build a fire for a warm bath. It’s at work, where most of us are free from the duty of digging a ditch or detassling corn. Happily free. Not going back, thanks.

Together, biology and our environment make a formidable foe against our tools for combating obesity, like more sidewalks, brighter stairwells and restrictions on unhealthy food, says John Peters, chief strategy officer and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Health and Wellness Center.

“It’s Godzilla versus Bambi,” said Peters. “I saw that movie. It was short.”

Peters was speaking at an educational program on obesity at Anschutz Center on June 8-11, organized for 15 journalist fellows from around the country – including me – by the National Press Foundation.

Scientists from Anschutz and elsewhere presented evidence supporting the energy balance idea of why we’re fat – you know the one: energy in, energy out – and assessing some of the solutions available to offices, schools and restaurants.

Some of the findings are pretty depressing. It’s much easier to lose weight than it is to maintain that loss, for one thing. We learned from Dr. Daniel Bessesen, a CU professor of medicine, how chubby rats live on a trajectory to fatness that can be interrupted by diet restrictions or exercise, but which bounces back the minute the diet or exercise program ends. And it turns out the human body responds to weight loss by spending less energy, by changing its metabolism to promote weight regain, and by getting really, really hungry.

We learned from Bret Goodpaster, a researcher at the Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute in Orlando, about the Antarctica diet, the only diet in which you really can eat as much as you want and still lose significant weight. The catch? You’ll have to drag a sled to the South Pole. The pounds will drop off.

So where does that leave us? Pass the chips and I’ll tell you: The only mystery is that we aren’t all breaking 300.

There are, it turns out, some reasons we aren’t all obese (yet). Genetics play a part. Slim people have a better-regulated system of weight maintenance than obese people. And if you manage to keep the weight off to begin with, by exercising and controlling calorie intake, you face a much easier road than someone who has already accumulated the extra bulk.

The environments in which we live also have a strong role. Obesity clusters in zip codes and social networks, affected by things like poverty, employment, access to public transportation and healthy food, and social and cultural expectations.

We can’t do much about genetics, for now. But can local and national governments do something about the rest of it? What about offices and schools? And at home?

In Denver, an effort to improve walkability and public transportation has led to new bike paths, an extended light rail system and the construction of neighborhoods like Stapleton that are meant to encourage activity. But it’s unclear that it’s keeping people thin. The rate of obesity in Denver was 20.1 percent in 2011-2012, according to the Colorado Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, up significantly from 14.1 percent in 2003-2004.

In the office, standing desks, quick breaks for stretching and activity – described as strategic microbursts by Johnson & Johnson scientist Janet Nikolovski – and attractively-lit break rooms could help.

Strategic microbursts

Strategic microbursts

Peters and his colleague Jim Hill, executive director at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, are also consulting with companies to incorporate wellness goals not only into the workplace but also into employee evaluations. They compare it to office requirements that employees stick to a dress code. But they couldn’t yet point to results.

Similar concepts apply at school and at home, and we learned some good tricks from Brian Wansick, a marketing professor at Cornell University. Place fruit in a well-lit bowl near school kids or your husband, and they’re more likely to reach for it. Skinny people sit farther from the all-you-can-eat buffet than overweight people, and face away from the food. And we’re more susceptible than we think to yummy descriptions of awful food, so describe that quinoa as fluffy or toasty if you want your guests to eat it.

And if you’re already obese? Well, the silver lining there is that if you do manage to maintain a healthy weight, the scientific term for you is awesome. We met Charita Smith, who looked – excuse me – smokin’ hot after losing 150 pounds as a participant in the ABC reality show Extreme Weight Loss, which takes place at Anschutz in Season 4.

Smith, a Colorado Springs wife and mother of three, described her transformation as nothing less than spiritual – a change in lifestyle and attitude powered by her faith and her dedication to reaching her potential as a person and a mother.

Her progress was supervised by Dr. Holly Wyatt, a CU med school professor who along with Hill co-authored State of Slim: Fix Your Metabolism and Drop 20 Pounds in 8 Weeks on the Colorado Diet. Wyatt said Smith’s focus on the big-picture was no accident. She’s found that having a higher purpose – along with support and accountability – are key to doing the work that weight loss and maintenance require.

“There needs to be a life transformation,” Wyatt told us.

No problem, right? All you have to – hey, is that a Sweet Cow MooMobile? Excuse me, I have to go.

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