Are we looking at Obesity Science the wrong way?

As a heavily overweight person, I have an active interest in articles and opinions about obesity.

But, for the average person, in fact, probably for the trained person too, trying to work out what you should be doing to either lose weight or stay slim, is a complete fiasco.

The problem is that both politicians and some scientists are as prone to jump on a bandwagon as journalists and celebrities, and lucrative publishing deals make the problem worse.

So, what is the REAL science behind being fat like me?

The trouble is, there seems to be no one who is prepared to give a single answer; contradiction is the soup of the day and we are all drowning in it.

As a lay person who has personal experience of both gain and loss I would like to state two controversial ideas:

1. ALL diets work

2. ALL food can make you fat

Please note, I am not talking about being healthy here, just fat or thin.

Sometimes medical science forgets its origins. The human being is a storage device - it stores fuel which it needs to work. So, what I have discovered is really much more in the camp of the physicist:

Energy in minus Energy out = fat or thin

Now, I fully appreciate that the process of what actually occurs behind that fatuous statement is overwhelmingly complicated, but I have no wish to go and do 5 years at college just to lose weight. So I will stick to being dramatically over simplistic.

But in keeping it simple, a little truth pops up - if you eat too much QUANTITY, then your body will store more than is uses.

Now, that has some problems - different foods contain different amounts of energy and just looking at quantity is somewhat misleading. But, you know, as a rule of thumb it works.

I have tried lots of different diets with different balances of fats, carbs, proteins, water, you name it. And, if I stuck to them, they all worked.

The reason?

Because at the end of the day, ALL of them made you reduce the QUANTITY you ate.

Currently, I am on a new diet. It is called the "to hell with diet books, I will just eat less and avoid too many sugary foods."

So, I don't eat breakfast, I have a sarnie at lunchtime (ham, chutney and tomato or something?) and then in the evening I have a normal main meal, though I try to eat little or no potato, pasta or rice. I might throw in a slice of homemade bread. I am eating curry, stews, fried stuff, all kinds of things. I don't stick rigidly to anything except one very important rule:


And guess what? I have lost nearly 10 kilos in the last seven or eight weeks.

Okay, so on that basis, what about junk food?

Well, a Big Mac, no chips, is about 650 calories. Okay?

If I ate TWO per day, that would be around 1300 calories. (disgusting prospect, but some people like them)

If that was all that I ate, would I get fat?

No. Not sure I would be wonderfully healthy, but I would be okay and I would even lose weight.

The problem with junk food, you see, is not that it is some sneaky, fat producing machine, but that we eat it in ADDITION to our normal diet. If you ate junk food just as your main meal, unless you ate stupid amounts, it would not be a major issue. But if you have your normal dinner, then pop out for the evening and stuff a Big Mac into your face on the way home, then you are heading for problems.

Worse for a kebab (even a really decent one) and ram a big pasty in as a snack .... well, how idiotic can we be?

Well, very, apparently. Because we have decided that it is the EXISTENCE of junk food that is making everyone fat, rather than the pure quantity of what we eat.

Okay, leave junk food, what about eating at home?

We get that wrong too. Forget headlines about sugar and fats and whatever, but instead compare how MUCH we buy and eat (and waste) compared to 70 years ago.

I actually did not get fat on Junk food; I don't like it. I got fat on eating wonderful, healthy, beautifully cooked food. I am a seriously good cook. I got fat because I ate TOO MUCH!

The chicken that a supermarket sells you that will feed 4 people, fed 6 back in the 60s. In the sixties, our plates had large rims and our dinners sat in the middle bit. Now, our plates are bigger and we fill them to the edge.

Our food shop has gone up in price compared to then, which is mad. Because item for item, compared to salaries, most food is CHEAPER now. So why has our weekly shop gone up in price?


So, back to my question.

Are we looking at this entire subject the wrong way up? Are we being so obsessed with finding someone or something to blame and regulate against, that we are not looking at the blindingly obvious?

I believe we are.

The mediterranean diet is seen as healthy. But if you go out to the Med, there are plenty of fat, unhealthy people. Why? Because, those that eat sensible amounts are eating a wonderfully healthy diet. But those who eat three times as much as they should, are not three times as healthy! They are dying young of obesity.

So. Lets dump the politics and the books by doctors and achieve three things at the same time:

1. Reduce your weekly shopping bill

2. Reduce food waste

3. Reduce the amount we eat.

Is that really so politically difficult for governments and the book selling medics to get their heads around?

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17 Replies

  • It's interesting you seem to have reduced the foods that stimulate your appetite JossS. That seems to be a recognition of some of the complication you were fighting to avoid? The over-simplistic view is the one that has been broadcast for decades. It does not answer the question 'why' do people overeat?

    Whilst all diets may work in the short-term, to be effective in the long-term necessitates satiating appetite, which you're doing; well done!

  • It depends what you mean my stimulating my appetite. Most of the food I am eating is the food I enjoy most and probably am most likely to overindulge on.

    However, by making sure I only cook enough and not more than I need, even if I want more, it is just tough - the dish is now empty.

    However, at least I have eaten something I enjoy and am not craving because the lettuce leaf really didn't do it for me.

    The long term is a huge problem, but this comes back to my point about society suffering from quantity - we have become used to eating too much as a matter of not just habit but because most of us eat too much at some level or another. When we stop dieting, we go back to eating too much again, so of course we put on weight.

    I have to say, however, that I have no idea how you take 64 million people (sorry, better include most of the rest of Europe and the US too), 700 million people and get the entire lot to eat less.

    It makes you want to go hide somewhere, stick your fingers in your ears and whistle in desperation.

  • Best of luck with the new eating regime JossS - I hope you keep it up.

    I have struggled with losing weight - I found cutting out sugary drinks helped a great deal - I do think they are insidious things as they add to your total calorie consumption w/out you realising.

    Concerned - Why do people overeat? Because eating is pleasurable. Why has it been happening more in recent time? I think because calories have become more accessible - as a result of food being more calorie dense (I'm thinking fast food and fizzy drinks) but also because, at least in the developed world, most people can happily afford and get hold of, all the food they want/need.

  • There is some interesting science kicking around concerning addictiveness of overeating, which I think might help explain a lot.

    However, if being addicted to overeating proves to be true at some level for some, it won't however result in a solution.

    Unlike smoking, there will still remain the problem of not being able to give up entirely - we actually do need to eat! :)

  • Saw a program recently that said all our ills (weight-wise) are down to eating a combination of fat and carbohydrate. If you stick with just carb - spuds, pasta rice etc - your weight stabilises. If you go for fat or protein,, cheese, butter, meat, eggs, fish etc the same thing happens. This ties in with the thinking of the Atkins diet which took almost 3 stone off me. I made it more or less a way of life and now a few spuds or

    a sandwich are quite a treat. Who would want a jacket potato without a knob of butter? I never go more than 7lb over my preferred weight - once it hits that I clamp down hard.

  • Yes, I lost weight with a low carb approach (and put on weight coming off it). But I have also lost weight with a calorie counting approach and am currently losing weight with a not overeating anything approach.

    But the thing at the moment, I am not actively counting calories, carbs or anything else, I am just watching the overall quantity.

    This is also helps my current life where I have had to give up my allotment and have a lot of writing projects, so my exercise level is not going to be good for the next few months. I am taking that into account with how much I eat.

    Come spring, I will up my energy expenditure again. I will decide then whether I need to up my fuel or not.

  • It is actually very difficult for governments to sort out food issues. You sorted out your food issue by doing your own research on yourself.

    What you did most people do not want to do and large numbers of people seem incapable of doing.

  • Government make it worse by pandering to interested parties, like food retailers who would rather keep the status quo.

    That is not a great starting point for useful policy. Imagine the backlash from British Retail Consortium if the government said "buy less food"

  • Quite right JossS!

  • I do buy less food. It took me a long time to determine what the right food.

    I was speaking to someone last night. Who has a better weight than me. He has just been diagnosed with a B12 deficiency. Other than this his diet was quite good. He has taken remedial action, however this is always the potential problem. What is the right food to eat.

  • With B12 deficiency, often damage occurs before it is realised what the problem is. It is not uncommon for instance that the digestive system is affected, lacking intrinsic factor, and the person may need injections periodically for the rest of their life.

    Can you please clarify, since your opening statement here suggests you've found the 'right food', is your last statement/question rhetorical, or are you still wavering?

  • Have I found the right diet? I still have no idea. I get a variety of protein from various sources. I eat a variety of streamed vegetables. I supplement my diet with various bottled vitamins.

    It is nutritious. However, I have no idea if it contains all the vitamins and minerals I need.

    Penel below refers to a scientific American Article which gives indications of how complex the whole situation is.

    There is a theory which I like to think is true but may not be. If one is short of certain fatty acids or a amino acid needed to build certain valuable substances the body needs to function then the body will crave food. Ones hunger is not satiated until all the fatty acids or amino acid is obtained.

    This can result in obesity if one eats food rich in fats or carbohydrates but low in essential nutrients.

    The other thing I have found is that certain combinations of fat and sugar is very addictive. Eating food with this combination of fat and sugar will result in eating too much.

    I have learnt not to buy certain foods that instill addictive craving.

    I wish the issue of food was simpler than what it actually is.

  • Currently there are experiments underway in the US to determine whether eating too much or eating particular food will cause weight gain. They will take time to get results.

    This article from Scientific American explains the thinking behind it. If all calories are the same, then it shouldn't matter what you eat, and if you eat too much you will put on weight. Alternatively, if fat storage is regulated by the hormone insulin, then reducing those foods which cause insulin to be raised in the body could help with weight reduction.

    My own view is that we've had 40 years of bad advice to eat low fat, which has resulted in an increase in eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates, especially sugar. It's been a health disaster.

  • Thanks for the reference.

  • These two organisations have some useful resources and myth busting on diet:

    The British Nutrition Foundation:

    British Dietetics Association:

  • I have studied obesity as part of my nutrition course. Many people make the assumption that obese people must just not look after their health, over-indulge and eat too much, or not get enough exercise. Certainly these things do come into play, but obesity is much more complicated than that and there's other factors to consider also.

    For example, genetics, a persons mental well-being and any underlying depression, poor self-esteem, bullying, abuse and other issues from childhood etc which could lead to negative haviour cycles, ie comfort eating and less active lifestyle choices.

    Some obese people have very slow metabolic rates and can't burn up calories very easily so need to take a lot more care over their diet and probably need support with that and making proper diet choices. Look at those individuals who seem to be able to eat anything but never put any weight on (I'm one of those types myself). Obesity can be like the reverse. No matter how hard you try, you do all the right things, yet you seem to put on weight very quickly and easily and it's harder to lose it. Genetics, body type and metabolic rate have to be considered.

    Some of the approaches to morbid obesity can be quite severe, stapling stomachs etc if it becomes life-threatening. I have a neighbour who reached that stage. Just walking up a single flight of stairs was a major undertaking for her and left her breathless, gasping for breath. The amount of weight she was carrying around must have been like me carrying another person on my back as she was more than twice my weight and I'm a man. The stress that places on her body and heart must be terrible. It's a serious disease and the best thing to do is tackle it at the early stages in childhood, rather than wait until its too advanced in adulthood. Once you get to that stage, life expectancy is reduced dramatically. This neighbour I mention, she was only in her 20's yet not expected to reach mid 30's to 40 if she continued as she was.

    I think we need to do more research into obesity and why some people struggle with their weight, and how we can help them. It does cost the NHS and State a lot of money after all caring for obese people as they often can't work.

  • Thanks for that, I believe that is all seriously great advice and one that I have followed for the last 5 years. I would like to add one thing the dreaded excercise. Now let me quailfy for those who are now quivering at the thought of sweating it for a couple of hours in the gym three times a week. Because of the gutter press and TV shows that are deailing with 'real issues', that concept put me off for 20 odd years. So as I was not working at the time I thought what if a walk a bit every day. I started doing 10 or 15 minutes of brisk walking (it was winter) and when I got back and realised how out of breath it had got me, I realised I had a serious problem. it was going to be hard to do the recommended 30 minutes 5 times a week. Wrong! Sure the first few months where hard, I had given up smoking heavilly about 5 years previously and had some hardening of the arteries, I was 15 stone/95kg with sky high bp and my doctor was giving me end of life estimates. I stuck at it and as the weather improved and I began to breath better (I am asthmatic too) I started increasing the distances and began to look forwards to the daily walk. I was soon doing 2-3 sessions, 7 days a week, yeah extreme I know, but with almost no real effort.

    Then I started at the gym 2 hours a week and concentrated on my upper body using rowing machine and elliptical trainer. After a year I managed to row 20km in two hours. I figured walking outdoors is free and more exhilerating so I did more. Suddenly my pants where slipping down. I was being weighed monthly anway and this weight loss continued. I realised something important. I could not excercise while overweight as my metabolism was all wrong, the fitter I got the better my metabolism got. Also I discovered a gem! There is (for me) a three month delay between excercicing and the weight loss actually showing up on the scales! Eureka! That is why people fall off diets and excercise! My BP started to go down and I had lost a stone! I picked up the pace of my walking to the horror of my mate who is a seasoned rambler 'No stay to 2mph', he said. I told him I am not looking to ramble the peak district, I am looking to get fit and lose weight, 'well you are certainly succeeding in that I can tell', he said. I lost over 2 stone/15kg. Sure it has been a up and down half a stone, but the bulk of it has stayed off.

    My sister did the weight watchers thing and it lasted a year and made her depressed. I had depression when I started and it helped me to control it. I now walk 2-4 times a week up to 10 miles. I love it, I look forwards to it and my friends are jealous of how much progress I have made. By the way I am also 56 and diabetic. Please try it and what JossS wrote, its much better to do a little regularly than to do nothing, doctors are often impressed by my story because I stuck to what worked for me personally, you can find something that works for you too.

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