When it comes to obesity, it’s easy to get simplistic. People get fat because of “too many calories”? Yes, but calories of what, exactly? A calorie is nothing but a unit of measurement – like a gallon or an inch or a pound. And it’s coming clearer than ever that our bodies respond differently to calories from different sources.
Or to put it another way, as Dr. Mark Hyman did in a fantastic HuffPo column: Show a class of sixth graders 1000 calories of broccoli and 1000 calories of soda, then “ask them if they have the same effect on our bodies.”
Their unanimous response will be “NO!” We all intuitively know that equal caloric amounts of soda and broccoli can’t be the same nutritionally. But as Mark Twain said, “The problem with common sense is that it is not too common.”
Focusing solely on calories also conveniently ignores other factors that can contribute to obesity: chronic stress, medication “side effects,” and endocrine disrupting chemicals such as BPA (sometimes referred to as “obesogens”).
Body mass index is another simplification that can lead us astray. A simple calculation of weight divided by the square of a person’s height, BMI is a wildly inaccurate – and somewhat arbitrary – measure. If we judge by BMI, Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is overweight (28.6), while defensive end Jared Crick is obese (34.7). Even after dropping some weight, right guard Brandon Brooks is still on the edge of morbid obesity (39.7).
“Weight” is a simplification, too. Sure, a scale can tell you how many total pounds you weigh, but it doesn’t tell you how many of those pounds are fat – or muscle or water or anything else.
As the case with pro athletes shows, BMI is hardly a measure of fitness or health – as a huge study last year in JAMA likewise suggested. It’s authors found – to the surprise of many – that mild obesity did not, in fact, shorten life-span. More, they found that overweight people were slightly less likely to die of any cause than those in the “normal” range.
Fat alone is clearly not the issue, and a study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Medicine bears this out. Evaluating all-cause mortality data from more than 3500 older adults in the large health and nutritional assessment called NHANES III, the researchers found that those with the least muscle mass had a 20% higher death rate than those with the most muscle mass.
Muscle, not fat, was the difference-maker.
The answer isn’t necessarily “lose weight;” it’s build muscle. (Building muscle, in turn, helps you lose excess fat.)
And your friends here, as ever, are exercise and diet. (Some things are, in fact, simple.) It’s not that you need to go out lifting weights and doing heavy exercise all the time, aiming to bulk yourself out. Especially if you work a desk job, start finding ways to work more physical activity into your day. (You’ll find some excellent tips here.) Whether walking or doing yoga or Zumba or cycling or swimming whatever, find physical activities you love and make time for them on a regular basis.
Diet-wise, increasing your protein intake can help – in conjunction with eating plenty of fresh produce and little or no hyper-processed food. This doesn’t necessarily mean eating more meat. There are excellent vegan sources of protein – and not just from soy – that you can turn to: legumes, quinoa, seitan, chia, nuts and nut butters, leafy greens. If you do choose to incorporate soy in your diet, opt for organic only, to avoid GMOs.
Image by Emily, via Flickr