As we leave Thanksgiving behind and move into phase two of the holiday season, we should try to do so without that extra serving of guilt that sometimes comes during this holiday so aligned – if we are fortunate enough – with friends, family, football and food; lots of food. According to the Calorie Control Council, it's estimated that the average American could have consumed as many as 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving Day. But we should try not to think about that. Thinking about it may bring on stress and the stress brought on by weight anxiety is a predictor of later binge eating.
And dieting? It also can act as a precursor to stress. According to neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt, author of "Why Diets Make Us Fat: The Unintended Consequences of Our Obsession With Weight Loss," in addition to binge eating, calorie restriction produces stress hormones which act on fat cells to increase our amount of abdominal fat. It is her belief that based on current science, dieting is rarely effective in the long run in reliably improving health and shedding pounds. This conclusion is consistent with the findings published in the November issue of the science journal Nature. According to the study, as many as 95 percent of people who lose at least a tenth of their body weight gain it back within a year, along with a little extra weight.
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"People go on diets over and over again – and keep failing," says Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and an author of the study. "It's a very common problem."
In another recent high-profile study of participants in the TV series "The Biggest Loser," six years after dropping an average of 129 pounds at season end, the participants had regained 70 percent of their lost weight. The root of the problem according to Aamodt is not willpower. Metabolic suppression is at play here. It is one of several powerful tools that the brain uses to keep the body within a certain weight range; what is known as your "set point." It varies from person to person and is determined by genes and life experience. The problem is that far too often your brain's idea of the set point for the right weight for you does not at all align with what your doctor, dietitian or trainer prescribe. And when we drop below our brain's set point, it declares a state of emergency using every method available to get the weight back up to what it senses as normal.
Take these predispositions and put them into our modern world flooded with powerful marketing cues and manufactured bliss points to make us eat more; where calories are cheap, plentiful and everywhere; where the rate of fast food consumption hasn't slowed in more than 15 years and where 20 percent of all American meals are eaten in the car. It's enough to wear down even the most resolute of dieters. And when dieters who have long ignored their hunger finally exhaust their willpower, they will tend to overeat and gain weight.
Yet despite scientific evidence to the contrary, the vast majority of people still tend to view weight gain as a moral issue; believing our minds can control our metabolism. We continue to stigmatize the obese, ascribing attributes of laziness or lack of willpower to their situation while science has identified hundreds of genes that can predispose someone to obesity in an environment where food is cheap and portions are abundant.
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For decades now, scientists have attempted to develop a drug that could flip the appetite switch, but to no avail. Scientists today know surprisingly little about how to short-circuit the internal mechanism that drives us to gain or maintain weight. While obesity affects one-third of all Americans today and is an international epidemic, there exists no single drug that's effective against it. Up to 50 percent of obese people relapse when trying to lose significant weight and the relapsing pattern is admittedly poorly understood. In the long run, our hormones win.
Aamodt also points out that our view of obesity in itself as being most deadly is somewhat misleading. She cites low fitness, smoking, high blood pressure, low income and loneliness all as better predictors of early death than obesity. Exercise is the key differential. Data from a 2009 study showed that low fitness is responsible for 16 percent to 17 percent of deaths in the United States. Obesity accounts for only 2 percent to 3 percent, once fitness is factored out. Exercise can reduce abdominal fat and improves health, even without weight loss. Obese people who exercise, eat enough vegetables and don't smoke are no more likely to die young than normal-weight people with the same habits, she adds.
So as we move forward into the holiday season, here are a few words of advice: Try your best to eat natural and dispense with food guilt. By this I mean seek out fruits, nuts, whole grains and vegetables. And try to redirect the energy you might use on dieting and the stress it can bring on toward daily exercise; like a nice long walk with friends and family.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.