Weight of the Nation: Controversy, Confusion and Conflation

In yesterday morning's post I posed a single question; does anybody care about the "obesity epidemic" highlighted in HBO's Weight of the Nation documentary.

By last night, I was answering nearly a dozen replies to a post that I considered to be merely a fishing expedition.  The majority of commenters were people who really did care - those that have been labeled "overweight" or "obese" and battle the stigma that comes attached to those convenient monikers.  You can read the comment string here.

This is a multifaceted issue and it impacts millions of individuals in a very personal way.  HBO's 4-part series seemed more of an affront to my readers than the "ah hah" moment I perceived it to be for the general public.

I was actually hoping for the documentary to be an indictment of our food system.  Instead, it was perceived by many to be just another fear-mongering attempt to marginalize the "fatties" (not my word, mind you).

Was the importance of this film series lost by placing too much emphasis on the symptom and not enough on the root cause?

That seemed to be the consensus of my commenters.  They perceived fat people were being blamed for the consequences of fat storage.  I never saw it this way.  I've only seen excess stored body fat as a marker for metabolic syndrome.  Since my post-heart attack recovery research, I have viewed it as a visible indicator of an elevated risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

When the debate moves away from science, statistics, and statements from health experts, the message gets lost.  It's no longer "poor food choices contribute to metabolic syndrome and obesity."  The message is easily conflated as "obesity contributes to metabolic syndrome."

Food - the cause - gets a pass while body fat - the effect - gets the blame.

Suddenly the victims (and I use this term very cautiously, so please note the context) of poor food choices are the culprits and society becomes the victim of their collectively irresponsible behavior.  Blame gets transferred onto the victim while the real perpetrator smiles and walks away.

Let me be clear on the word "victim."  In and of itself it should not imply witting or unwitting.  It is defined as "a person who suffers from a destructive or injurious action or agency."  In this case,  food is the destructive or injurious agency.

Consuming the wrong food spikes blood sugar, alters insulin production, suppresses satiety, elevates triglycerides, causes inflammation, increases cholesterol production, and ends up as stored body fat.  Stored body fat is as much a byproduct of the metabolic process as any of the other factors.  Excess body fat doesn't cause heart disease or diabetes - it is caused by the same metabolic function that causes heart disease and diabetes.

Excess stored body fat becomes a visible marker that there may have been problems with the metabolic process in the past and the risk for developing metabolic syndrome is now elevated because of it.

Excess stored body fat is a risk factor, just like family history was a risk factor for my own heart disease.  The only difference was that my family history was not visible in my physical appearance.

Had I taken my family history seriously as a risk factor, I might have requested a periodic lipid profile and C-Reactive Protein screening.  These tests could have led to other tests to pinpoint plaque buildup and a course of treatment that could have prevented my heart attack.

My heart attack - which I was fortunate enough to survive - altered my life and forced me to look at my food choices.  What caused the inflammation that led to the plaque buildup which ultimately cracked, causing the blockage that triggered the attack?  My research led me back to one dietary substance; high fructose corn syrup.

High fructose corn syrup is pervasive - it's in everything!  It's not just added to sweetened beverages and sugary snacks - it's added to salty snacks and "healthy" foods labeled low fat and low sodium.  It's added because it tastes sweeter than sugar and it causes your brain to crave more.

HFCS suppresses the hormone that registers satiety with the brain, so you do eat more.  It has been linked to inflammation.  It elevates triglycerides and blood sugar.  It alters insulin production.  It gets stored as body fat.

While all of these effects are caused by fructose found in table sugar and fruit, HFCS has a different metabolic breakdown.  Because it's cheap, it's added to everything to make us eat more.  It's the major contributing factor to why Americans consume 600 calories more per day on average today than they did in 1980.  I have an entire post about it here.

The HBO documentary does much to identify all the contributing factors - communities that are not walkable or bike-friendly, food deserts, more sedentary lifestyles, greater stress, less time to prepare meals, abundance of convenience food, etc - but does little to highlight the food industry's culpability in this health crisis.  Still, there is sufficient statistical information and medical science presented to make this a must-watch for all Americans.

There is a strong correlation between the addition of high fructose corn syrup to the standard American diet in the early '80s and the increase in metabolic syndrome and obesity.  Our bodies are victims of this man-made substance, whether the Corn Refiners Association or the big food companies want to concede this correlation or not.

Whether any one of us carries a few extra pounds or not, we are all at risk for the consequences of bad food choices.  If someone already has the added body fat to show for it, statistically, that person is at a greater risk.  That doesn't mean the thin person isn't at risk or that the overweight person definitely has metabolic syndrome - it just means the odds are greater.

Life is short.  I learned the hard way that you can't take anything for granted.  Fitness and health shouldn't be conflated.  We all need to know our individual risk factors.  We owe it to our loved ones to make sure we're taking all of our risks - visible and invisible - seriously.

And lest I forget - bicycling is a great way to exercise and relieve stress.  It can even help you eat better when you ride it past Mc Donalds and stop at the local farmer's market instead...


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    I think the people who took it that way did not watch the video. Many in the comments admitted as much saying "I watched the trailer, that was enough". Hell I was obese for years, and I was not insulted at all. They went into how horrible shows like Biggest Loser are among other things. They even talked about the diet industry and how huge it is and how they make money, which is NOT by giving people good long-term advice. Which is ironic because people in the comments complained that the whole show was funded by the diet industry, when in fact it took the industry on.

    But I agree they did not really go into the food industry much, except for pop/soda and juice, saying to just stay the hell away from it. But yes it would be nice.

    But HFCS is in a lot of other food. In a Princeton study 2 years ago they showed how rats who drank HFCS ended up far worse in all categories than rats who drank MORE fructose via sucrose solution. So it's not really the fructose per se, but it's something about the way HFCS delivers. That study was the nail in the coffin for me regarding avoiding HFCS.

  • In reply to Chrisb:

    Chris, thanks for taking the time to reply to both posts and sharing your own story.

    Great examples from the show, too. I couldn't even keep track of all the info that was presented - I just remember it was very well balanced and factual. I need to watch it again and make specific comments about what was addressed.

    As I said, I was really hoping the film could have been an "ah hah" moment for the viewers, but without really delving into the HFCS problem, I felt like the public was shortchanged. I'd recommend Dr. Lustig's Sugar: The Bitter Truth, but it takes a lot to sit through an hour and a half of a college lecture to understand the in's and out's of the ATP cycle and how HFCS is metabolized differently than the fructose found in table sugar and fruit.

    Hopefully, the link to my own post on HFCS provides enough info for people to take a strong look at every ingredient label they pick up. I'm convinced of its harm and living healthier without it in my diet. I think we could stall or reverse this "obesity" epidemic if we put all our energy and effort into battling HFCS.

    It's really so ridiculous - we pay farmers to grow corn to be used for HFCS and we end up paying more for healthcare costs because of its prevalence in our food supply. We're paying to make ourselves sick and paying more to treat ourselves - that's the very definition of irony (or insanity!)...

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