By now, most people have abandoned their New Years’ resolutions, especially if it concerns the fitness or weight-loss areas. I gave up making resolutions years ago, and instead call it a re-focus on what I do on an everyday basis. I eat right, don’t drink too much alcohol, exercise, and basically try to be a kind and generous person. I am always working on trying to be better.

That being said, many folks I provide service for are constantly looking for ways to lose weight and improve their physical and mental condition. There is a great article on obesity and the public health approach to correcting this epidemic (in the US) in the February 2011 edition of Scientific American, written by David H. Freedman.

In the article, Mr. Freedman cites the facts and figures: The obesity rate is 34%, up from 15% in the late 1970’s; Another third of the US population is overweight; 33 states have obesity rates that are over 25%. Continuing at current levels, obesity will soon overtake smoking as the biggest single factor in early death, reduced quality of life, and added health care costs.

George Washington University researchers say the average obese person cost society more than $7,000 per year in lost productivity and added medical treatment. I think most of this info is not new-you’d have to have been living under a rock for the last 10 years not to know this. The question is, why are those extra pounds so difficult to get rid of and keep off?

The National Institutes of Health is spending 800 million per year on studies to understand the scientific reason for obesity, the metabolic, genetic, and neurological bases for weight gain, and although research ahs made great strides in the lab, carryover into in vivo applications has been a failure. As Mr. Freedman points out, “maybe someday biology will provide us with a pill that re-adjusts our metabolism so we burn more calories or resets our built-in cravings so we prefer broccoli to burgers. But until then, we may have to rely on reliable behavioral-psychology methods developed over 50 years and proved to work in hundreds of studies.” In other words, it’s not just hunger that drives us to eat; there are social and behavioral factors that influence what you put in your mouth, what you do with that fuel (activity), and how much you sit on the couch.

There is some clarity regarding diet(s), they do not work in and of themselves. The same diets have been re-circulating for the past 60 years, and we, as a population, are much fatter, and getting more so. Exercise alone will make you healthier, but won’t help you lose weight.  What obesity boils down to is this: there are multiple factors at work, from complex feedback loops in the endocrine system, to genes, to metabolism, to the environment (what your friends eat, what’s available in your home and local stores, and how much sitting you have to do at work). Part of the problem is economic; the cost of junk food and processed food has dropped by 40% in the past 30 years, while the cost for fresh fruit and vegetables has risen by about the same amount.  The food industry too, is a part of the problem, “programming” us toward foods that are more profitable (Ronald McDonald anyone?). The point is, there is no ‘eat this, not that’ solution-it’s not that simple. The best approach is behavior-focused, a four-step approach that seems correlated with a greater success with getting and keeping the weight off. Setting clear, modest goals and focusing on lifelong habits. Making small changes at first, self-monitoring by recording body weight, counting calories, and keeping food logs. Support groups, whether at exercise, a formal group, or even a virtual one, lets participants share triumphs, setbacks, and strategize solutions.

There is no quick fix; we didn’t get fat overnight.

Stay well, John R Blilie, M.S.