Just What Is the Problem?
WHY are people too fat? Is it usually due to factors beyond a person’s control, such as heredity, gland malfunction or imbalance of hormones? What relationship is there between overweight and eating too much?
At the outset, it should be stated that not all overweight people are voracious eaters. “There are many cases where the appetite and food intake of the obese are quite normal; in some cases even below average,” declares Professor Jean Mayer of the Harvard School of Public Health.
At times excess weight is due to inability of the body to eliminate fluids properly. Hormone imbalance and hereditary factors may also play a part. “Many obesities in experimental animals are genetic in origin,” notes Dr. Mayer. What about humans? “In man there is also good evidence that genetics is very important.” The professor adds:
“The number of fat cells seems predetermined (except perhaps for some increase during the first year under the influence of overabundant nutrition). Obesity runs in families: in the Boston area thin parents have, on the average, 7 per cent children obese at high-school age. If one parent is overweight, the rate is 40 per cent; if both parents are overweight, the rate is 80 per cent. Children adopted from birth do not show this association with the weight of their [foster] parents, showing that heredity, not family food habits, is the crucial factor (a finding confirmed by a large-scale study in England).”—Italics ours.
While this is true, it is evident that far too many people cite glandular disorders or heredity as a reason for being too fat. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica (1976 edition), “the body’s ability to adjust food intake to body needs can be disturbed by numerous factors. Of these, hormone imbalances and glandular defects are believed to be of least importance, being demonstrable in only about 5 percent of all obese individuals.”
The human body can be compared with a precision-made and finely balanced machine. Like any machine, it needs a source of energy to set it in motion and to keep it going. A person’s body draws energy solely from solid foods and liquids.
Depending upon the design, a man-made reciprocating engine can be powered by a choice of fuels. The human body too is designed so that you can select from the wide variety of foods that the Creator has made available to mankind. It has to be understood, however, that the energy values of both foods and liquids vary greatly, and this is a key to controlling body weight.
To measure the energy value of food, there has to be a common unit against which all the different sources of food energy can be checked. The term for this is “calorie,” which, quite simply, means a unit of energy. By various scientific means it is possible to determine how much heat, or energy, a given food will impart to the body when “burned” or utilized. Just as literal fuels, like coal, oil, wood or peat, vary greatly in heat output, so too the foods we eat can be deceivingly different in energy output. From the standpoint of energy, all foods may be divided into three basic kinds.
Carbohydrates, Fats and Proteins
Carbohydrates are our principal energy source. They are found as sugars and starches in potatoes and sweet foods, but particularly in cereals and cereal products, such as bread and flour. When carbohydrates enter the digestive system, they are broken down into simple sugars such as glucose, the body’s basic energy supply. In the event of a surplus of glucose, the body arranges for energy to be stored, either as glycogen in the muscles and liver, or as body fat.
Fats are of two types—saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats come from animals. Examples of saturated fats are lard, meat fat, milk and its products. Unsaturated fats come from fish and vegetation. They are fish oil, olive oil, corn oil, sunflower oil and the like. As with carbohydrates, so too with fats: if the energy source is not used, it is stored as body fat.
Unlike carbohydrates and fats, proteins are not usually an energy source, but are absorbed mainly for body growth or repair. The human body is unable to store in any large amounts amino acids resulting from breakdown of proteins. Yet without them a child’s development to physical maturity would be stunted. The ready replacement of fingernails and toenails, hair, skin, muscle fibres and even red blood cells would be halted. Our main supplies of proteins come in the forms of meat, fish and eggs, as well as from plant foods like beans, peas and lentils of the legume family, though not all of these are of equal value.
The Natural Balance
What does energy drawn from foods have to do with overweight? Assume that we are to take an automobile trip. The source of energy is gasoline. The amount available at the outset of a journey will gradually diminish. As the car uses up this energy source, the weight of liquid in the gas tank will become less. At certain points it will be necessary to replenish the supply to equalize the availability of energy with the demand.
Our bodies also need enough “fuel,” or calories, to meet our varied needs. A sedentary worker may use about 2,700 calories during a 24-hour period. One who is very active may burn up an additional 900 calories or so. We may eat breakfast upon rising, and this food is readily assimilated and put to work. Then, during the course of our day, we eat other meals, and perhaps have snacks and sweetened drinks. All too often the body’s need for calories is outbalanced by the intake of them.
Hunger is the mechanism that alerts us to the need for more energy. The part of the brain that controls appetite is called the hypothalamus. Experiments have shown that if this part of the brain is stimulated or destroyed in animals, they either start eating voraciously and grow fat, or shun food and have to be forcibly fed.
Even when resting, or asleep, our body has a constant need of energy to keep the heart beating, the lungs breathing and food digesting. This is called basal metabolism. “Metabolism” is a term for all the chemical processes that constantly work to keep us alive. No matter what our body shape or size, we all have an individual rate of metabolism, although how it is regulated is still not fully understood.
What happens if we are unable to eat enough food to meet our calorie demand? The body is then thrown back on its own resources and has no alternative but to utilize the glycogen or fat stored for that purpose. Conversely, if we eat too much, the body stores excess energy potential in the form of fat.
Some fat is necessary both to help keep the body warm and to protect certain vital organs, such as the kidneys. It is excess fat that relates to the problems mentioned earlier.
Some people who eat well without gaining weight seem to have a naturally higher metabolic rate. In certain cases, overweight may result from a metabolic rate that is very low. However, one must beware of citing this too quickly as a reason for obesity. Dr. Judith Rodin, a psychologist at Yale University, states: “The obese person with extremely low metabolism is a rarity. Ninety-eight percent of the housewives who say they can’t lose because they have a low metabolism are wrong.”
People often speak with approval of fat babies. Yet it is claimed that at least one third of all babies in the Western world are overweight, at least during the first year of life. Why is this? Simply because babies are unable to regulate their own choice of food, and many parents—with good intentions—overfeed them.
Does it matter if a baby is overweight for the first year or so? Yes! Some eminent pediatricians insist that such initial obesity leads to an increase in the body’s fat cells both in size and number. This means, they say, that the child will have to spend the rest of its life fighting to maintain slimness.
As an antidote to infant obesity, many recommend more breast feeding. In addition, the British Nutrition Foundation has long campaigned against early introduction of solid foods (particularly cereals), since they can be detrimental to infants. Baby-food containers in the British Isles now carry the advice that weaning foods are not usually needed before the age of four to six months. This allows the infant time for adjustment of its metabolism to the correct level.
Keeping our bodies healthy is something we all want to do. As we have seen, much depends upon the amount and the quality of our regular food supply. In most cases obesity can be prevented. But how about a cure?
[Blurb on page 6]
‘Excess weight may be due to inability of the body properly to eliminate fluids.’
[Blurb on page 7]
‘Hormone imbalance and heredity may also be factors in weight problems.’
[Blurb on page 7]
‘In most cases, the body’s need for calories is simply being outbalanced by intake.’
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‘Doctors say that feeding a baby too much during its first year may cause a lifelong problem with overweight.’