NO Obesity Epidemic Pt. 2: What’s Making Us Chunky?

My last blog post: “There is NO Obesity Epidemic” was one of the most popular posts written on this blog to date. It was all about the fact that obesity is a symptom of a larger (no pun intended) condition. As with any other health conditions treating symptoms often does not equate to overcoming the real problem. So the question remains… How can you know why you are overweight? This can be a tricky question to answer. Some people have no trouble losing weight and there are even folks who have trouble putting on weight. At the same time some people work very hard and eat right and can’t seem to get any weight off. Hopefully learning some of the causes of overweight and obesity in this post can help you to zero in on what’s making us chunky.

Energy Imbalance

All day long we are consuming energy or expending energy. The process of converting nutrients into energy is called metabolism. The efficiency of metabolism varies from person to person. This energy that we are talking about is measured in calories. We consume calories in food and we burn calories with activity. If we consume more calories than we burn on a regular basis then the excess is stored as fat (this is a very simplistic version of how this works). If we burn more calories than we consume then our body has to release stored energy (fat) to meet the demands. There it is… simple math.

This type of obesity responds really well to a healthy calorie controlled diet and regular exercise. Increasing lean muscle mass increases the energy demands of your body. This situation is ideal for controlling your weight.

Pregnancy

For many women overweight and obesity aren’t even on the radar prior to pregnancy. However it unfortunately comes with the territory. For most women the changes of pregnancy makes packing on some additional weight unavoidable. What is not unavoidable is keeping on the weight after the baby is born. I’m a father of 4 children and I know that after pregnancy it can be so difficult to get rid of the baby weight. It’s not a matter of simply exercising or eating right because now there is a whole other life and schedule to take into account. It takes careful scheduling, commitment and a good support system to take this weight off. Until recently doctors did not recommend that women exercise while pregnant. They used to say not to exercise at all, then they said not to start exercising unless you had been before. Now it is recommended that most women engage in exercise during pregnancy (the exceptions would be a high risk pregnancy). This exercise is good for your baby, can make for an easier delivery and give you a head-start eliminating the baby weight.

Hormone Imbalance

Hormone imbalance is one of the reasons that weight loss can be so elusive for people who are doing all of the right things. These folks may be operating at a 1,000 calorie deficit over an extended period of time and still only lose a few, if any, pounds of excess weight. This is when the “simple math” I mentioned above also requires another one of our favorite high school courses: Chemistry.

For example the thyroid gland produces a hormone that converts nutrients you have consumed into useable energy. The hormone is called thyroxine. If you don’t produce enough thyroxine or you produce defective thyroxine then weight control will be very difficult unless you get this condition treated. The only real way to tell if this is your problem is to have some blood work done. Here are some symptoms that may accompany the type of thyroid problem I’m talking about: fatigue, sensitivity to cold, thin hair, brittle hair and nails, depression, constipation, heavy menstrual cycles, and thickening of the skin. You should check with your doctor if you have symptoms like this and a family history of thyroid disease. If you can treat your thyroid condition then weight will come off so much easier.

Adrenal problems can be a cause for obesity as well. The adrenal glands, aside from producing adrenaline, also produce other really useful hormones such as testosterone. Testosterone is vital for the production of lean muscle mass (remember what I said about lean muscle mass before?). Another hormone from the adrenal glands is cortisol which is used to manage long term stress (more about that later). An overactive adrenal gland will pump out excessive amounts of cortisol. This is called Cushing’s syndrome and is accompanied by excessive hair growth in women on the body and face, a round (moon) face, accumulation of fat between the shoulder blades (buffalo hump) and the waist, depression, difficult menstrual periods, decreased sex drive, and more.

These are just a few of the hormone imbalances that can affect your weight. For most people this is not the problem but for a small percentage of you who have beaten yourselves up for years, there is help!

Psychological/Depression

This cause has a chicken and egg element to it. Depression, trauma, or other major stressors will commonly manifest with some weight gain as well. For example the death of a loved one, divorce, or unemployment can move some people to use food as a coping mechanism. At the same time obesity brings psychological stress too. When you feel and look unattractive or unhealthy it is easy to keep spiraling downward. Flavors and smells and textures of food can tickle the pleasure centers of the brain and temporarily ease some of the pain while actually inflicting more damage.

Getting fit may require you to address these psychological challenges before you can be successful. That doesn’t mean that you should wait to start getting healthy until your head is right. Sometimes the issues only surface as you push yourself in the gym or on a run. You won’t be truly healthy until you can face your grief, fear or whatever it is that has been holding you back.

Also consider the fact that our DNA is hardwired for a physical response to stress. When a grizzly bear walks into the room it triggers our Fight-Or-Flight response. Blood is diverted to the legs for running, the heart rate increases, breathing gets quick and shallow, and other physiological events occur to prepare you for the fight (or flight) of your life. But if your response to stress is not with physical activity your body ultimately responds by packing on fat. Remember cortisol? When you are under frequent stress cortisol is pumped out by your adrenal glands to help you cope but long term exposure to high cortisol levels can cause you to plump up. Yes, the grizzly bear example seems extreme but your body response does not differentiate between bear attacks, test anxiety, a scary movie or an intense video game. Exercise however is the ultimate coping mechanism for stress. It satisfies your body’s requirement for action. So yes… next time you watch a zombie movie you should also run like zombies are chasing you!

Lack of Sleep

This is an increasing problem that is threatening people’s health like never before. Because of our modern technology we can stay up and work or play all night if we want to. We have electric lights, cable TV, the internet and other diversions that can take the place of getting a healthy amount of sleep. People who are obese also suffer from a higher rate of sleep apnea causing them to wake multiple times each night. The hormones leptin and ghrelin help to control appetite and these are produced while we sleep. A lack of sleep can leave us short on these hormones causing a spike in appetite. So if you’re not getting enough sleep it is easier to overeat and throw off your energy balance. Also being tired decreases your discipline and desire to exercise and make healthy food choices.

Drug Side Effects

There are many medications that have weight gain as a side effect. The research is simple. You can Google your prescription medication and look for side effects. If weight gain is one of them then there you go! You may ask your doctor if there are alternatives to medications you are taking that will not affect your weight so drastically.

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So there it is… some of the reasons you may be obese. I should note that these are not excuses. These are barriers to your health. Identifying these reasons in your life is the key to your long term success at living a healthy life at a normal weight. You should also note that nobody is limited to just one of these reasons. For example you may be a sedentary pregnant widow on prescription medications, in a high stress job, who loves to eat cake at 2:00 AM. How would you keep from exploding?

Whoever you are remember that obesity is a symptom of a greater problem: maybe a defective lifestyle or broken spirits or damaged organs. Once the cause is determined real treatment can begin. My next post will be about safe, sane and effective ways to control your weight and get healthy. And yes… I will finally reveal the single ingredient that has probably done as much to make Americans fat and sick as any other food additive out there.

  • There is NO Obesity Epidemic (yourbodyofhealth.com)

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Josh Gum

    I might be jumping the gun. When you get around to the “healthy calorie controlled diet” chapter, I wonder if you might share thoughts on “starvation mode”; wherein the body will want to retain weight if its been underfed for too long. Calorie restriction works very well for some period of time, but sooner or later can stall progress. Operating on too much of a calorie deficit tells the body that it needs to retain weight so that it can survive through the famine that it thinks its going through. This is a concept that challenged me at least a few times in the past.. and when you want to lose weight its hard to accept the counter-intuitive statement that you might need to “eat more food”. Of course there are a lot of details around the type of food, how often you’re eating, and whether or not there is still a grizzly bear or pregnant woman in the room.

  2. Jason Young, DC

    Lol. Look out for those pregnant women!

    But you’re absolutely right about starvation mode. That’s why I’m careful to say “Calorie Controlled” rather than “Calorie Restricted” or “Low Calorie”. Food is fuel. If you try to put too much in your tank pretty soon you’re spraying gasoline all over your vehicle which is dangerous. But if you don’t put enough in the you won’t get anywhere.

    BTW if any of you want to be REALLY inspired you should check out Josh’s blog which is a down to earth, honest account of a man’s journey to cure what caused his obesity. The address is: revgum.com

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