(If Only It Was This Easy)
By Parth Ashish Bhave
Asking anyone about obesity who adheres to conventional wisdom will effortlessly state that abstinence from food and rigorous exercise is the ultimate cure. But the concept of obesity is multidimensional and research dictates that causes of obesity transcends the orthodox approach defining obesity on basis of dietary over indulgence, lack of exercise and miniscule quantities of self control and will power.
Although one cannot rule out these obvious explanations, emerging research has proven that there are many more contributing factors than a few mentioned above. It has been shown that prenatal programming of fetus can leave an individual predisposed to be becoming overweight. Diets can trigger survival instincts in person dieting, making their bodies feel deprived of food even though in reality they are carrying huge piles of fat.
Diets also have distinct physiological and psychological effects, which can become overwhelming and stressful enough to induce cravings for foods with high energy density in the individual who is dieting, often making it hard if not impossible to sustain and follow it till the end.
The phenomena of overeating cannot be satisfactorily explained by low self control. Food is a natural reward and triggers brain’s reward system. Foods high in fat and sugar are often craved for when the body is under stress and food based activation of brain’s reward system can be a cheap and viable source of pleasure in that stressful situation.
However it has been difficult to elucidate the components of food involved in its addictive properties, eating has been proven to be a behavioral addiction. Eating disorders are not only physiology driven but have a psychological dimension as well. Emotional eating, pleasure derived from food, setting in which food is consumed as well as an individual’s intrinsic heuristics and biases can influence both the quality and quantity of food one consumes.
With physiological and psychological dimensions of obesity along with contradictory yet insufficient data accompanying it, it is evident that we still have a long way to go when it comes to finding a fit-for-all solution. But with increasing research and improved methodologies, finding an innovative solution can be right around the corner. Below, I have made an attempt to state a three part strategy to solving the obesity crisis. Although the strategy I have proposed is in no way the ultimate approach to resolving the obesity epidemic, it can still be good starting point to contemplate on the key concepts that have been touched upon.
Solving Obesity Epidemic
The solution can be thought of as being tripartite, with focus more on eating healthy and constraints associated with it. The secondary yet primordial aspects of the solution involve incorporating mild physical activity by unconventional methods of exercise and a head-on destigmatization of obesity.
Part One: Developing social empathy towards obesity
Although there is no one fit-for-all solution, one can still help reduce the stigma towards obesity. Obesity often takes a social toll on people’s life and that a person’s inability to lose weight directly distills to his lack of will power. One has to acknowledge the agonizing stress that accompanies an obese person trying to lose weight. Though it might not add up to much it can still be comforting, supporting and even motivating for the person to carry on their stressful journey to lose weight.
Here knowledge is everything! Before even starting to cultivate even a bit of humility towards obese people, one has to educate himself to the excruciating agonizing troubles the person faces. Understanding the science behind obesity can help one realize just how impossible it becomes to avoid that piece of cake when the world around you seems to fall apart in pieces.
It is only through being open minded and composed enough to listen to the problems of the people going through diets, that the joy in making fat-jokes soon turns out to be abhorring for the person making those jokes in the first place. Trying to be less painful with words can actually be alleviating for the person who is fighting their war of weight loss. Creating awareness and educating masses, thus becomes a crucial step in reducing social stigma associated with obesity.
With the social stressors out of the way more direct approaches to the problem of obesity can thereby be addressed. Although diets alone have shown to be ineffective in curing obesity, they can still provide promising and long lasting results coupled with positive changes in the person’s dietary patterns. Thus, barriers associated with healthy eating need to be addressed as a viable plan to reduce obesity.
Part Two: Eating healthy (the not-so-obviously obvious solution)
The most pervasive barrier towards healthy eating is the one that is in one’s own head. The psychology comprising of the impossibility of sustaining healthy diet to the ‘fight or flight’ response induced by the mere thought of healthy food, is the main stigma why people find it so difficult to eat healthy. The inadequacy in one’s knowledge of the constitution of word ‘healthy’ itself is a secondary barrier towards healthy eating.
To discuss one issue at a time let me being by first analyzing and dissecting the psychology associated with ‘it’s-impossible’ ideology towards healthy foods.
People often consider eating healthy as something that is extensively intimidating which is not necessarily true. This often has to relate to the fact that eating healthy is time consuming, stressful and next to impossible.
One can agree quite easily that the store bought packaged products often contain substantial amounts of sugar, salt and fat which are detrimental to health. With this valid premise, it logically translates to an easily solution to eating healthy and that is cooking food at home.
In the eyes of people, cooking is often associated with the art best left to elite restaurateurs and Michelin star chefs; and when one is asked to cook food, the predispositions that one maintains to the negative results of cooking food debilitates the person form even trying to cook on the first place. It has to be acknowledged that cooking like any other art can be learned and improvised with practice.
One must come in terms that when cooking, he/she might not put up a five star dish but the end result is often healthy and satisfying even for the person cooking it. Once the person comes in terms with cooking, stress related to it is only left to disappear. The real challenge then is overcoming the intimidation and giving it a try keeping in mind that cooking might be as intricate as an onion with many layers, but there is beauty in unfolding every one of it.
With strength to cook comes challenges and one of them is time constraint that cooking imposes on busy individuals. Some ingenious solutions to it might include dividing work among family members or roommates, coming up with one pot recipes that do not take much time or freezing meals for the rest of the week. Taste
is also a parameter that to some extent influences the choices of people towards not eating healthy food. The belief that healthy food does not taste good often takes away the will to persevere. This has to be an invalid proposition and truth can be learnt through cooking itself. Simple ingredients and spices can liven up every meal and there exists a plethora of cookbooks to choose from which are solely dedicated to making tasty and healthy meals. There are economic constraints associated to healthy eating as well but one has to try and do their best in the money that they have. Farmers market often sells vegetables and fruits in season at prices similar to, or at even lower prices as compared to supermarkets.
To sum it all up is the lack of knowledge towards what constitutes a healthy diet. The psychology that defines healthy eating as only associated with vegetables and salads can be easily challenged by understanding that ‘healthy’ includes much more than that. A balanced whole meal with proper ratios of vegetables, fruits, proteins and complex carbohydrates is easy to stick to and even more easy to cook.
It can be undeniably agreed upon that eating healthy can be stressful at times but one cannot give up in the face of challenges. Body is going to take time adjusting but making small incremental changes towards changing a bad diet can be effective in reducing the stressful burden of healthy eating. This can be as small a change as cutting down on sugar till a point where one is not stressed drinking coffee that is sugar free, developing a habit of drinking green tea every day or cooking one meal of the day at home. Incorporating these small changes into daily lives can have significant health impact and can help one dissociate stress and healthy eating.
Part Three: Incorporating mild physical activity
With people who are extremely obese, it can difficult to carry out intense streak of physical activity. It can cause severe stress on leg joints with accompanying inflammation and pain. But to lose weight, usual convention dictates maintenance of a positive calorie expenditure value which often involves increased physical activity. To solve this dilemma one has to resort to unconventional techniques of exercise which includes mild body movements like tai chi or yoga. The key is to becoming more physical active and not exercising like an athlete. Not only will this mild physical activity increase energy expenditure it will also help liberate stress caused by dietary restrictions.
Thus in this world of ‘I-want-it-now’, fixing obesity overnight is as of yet impossible. It is often believed that losing weight is a highly intensive, intimidating, painful and a life changing process. And that might as well be true. But if one is to look beyond the traditional wisdom, it would not be unwise to say that reducing sugar in your cup of coffee by a quarter of a teaspoon every day so as to get comfortable with eating less sugar is far more powerful than running 15 km for two days and then eventually giving up on the third.
Solving obesity crisis is thus not about changing your lifestyle and diet overnight; but it is about taking a small, incremental, life reforming step every single day. Now this I believe can indeed be a sustainable solution.
Department of Dyestuff and Intermediates Technology, Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai*