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The real reason you have gained weight.

It is important to love the body but also to take responsibility for it.  But taking responsibility should not just be an individual challenge. 

This will surprise you!  The real reason you have gained weight.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been travelling backwards and forwards to Singapore for work.  This means many flights!

One of the flights departs Singapore at 8 PM. This of course means getting some sleep is really important.

I have a trick which is putting headphones on and then placing a blanket over my head. It usually works.  But not this time.  The reason was the person next to me.

This dear man was large, and that is an understatement.  He was so large that the trolley kept hitting him when it came by.  He was so large that his limbs must have been going numb. Just as I had fallen asleep I heard a whack! whack! whack! Initially, I thought ‘This will stop’.  But after a while, I peeked out and found that it was my neighbour hitting his thighs very hard.  He was pinned in, spilling over onto my seat, and unable to open the seat tray.  It must have been agony for him.

I didn’t sleep all night but neither did he, of course.  Inspired by both the recent philosophy program on Kant which I attended in Denmark and the recent book by the young Nobel Prize recipient Nicklas Brendborg ‘Vane Dyr’ (‘Habit Animals’ in English), I felt only compassion for this dear man, and sad for how difficult it must be for him to live in this way.  

One way to see the self is that we are both a rider on an elephant and the elephant itself.  The elephant is our human needs, desires, fears and wants, both the physical ones and the emotional ones.  Our job is to try to train the elephant to have good habits and to steer it away from not-so-healthy behaviours.  But we also know that an elephant is a big animal so if it wants to move in a certain direction it can be very hard to change direction.  You know this if you have tried to stop smoking or drinking, eating less, or wanting to start a new healthy habit.

The better we know the elephant, the easier it is for us to start to manage it so that it behaves more in alignment with the rider.

Brendborg highlights how human weaknesses (the elephant) are being exploited like never before, leading to increases in obesity, anxiety, poor relationships and loneliness.  The elephant is being trained and encouraged in a non-serving way.

Let’s hone in on what this tells us about obesity.  I think it is important to love the body but also to take responsibility for it.  But taking responsibility should not just be an individual challenge.  Considering what we are up against, we need policies that support us so that we can more easily reach out for the best foods for our bodies and foods that do not mess with our appetite regulation.

As you know, we are increasingly getting larger.  The Defence Force in Denmark has seen fifty times as many overweight men now compared to the sixties. In Australia, about two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese.  And this is increasing. In the Pacific Islands, the number is 80%. An extra kilo a year adds up.  

Our genes have not changed.  There is a gene variant that explains why some people crave food more and gain weight.  The gene variation means that when more food is available affected people will eat more whereas when the food is not there that does not happen.

Surprisingly, we are moving more than we ever did. At least the Danes are more active now than in the slim 60s.  I imagine it is similar in Australia but perhaps not quite as much, considering how much the Danes bike ride.  But you will notice how many more people are walking, running and attending the gym now compared to just ten years ago.

The point is that our systems adjust depending on how much we move.  A hunter in northern Tanzania, part of the Hadzar tribe, does an average of 19,000 steps a day and they are very active steps which include lifting. And these people are slim.  We would assume that we who sit still much of the time would burn fewer calories, right?  However new research has shown this not to be the case.  The Hadzars do not burn more calories than we do.  The findings are from Herman Pontzer who also compared groups of children in Ecuador, one group of children living a tribal life in the Amazon and the other living a city life.  Both groups were burning the same number of calories.  This is also the case for kangaroos and other animals in zoos versus those in the wild, even though zoo life is much less active.

The reason?  Our bodies are dynamic adjusters and are designed to minimise energy consumption.   When we exercise we tend to move less during the rest of the day.  Elite athletes spend so much time being active that their bodies start to down-prioritise areas like reproduction.

Interestingly, the Hadzar people have no problem with reproduction but have significantly lower levels of hormones and almost no incidence of breast cancer.  

It seems the only explanation is our culture and social context.

So what is going on here?

When researching obesity, the starting point was to study rats and mice. The first challenge was how to make them obese.  The solution?  Feed them junk food like Nutella, biscuits, crisps, hotdogs, lollies and chocolate – food that is designed to press the reward buttons in the brain, food that makes it hard to stop eating once you have opened the package.

The intention of those who manufacture the food is that you keep your hand in the bag and keep eating!  And they have worked us out!  They have research labs around the world to do exactly that.

These companies create food that offers ‘super stimuli’ and that is pretty much most of the food that is processed. Brendborg calls it ‘factory food’.  Factory food is characterised by every separate ingredient being processed, and various E-numbers added to enhance the colour and taste and extend the use-by date.

Research was done by the American fat researcher (yes, that is a title!) Kevin Hall and his colleagues.  They had two groups; one was given factory food and the other non-factory food. Both groups were asked to eat till they were full.  The experiment lasted four weeks. On average, the factory food eating group ate 500 calories more a day.  That is equivalent to eating an additional meal.  The other group lost weight over the four weeks.  These were ordinary Americans who were used to eating much processed food.  As they were eating normal food, their appetite regulation started to normalise.    That could also be verified through blood tests.  Of course, the body also craves more food after junk food as it has not been fed what it needs.

The conclusion is that food manufacturers have managed to mess with our appetite regulation, leading us to eat too much.

One of their tricks is to make the combination of fat, carbohydrates and protein the same ratio as breast milk: 50:45:5.  This appeals to us at a deep, instinctive level.  No ‘natural’ food other than breastmilk has this combination but chocolate, ice cream, pastries, doughnuts, cheese pops, and crisps all do.  When it comes to breastmilk, the instinct is to drink a lot!  

In other words, our food is designed to make us eat as much as possible because that means more sales and more profit. Taxpayers are left to deal with the financial fallout arising from poorer health and fitness levels across society. Individuals are left to deal with unhealthy bodies and all that that brings, emotionally, physically and socially.

Another chapter of Brendborg’s book focuses on the effects of sweet drinks, which are another contributor to our obesity while also increasing cholesterol, blood pressure and inflammation. Another section deals with salt and one with sugar.  I highly recommend reading Brendborg’s very well-researched take on our society and the causes of our ailments.

What super stimuli do for obesity, pornography, games and social media do for our relationship and mental wellbeing. How can those we know so well compete with the endless stimulation of Netflix and Instagram?  

It is too much to ask that we, who already feel stretched, can beat this kind of targeted exploitation on our own.  We need better governance relating to food and attention hijacking, in particular for young people. 

We could simply start by taxing junk food while subsidising healthy, fresh foods, especially for people living in rural and remote areas who face extra cost burdens.  And placing an age limit on access to social media and games.

The other thing that is needed is compassion.  Our failure around food, attention and addiction is not a personal failing, it is a social and cultural failing.  We live in obesogenic environments. As a society, we have lost our way.  Over-consumption affects all areas of our life, not just our diets.  For a long time, we have used all that we can on this planet, raw materials, plants and animals.  But we are also using each other – well, the few use the many.

The solution is not to embrace or accept our unhealthy bodies but to take action to protect them from becoming unhealthy for the sake of our life quality and the health of our wider society. 

Apart from government regulation and pushing for broader social changes, we can also become smarter in understanding the manipulation we are subject to and therefore change our habits.  Train that elephant to like good food and healthy exercise, to avoid overconsumption. Only buy good food where you can see what it is you are eating.

With love 


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