"The best way to make yourself fat is to let yourself get hungry. And we live in a nation of people who are hungry all of the time."
Oh, our distant ancestor ate a pretty healthy diet, full of wild game, and nuts and fruits – the kind of high-fiber, high-protein meals we'd be better off eating ourselves. And he sure exercised more than the average American does nowadays – dodging sabre-tooths and loping after mastodons and all that.
But Nature didn't care much whether our prehistoric forebear had a lean, rippled midsection and the elusive washboard stomach. All Nature wanted him to do was survive. And understanding how those two goals collide is the key to understanding why the modern practice of dieting is one of the main reasons Americans are so fat.
A recent study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that about 60% of Americans who try to lose weight do so by restricting their calorie intake, with one in 10 skipping meals to strip off pounds. These are the symptoms of classic yo-yo dieting behavior, and a yo-yo diet is a near-perfect blueprint for anyone who wants to get fatter in the long run. See, the meaning of the word “diet” has been twisted all around.
The original meaning of the word was simply habitual nourishment – basically, what we ate on a regular basis. People who lived near the sea enjoyed a seafood diet, people who lived in the mountains enjoyed a woodland diet, and people who lived in areas of the Amazon enjoyed a diet of their enemies' viscera. And for the most part, everything was pretty peachy (assuming you didn't live in the Amazon and wind up on the wrong end of a fork.)
Occasionally, though, hard times would strike. Maybe a rival tribe would force you away from your fishing territory. Maybe the herds would move on to new pastures, leaving you without game. Maybe a drought would kill the fruits and nuts you normally relied on to survive. In such cases, when calories become scarce, the human body goes into survival mode. And that's where the problems begin.
Calories are needed to preserve body tissue, so when you suddenly begin eating fewer calories, you begin shedding body tissue. And because muscle requires more calories to maintain than fat does, your body preferentially sheds muscle. At the same time, it tries to pack-rat away fat, saving it for later, in case the lean times continue. Over time, on a restrictive diet, you lose weight – a lot of fat, but also a lot of muscle.
Eventually, the lean times end. But the body has learned a harsh lesson: Times can get tough, and so it had better make sure it has stored enough fat to help it survive the next time food is in short supply. So it packs fat around the midsection, fat that takes little effort to maintain and lots of effort to burn off. And that's the end of the Cro-Magnon man's six-pack.
"... every time we “go on a diet,” we teach our bodies to shed muscle and preserve fat."
Today, of course, lean times strike when we decide we want to look better. And they end when decide to end our self-imposed “diet” and, having shaved off a few pounds, head back to the dessert tray. But while these periods of deprivation now come at our own beckoning, our bodies interpret it through the same prism of survival – every time we “go on a diet,” we teach our bodies to shed muscle and preserve fat. Every time we “go off a diet,” our bodies react by hoarding more fat, making us even flabbier than before. (And worse – because muscle burns more calories than fat, and because we've shed muscle during our diet, we've reset our metabolisms to be lower, essentially making it even harder to maintain our weight.) The more diets you try, the fatter you become.
Most of us are on diets
In fact, even those of us who aren't consciously dieting are putting ourselves on miniature diets every day. Most of us keep our bodies in survival mode most of the time: For example, one in five of us skip breakfast every morning, according to a 2003 study, and we probably think we're doing something healthy – less food, less fat, right?
But in truth, people who skip breakfast are 450% more likely to be overweight or obese. They are training their bodies to store fat, the way you are if you skip meals regularly.
We're also training our bodies to store the most dangerous fat – abdominal fat. This fat isn't a static cluster of useless tissue. It's a living, growing mass, practically an organism all its own, one that builds, divides and exerts toxins back into our systems, that draws blood flow and nutrients away from the rest of our bodies, that alters the distribution of hormones in our bloodstreams, that presses on our organs and hampers their functions.
Studies show that men and women who have high levels of abdominal fat – as opposed to those who have fat evenly distributed – are at greater risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even some forms of cancer.
The shocking truth about America's obesity problem is that we're fat because we're starving. The best way to make yourself fat is to let yourself get hungry. And we live in a nation of people who are hungry all of the time.
We should be grazing on modest amounts of good food throughout the day, the way nature intended. Instead we skip meals, deny ourselves when we feel hunger pangs, then binge on massive quantities in one sitting, pigging out at buffets and fast-food restaurants, shoveling sometimes thousands of calories into our bodies in a single meal. But our bodies quickly process whatever it was we shoved into our mouths, store it as fat, and within a few hours, we're starving. Again. You know that motivational phrase, stay hungry? Ignore it. Stay full. Ignore the call to starvation and deprivation. A diet is about what you eat. Not what you don't.
Want help finding the right diet for you?
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