I Tried to Draw Obesity and This is What it Looked Like
The literature left me confused but the solutions can be simple.
The first law of thermodynamics (energy in-energy out=energy stored) is hard to argue with. If you’re overweight your doctor will tell you to eat less and exercise more and this may well work in the short term but as soon as you return to your original lifestyle you will see the pounds quickly pile back on.
Thermodynamics only explains one dimension of the problem and this always makes me think of the crowded room metaphor used by Gary Taubes in his book Why We Get Fat:
Essentially a room starts getting crowded. Why is it crowded? It’s crowded because there are too many people in it. This is true but it doesn’t answer the question. To answer the question we need to know why so many people are entering the room and why so few are leaving it. It’s the same with obesity — we are getting fat because we are eating too much but why are we eating too much and why is the body storing so much of it as fat?
As my drawing suggests, there are many influences at play. It is not one cause or another it is an environment, an obesogenic environment which is inextricably linked to our planetary environment.
Just as the problems facing our planetary environment seem insurmountable, so too do the obesogenic influences on our daily lives.
Any solutions to the problems that both environments face will involve looking forwards to new technologies as well as winding the clock back to less toxic lifestyles. On a micro level, we have little power to devise or utilise new technologies but, with a little effort, we can certainly look back and re-engage with habits that pre-exist obesity.
Stop Eating Processed Food
You are what you eat. Quit eating processed foods like cakes, biscuits, crisps, cheap bread and ready meals. By doing this you can drastically cut your sugar consumption and reduce your intake of potentially harmful hydrogenated oils and other additives.
Most processed foods are also designed to be hyper-palatable which means that scientists have ensured these foods press all the buttons to produce a flow of dopamine that makes them irresistible. Over-consumption is almost inevitable so it’s best to avoid them altogether.
Snacking is a very modern phenomenon. By stopping you will not only cut down on the energy-dense processed treats that make up aisle upon aisle in our supermarkets but you will also enjoy mealtimes a lot more.
When you quit snacking you remind yourself what being hungry really feels like — it makes everything taste better and allows you to derive huge satisfaction from even the simplest of foods.
You will also give your body a break from the near-constant process of digestion — not eating between dinner and breakfast could mean a solid 12 hours so when breakfast comes round you really are breaking the fast.
Even the packaging on processed food is designed to scream at you — and it will. From your fridge, your cupboards, your drawers and your shelves. By simply removing these items from your environment you will make the battle a whole lot easier. If you can’t resist buying them then try shopping online but if you must go to the supermarket, whatever you do, don’t go on an empty stomach.
Learn to Cook
Broader cultural changes together with the rise of processed food and fast food have caused a catastrophic loss of the time and skills required to cook well-balanced meals at home. However, if you are prepared to prioritise your diet and ignore the media’s cries for aesthetically perfect taste sensations at every meal then cooking is actually pretty easy.
Start with a small selection of simple dishes and practice them so that you have all the ingredients on hand and can easily rustle them up. Once you get into the habit then you can expand your repertoire. Be patient and don’t be too ambitious at the start. Remember that you’ll be helping the environment too.
With energy-dense foods now in abundance we have become blasé about portion sizes. Learn what sensible portion sizes look like — particularly of energy-dense carbohydrates. A portion of pre-cooked rice is a handful. Pasta could be 80g. Protein 150g. Fill the rest of your plate with vegetables.
Before the advent of television, most of us had a much healthier sleep routine — our circadian rhythm was, well, much more rhythmical. Now with access to endless TV shows, movies and social media we often sacrifice our sleep in favour of our screens.
While I don’t pretend to know what the effect of blue light is on obesity or how big a role cortisol plays, I do know that when I am tired I not only crave sugar and fat but my willpower goes out the window and my stress levels soar. One way or another, good sleep is critical for our physical and mental health.
We may be better off than we were 50 years ago but that doesn’t mean we are less stressed. Rampant materialism and keeping up with The Joneses via social media means we rarely live comfortably within our means.
Mounting financial and social pressures together with a bombardment of conflicting advice, advertising and news mean stress levels can quickly skyrocket.
Try to take some time out and enjoy the feeling of calm that a bit of moderation and minimalism can bring to your life. Do a health check on your social media use at the same time.
Enjoy Light Exercise
Walking and stretching are all that are required until you have your diet under control. High-intensity exercise is stressful on the body, will make it harder to control food cravings and you will almost certainly overestimate the number of calories that you’ve burned. Reward-eating may also undo any progress that you might have made.
The literature around weight loss is confusing. Take a step back from the science, look at your environment and make some obvious changes if you want to live a healthier life.
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