It’s January, the month of the diet. Prepare to have the secret of weight loss bestowed upon you every time you pick up a newspaper. But the reality is we have no more chance of losing weight on a ‘diet’ than we do of flying by flapping our arms.
No matter how special we’d like to think we are, when it comes to our body, we are just mammals. Ok we’re pretty bright mammals (well you are, if you’re reading this). But for all that braininess, the carcass we walk around in is 100 per cent pure mammal.
Just like every other mammal, we have a sophisticated mechanism for making sure we keep functioning. On auto-pilot, we keep our heart beating, our lungs pumping and our temperature stable. We also ensure that our brain (and every other cell in our body) has exactly enough fuel to perform at its best (regardless of what’s going on in the outside world). None of this requires a moment’s thought (literally).
The control system for all of these (and infinitely more) processes is our hormones. Hormones tell our bodies when (and how much) to grow. They tell (some of) us when to prepare for making babies. And they control how much fat we store (and where we store it).
We can’t control our hormones with will power (or any other conscious thought). We can no more think ourselves taller (or shorter) than we can think ourselves a lower body temperature.
A child grows because hormones tell every (relevant) part of the child’s body to grow. The hormones instruct the cells to demand more energy and other hormones accommodate the demand by up-regulating appetite control. The child eats more and has the building blocks for growth. The growth drives the appetite, not the other way round.
The science is now abundantly clear that another type of growth (this time horizontal) is also hormone driven. Our appetite control hormones are exquisitely balanced to ensure we have just the right amount of energy on hand.
But when that balance is disrupted, our fuel management system can veer wildly out of control. A disrupted appetite control system can store too little or too much fuel. Too little looks like anorexia, too much looks like, well, most of us. Obesity is a symptom of a failure of the balance of hormones controlling how much food we take in.
This hormone dysfunction causes us to store too much fat in our cells, but the body is not aware the fat is there and keeps demanding food. Our appetite control system thinks we are starving even while we have more than enough fat being packed away (usually in very unsightly places).
A growing child can’t fight hormone driven appetite demands with willpower. And we can’t control weight gain with willpower either.
When an obese person restricts the amount of food they eat, they are not changing the underlying error in the appetite control system. The body thought it was starving before the diet, now it’s really starving. It will not use the fat store to satisfy its need for food because the hormonal disruption means it doesn’t even know it’s there.
The hormones will force the body to sacrifice muscle and even organs to make up for the missing calories. And the whole time, the dieter will feel like they are starving to death. No wonder no-one can stay on a diet (long term).
Obesity is a symptom of appetite control dysfunction, but it is not the only one. Heart disease, type II diabetes, kidney disease and dementia (to name just a few) are all symptoms of the same underlying disorder. And just like symptoms of any disease, not everybody has all the symptoms appear at the same time.
Not all Kidney disease suffers are obese (but most are). Not all heart disease victims are obese (but most are). And 15 percent of Type II Diabetes suffers are not overweight.
We are frequently told that the ‘cure’ for most of these diseases is cure the ‘disease’ of obesity (and the way to do that is to eat less and exercise more). But that is the same as being told to take panadol to ‘cure’ a toothache. It will (temporarily) eliminate (or reduce) a symptom, but it does absolutely nothing for the underlying cause.
Recent studies have proven beyond doubt that we can induce all of the symptoms of appetite hormone disruption in humans by simply feeding them the fructose half of sugar. The cluster of ‘symptoms’ of the fructose appetite disruptor is currently costing our health system more than $60 billion (three times our defence budget) a year. And it is costing individuals much more than that (in quality of life) every single day.
But so far there is no sign that those in charge of our health dollars are prepared to look any further than the ‘panadol cure’.
The plan is to keep telling fat people they are fat because they make ‘poor choices’. The plan is to tell people to control hormones with willpower. And the plan is (apparently) to continue to support the explosive growth of industries which take our money to ‘cure a disease’ (when all they are doing is masking a symptom).
Lap-banders, shake-sellers, liposuction merchants and wellness providers will continue to lobby government for more and more public money. And (when they give in) health bureaucrats will justify the expense with (increasingly) bellicose demands that we trim down. But the science says we can expect that Plan to have just as much success as it has in the last four decades (during which overweight and obesity rates have doubled).
A change of course will be a great embarrassment to many eminent ‘health professionals’, but change course we must. So as you flip through the avalanche of calorie reducing diets from the New Year health gurus remember panadol doesn’t cure rotten teeth. And we will not cure obesity until we start treating it as a symptom rather than a disease.