01: Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself

The very first step that you can take to losing weight is to quit playing the blame game.  You have to realize that gaining weight and/or not being able to lose weight is not your fault.  In the United States (U.S.) in the 21st century, you are set up to fail.  As of this writing, 75% of adults in the U.S. are either overweight or obese, so if you fall into one of these categories you’re not alone, in fact you are in the majority.  In America, you are more likely to become overweight or obese than not to.

People who study obesity will tell you that you are obese due to the interaction of your genes and the environment you live in.

Genes + Environment = You

A slightly more nuanced way of explaining why Americans are overweight or obese is by acknowledging that not only do we have too much food, but so much of it is ultra-processed and highly palatable.

Genes + Environment + Highly Palatable Food = You

In the book Sugar, Fat, Salt, Michael Moss describes how the food industry fights for your “stomach share” (market share) by creating products that make your taste buds go crazy by using scintillating combinations of sugar, fat and/or salt.  They make the food taste really, really good but not so good that you’ll stop eating it, just good enough that you want more and more and more of the food.  In the food industry they call this sweet spot, the bliss point.  Why does this matter?  The researcher and hero of mine, Kevin Hall, has shown that when macronutrients are matched (ratio of fats, carbs, and protein) that people will eat, on average 500 more calories/day when offered highly processed foods versus minimally processed foods.  While I am not anti-processed foods, they are far easier to overindulge in than minimally processed (i.e. string cheese) or all natural foods (i.e. an apple).

Genes + Environment + Highly Palatable Food + Evolutionary Design = You

Stephan Guyenet has written one of my favorite books of all time, The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts that Make Us Overeat where he describes how we are evolutionarily designed to crave sugar and fat for calories to survive and reproduce and salt for water balance/hydration. Never in the history of mankind have we had such a wide variety of ultra-processed, highly palatable foods nor have we had such unlimited access to these tasty treats.  Food companies also know this and have designed product after product after product to take advantage of our hard wiring.  By seeking out foods that are high in sugar, fat and/or salt you are doing exactly what your body has been evolutionarily designed to do.

Humans, and other animals I would imagine, are pleasure seeking machines (see David Linden’s The Compass of Pleasure: How our Brains make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good) and unlike other vices such as alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, tobacco, and pornography, consuming ultra-processed highly palatable food doesn’t carry the same stigmas and is much more acceptable in our society.  If you built a time machine and dropped a caveman into our modern day world, he would become obese.  We are doing exactly what we are designed to do.

Genes + Environment + Highly Palatable Food + Evolutionary Design + Culture = You

Americans work more hours and take less vacations than anyone else in Western civilization.  People are overworked and underpaid in the rise of the gig economy and are cobbling together “careers” from various jobs to make ends meet.  For those individuals who are fortunate enough to be able to have kids, those kids are involved in more activities than ever before.  The pace of life is fast and grueling.  I recently became a parent and people have universally told me, welcome to the world of tired.

We’re all stretched so thin by our work responsibilities, parenting, caretaking, planning, household chores, and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life that meal planning becomes an afterthought.  The combination of stress, no time, convenience, seeking of a pleasure buzz, and just trying to get food on the table leads us to make poor dietary choices.

Our culture is killing us and we’ve known this for quite some time.  There have been a number of studies dating back to the 1960s showing that immigrants who move to the US weigh more after several years living in the US than their relatives still living in their native country (similar genetic makeup).  Just being in the US tends to make you fat.

Genes + Environment + Highly Palatable Food + Evolutionary Design + Culture + Personal Responsibility = You

There are a multitude of factors and interests that are actively working against you to get and stay lean but all of this would fall part if it were not for the role that personal responsibility plays in our culture.  The individualistic nature of American society places all blame and success on you, the individual, and tends to downplay the role of government and business.  You’re free to choose what you want to do and when you want to do it.  This ultimate freedom comes with the price of you being alone.  No one is looking out for you.  If you make poor food decisions, you are told that it’s your fault, not the companies that make the products nor is it the government’s role to regulate the excessive amount of ultra-processed highly palatable foods that are placed in front of your face day after day after day.

Everyone plays a role or at least should play a role in your health but they don’t.  You’re left alone on an island to fend for yourself.  It’s tempting to play the victim card and to either blame your body (your physiology, hormones, etc.) or to treat your failures as a personal characteristic (my lack of willpower and follow through) when in reality, in 21st century America, you are set up to fail. We place all of the blame on the victim’s (your) inability to regulate themselves in an impossible environment and none of the blame on the companies (perpetrators) bombarding you with ultra-processed foods and misinformation (see Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World). 

The e-book that I provide you with as part of The Science of Dieting weight loss program is to help you get off the island, realize that, yes, there is way too much money to be made for companies and policies to change to help you, and that ultimately, yes you’ll have to help yourself.  But you don’t have to do it alone.  There are people out there who you can trust (hopefully you will find me to be one of them) and you can succeed despite all the “dark interests” trying to prevent you from doing so.

Genes + Environment + Highly Palatable Food + Evolutionary Design + Culture + Personal Responsibility + Physical Inactivity = You

Exercise can help prevent weight gain and it is key for weight maintenance but without controlling your diet, exercise will not lead to any meaningful weight loss.  Exercise should be part of your overall plan but not “the plan”.

Every fitness center and gym across the country will taut the benefits of exercise for weight loss and this is one of their major selling points.  But research has shown that exercise alone will only lead, on average, to a measly weight loss of two pounds or less over the course of a year.  So throw out the argument that we’re not exercising enough.  Exercise is great for about a billion other reasons but it is not great for weight loss.

Hundreds of Thousands of Factors = You

Researchers have identified hundreds and probably thousands of factors that can lead to a person becoming obese.  While I have walked you through the primary categories that help make sense of it all, there’s one thing that’s for certain.  It’s not your fault.  As soon as we can get over the blame game and start feeling better about ourselves, the sooner we can move on and start doing something about it.  I’m not saying you can just flip the switch and these negative thoughts will just go away but on the days that you are beating yourself up, remember, it’s not your fault and you’re doing the best you can given the circumstances of our modern day life.