Today an article in The Atlantic discusses "obesogens:" environmental contaminants that some researchers believe are making people fat. Obesogens? Great, another meaningless buzzword we can discuss at dinner parties instead of facing facts: eating too much and not exercising enough is what's making them fat. Period.
We are always looking for a way to ignore the volume of food we stuff in our faces, to believe the actual amount doesn't matter if we can strike the right balance of ingredients. In the '90s it was all about fat. We could eat a boat load of sugar if we avoided fat. Problem: sugar contains lots of calories. Then it was the protein diets of the Atkins ilk. If we ate mostly protein our bodies would perform a magical internal equation that negated calories. Now it's the "paleo" diet and the Dukan and whatever the hell else.
Despite all these approaches, more than a quarter of us Brits are obese, and more than two-thirds are overweight. That's because so many of us consume more energy than we expend, which equals weight gain. Now researchers are saying they have another culprit: obesogens. The term is a catchall for anything lurking in baby formula, pesticides, plastics—the list goes on—that sneakily makes us fat. Eliminate those, and you'll be well on your way to that beach body.
Except good luck finding, let alone removing the obesogens from your life. Consuming fewer calories than your body uses for energy is much more straightforward and proven to work. I don't doubt that the researchers quoted in The Atlantic article are finding something bad associated with organic contaminants, and that we don't want them in our diet. But all of this hand wringing about obesogens and fat versus sugar and glycemic indexes and cave man diets ignores the one thing that we know for sure about how you can become less obese: eat less, exercise more. Says Dr. George Bray, professor of medicine at Louisiana State University, in the article:
"It doesn't make any difference... Calories count. If you can show me that it doesn't work, I'd love to see it. Or anybody else who says it doesn't—there ain't no data the other way around."
Certainly some ingredients are healthier than others. Fruits and veggies provide essential vitamans and nutrients that humans need. Too much red meat can raise your cholesterol. And now we even have scientific evidence that Cheerios reduce cholesterol! But if we're talking about obesity, fretting over the evils of "obesogens" or high-fructose corn syrup or genetics when we don't manage to lose weight is just a way to not talk about what no one wants to face: eating less and exercising more is the most reliable way to lose weight.
I tried magical calorie thinking for years. In the late '80s and early '90s I figured I could eat as much TCBY as I wanted. Then it was Smartwells fat-free cookies. Guess what? When I ate too much and didn't exercise, I gained weight.
Marion Nestle, the author of Why Calories Count says in The Atlantic piece:
"...why invoke complicated explanations when the evidence for calories is so strong? Let's say obesogens affect a body weight regulatory factor, which they very well might do. But so what? Weight is regulated by more than a hundred biological factors, and these are redundant, which means that if something goes wrong with one of them the others fill in the deficit."
Bray and Nestle are voices of reason.
None of this means eating less and exercising more is easy! Food is delicious. It's a major struggle for me to not eat an entire hubcap-sized plate of pasta or a molten chocolate lava dessert, and often I just go ahead and eat them. Don't judge me. People who have trouble losing weight (i.e. everyone) aren't bad. But instead of distracting folks with complicated new terminology and possibly evil ingredients, maybe we should be focusing on how good it feels to be fit? I can't remember feeling better than when I was training for marathons. I was one of the slowest runners around, but I felt amazing. I only run a few miles at a time these days, but I'm elated when I do. Exercise is proven to combat depression and to make you smarter. People who eat healthy are in better moods. Let's proselytise those results. That just might make a healthy calorie equation a bit more attainable.