Obesity¹ is a leading health problem around the globe. Unfortunately, obesity comes with a packaged of various other diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, dementia, and many other. Altogether these diseases kill millions of people a year.
Does willpower have something to do with obesity?
Many people subscribe to the idea that obesity is an issue of willpower – the lack thereof. An informed individual will however think of this idea as ridiculous.
Generally, the state of our well-being is a result of our actions and choices. Say we gain weight if we eat more, or lose weight if we eat less and live a more active lifestyle.
However, human behaviour is complex. It is driven by various biological factors like genetics, hormones, and neural circuits. Having said that, eating behaviour is much like sexual behaviour or sleeping behaviour – driven by biology. Behavior, just like sexual behavior and sleeping behavior, is driven by biological processes.
To say that behavior is simply a function of willpower (definition: the strength of will to carry out one’s decisions, wishes, or plans) is reductionist, or too simplistic – prejudicial at worst.
The processes leading to obesity is multifactorial, and multifaceted, and most people’s willpower crumbles under the force of other signals, both internal and external.
So, what REALLY causes obesity?
Here are 10 factors that I believe are leading causes of weight gain, obesity and metabolic disease, that really have nothing to do with willpower.
Obesity has a strong genetic component. Studies show that offsprings of obese parents are much more likely to become obese than offsprings of lean parents.
However, genetics isn’t black and white either. It is not necessarily true that obesity is completely predetermined by genetics because our genes are NOT as set in stone as you may think – the signals we send our genes can have a major effect on which genes are expressed and which are not.
Non-industrialized societies rapidly become obese when they start eating a typical Western diet. Their genes didn’t change, the environment and the signals they sent to their genes changed.
It does seem clear that there are genetic components that do affect our susceptibility to gain weight. Studies on identical twins demonstrate this very well.
2. Engineered “Hyperpalatable” Junk Foods
Junk foods are ubiquitous. They are literally everywhere, and we love them. These products are engineered to be cheap, last long on the shelf and taste so incredibly good that we just can’t get enough. Oh, that is so true.
However, in making foods “hyperpalatable,” the food manufacturers ensure that we eat a lot and decide to buy and eat them again and again – to get us addicted to them.
3. Food Addiction
These “hyperpalatable” junk foods cause powerful stimulation of the reward centers in our brains – a process elicited through drugs like cocaine, nicotine, cannabis, and also, alcohol.
Hyperpalatable junk foods can in fact cause full-blown addiction in susceptible individuals. The biochemical changes in the body that brought about and is likewise worsened by food addiction makes it difficult to resist it.
4. Aggressive Marketing
Junk food companies constantly market very unhealthy products. These food companies make misleading claims and they spend massive amounts of money sponsoring scientists and major health organizations to influence their research and guidelines.
Without proper guidance from parents, children can easily be hooked to junk foods. In fact, children are getting more obese this decade than in any other decade before. The number of overweight or obese infants and young children (aged 0 to 5 years) increased from 32 million globally in 1990 to 42 million in 2013 (World Health Organization, 2013)
Insulin² is a very important hormones made by the pancreas that allows the body to use sugar from carbohydrates in the food we eat for energy or to store glucose for future use.
The Western diet causes insulin resistance in many individuals, elevating insulin levels all over the body, making energy selectively get stored in the fat cells instead of being available for use.
The best way to lower insulin is to cut back on carbohydrates, which usually leads to an automatic reduction in calorie intake and effortless weight loss. No calorie counting or portion control required (Source 1, Source 2).
6. Certain Medications
There are many pharmaceutical drugs that can cause weight gain as a side effect. These medications include diabetes medication, antidepressants, and antipsychotics among other.
These drugs don’t cause a “willpower deficiency” – they alter the function of the body and brain, making it selectively store fat instead of burning it.
Leptin³ is crucial to obesity. In fact, it’s been called “obesity hormone” or “fat hormone”. Conversely, it is also called “starvation hormone”. What’s leptin exactly?
Leptin is a hormone produced by the fat cells and is supposed to send signals to the hypothalamus (the part of our brain that controls food intake) that we’re full and need to stop eating.
Obese people have leptin resistance4 (meaning: leptin is not working the way it should). This is the leading factor in the pathogenesis of obesity.
In other words, obese people have lots of fat and lots of leptin. The problem is that the leptin isn’t working as it should, because for some reason the brain becomes resistant to it.
8. Food Availability
Although not true to all parts of the word, in the flourishing Western and emerging countries of the developing world, food availability has massively increased, and also, the collective waistline of the world.
Unfortunately, junk food (including conventional fast foods) dominates the food boom. They are cheaper, and readily available anywhere (even in gas stations).
Some people, especially in poorer neighborhoods, don’t even have the option of purchasing real foods. The convenience stores in these areas only sell sodas, candy and processed, packaged junk foods.
How can it be a matter of choice if you literally don’t have a choice? Obesity is not just a personal issue. It is a social issue, too.
9. Added Sugar
Added sugar is half glucose, half fructose. We get glucose from all sorts of foods, including starches, but we get the majority of our fructose from added sugars.
Excess fructose consumption causes insulin resistance and elevated insulin levels . It may cause leptin resistance. It also doesn’t cause satiety (fullness) in the same way as glucose. All of these contribute to energy storage and ultimately, obesity.
There are a lot of information in the internet, but unfortunately, only a few are accurate and truthful. People all over the world are being misinformed about health and nutrition.
Researchers and scientists are also silenced, or influenced by powerful companies. For example, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the biggest organization of nutrition professionals in the world) is heavily sponsored by the likes of Coca Cola, Kellogg’s and Pepsico. The American Diabetes Association is sponsored by drug companies by millions of dollars per year, companies which directly profit from the failed low-fat advice.
Even the official guidelines promoted by the government seem to be designed to protect the interests of the corporations instead of promoting the health of individuals.
In the end, uninformed choices are poor choices.
¹“Obesity: MedlinePlus.” 2015. 11 Mar. 2016 <https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/obesity.html>
²“What is Insulin? – Important hormone allows your body to …” 2014. 11 Mar. 2016 <http://www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/type-1-diabetes/what-insulin>
3“Leptin Hormone & Supplements: Do They Work for Obesity …” 2015. 11 Mar. 2016 <http://www.webmd.com/diet/obesity/the-facts-on-leptin-faq>
4“Leptin resistance – WebMD.” 2015. 11 Mar. 2016 <http://www.webmd.com/diet/obesity/the-facts-on-leptin-faq?page=2>