Statistics on Overweight Americans:
How Obesity has Mangled Our Economy, and Why the Best Solution May Be to Cut Carbohydrates from Our Diets

Statistics on overweight Americans are scary.

In 1998, researchers for the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that obesity cost our country $78.5 billion. By 2008, that number had shot up to $147 billion per year.

Surveys like NHIS try to factor in both the direct and indirect costs of obesity as well as the costs of conditions that obesity predisposes for, like Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and heart disease.

Could these statistics on overweight Americans radically UNDERSELL the scope of the problem?

Look at the total costs created by obesity and all the other diseases of civilization it predisposes for (including some oddball outliers like gout and acne). Then consider all the tertiary and quaternary costs of all these diseases (e.g. time off of work, the costs of therapy to repair low self-esteem, the ergonomic costs of obesity etc etc).

All told, we are probably talking about a price tag of TRILLIONS of dollars every year.

Whether the obesity epidemic costs us trillions or merely hundreds of billions of dollars annually, it is clearly a huge deal.

But when our pundits and elected representatives discuss the healthcare crisis and the current economic recession, they rarely if ever acknowledge how central the obesity epidemic is to all our woes.

Why not?

Political discussions tend to focus on how to control insurance companies; how to provide coverage for people; how to keep taxes low; how to enact tort reform and so forth. Obviously key issues.

But given all the Sturm und Drang over healthcare reform, we hear remarkably little discussion about the obesity epidemic and the effectiveness of the tools we are using to combat it.

Obviously, the healthcare/economic crisis cannot ALL be blamed on the obesity epidemic. But if you don’t address a problem that drains 100s of billions (or trillions) of dollars a year from the US economy, how can you possibly develop a good long-term solution?

It’s preposterous and unacceptable. This issue needs attention.

Why don’t we talk about it? Mainly, because we are stumped.

The sweeping majority of policy makers, healthcare experts, physicians, patients and political representatives work from the prevailing theory about the obesity epidemic. This idea, commonly referred to as the “toxic environment” hypothesis, blames the stratospheric statistics on overweight Americans on overeating and sedentary behavior.

We Americans spend more time indoors playing video games and surfing the net than we used to. We eat more calories than we used to thanks to sneaky fast food advertising techniques, super sizing, and general American gluttony and consumerism.

This is certainly plausible sounding. And we (the site’s authors) used to accept this theory implicitly. After all, it makes sense. You see obese people at the mall food court. These people gulp down large pan pizzas by themselves and take the escalator instead of the stairs. They obviously overeat and don’t get enough exercise. For whatever reason, they are incapable of (or don’t want to) help themselves.

Fat people have only themselves to blame for being fat. This is the prevailing opinion about why we see the startling statistics on overweight Americans.

The medical community may couch this in gentler terms. But ultimately they, too, tell us that fat people don’t have the willpower to control what they eat and lack the discipline to stick with a regular exercise routine.

This conventional wisdom falls apart, however, when you look at its implications.

The sloth/gluttony hypothesis about the obesity epidemic turns out to be quite ridiculous and quote unsupported by the data. You can read more about the cause of obesity in our population here on our site. We also recommend Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories for insight into how we all became convinced that overeating/inactivity causes obesity.

Once you reject the gluttony/sloth theory, you still need to explain why we see these astronomical statistics on overweight Americans.

The answer, surprisingly, is that the advice we’ve been getting is wrong. We’ve been told to eat less fat and more carbohydrate. We’ve been told to cut out salt and to count calories and to exercise. But these solutions only glancingly (if at all) address the root problem.

The core issue isn’t overeating or inactivity.

It’s hormonal problems affecting the fat tissue itself. When you eat too much sugar and produce too much insulin, this makes you store fat in the fat cells and ultimately causes you to eat more and exercise less.

Think about it this way.

Imagine if you go to the doctor complaining of a fever, sore throat, runny nose, hacking cough and achy feeling all over. The doctor would probably tell you that you’ve got a cold or infection and would prescribe appropriate treatment. (For instance, an antibiotic or bed rest.) The doctor would NEVER tell you to go home and dunk your head in a tub of ice water, hoping that by bringing down your fever this way, you’ll somehow magically cure all the other symptoms.

Sure, the fever ASSOCIATES with the other symptoms. But that doesn’t mean it CAUSES them. Solutions that only address the fever will not fix the cold or infection.

But go to that same doctor with a big belly, and you will get a lecture about the statistics on overweight Americans. You will be told to eat less and exercise more. The assumption here is that changes in caloric balance will cause changes in the amount of energy stored in your body.

But what we are saying is that changes in caloric balance are an EFFECT not a CAUSE of the weight gain.

So telling a fat person to eat less and exercise more is the same thing as telling a sick person with a fever to dunk her head into ice water. Sure, it may temporarily fix one of the symptoms. But unless and until you get at the root problem -- hyperinsulinemia and too many carbs in the diet --you cannot ultimately make a dent in these depressing statistics on overweight Americans. And you could even make the problem worse.

Okay, assuming this alternative theory is correct, what can be done?

  • We need a Manhattan Project size effort to fix everything about our approach that's broken.
  • We need to ID all the different kinds of insulinogenic factors in our diets and our lifestyles and time to repair them.
  • For instance, a campaign to get people to sleep more could theoretically help, as could a campaign to de-stress people by helping them process information more effectively.
  • We can also make great progress by abandoning weight loss programs premised on the caloric balance hypothesis.
  • Assuming that carbs and insulin are the problem, if we abandon the low fat diet in favor of a low carb diet, our population should become less sick and less fat.
  • We should become happier and healthier and more productive.
  • This would in turn relieve strain on the healthcare system and save us billions if not trillions of dollars per year.
  • The healthcare crisis and economic crisis would be solved.
  • Q.E.D.

Carbs are the problem. Over secretion of insulin is the problem.

Until we address these core issues, the statistics on overweight Americans will continue to daunt us. But once we do, we should easily be able to make serious headway.

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