• Gustav Notander

Most people gain weight over time, many become overweight… Why?


Why is it so easy to get fat and unhealthy? Why is it so hard to stay reasonably lean and healthy?

It’s a fact that most people gain weight over the course of their adult life and many become overweight. Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975 according to the WHO and in a country like Sweden over 50% of the adult population was overweight or obese according to BMI in 2016 (57% men, 44% women). The numbers are similar or worse in all developed countries. If we would measure body fat percentage instead (which really is the important parameter) the picture would probably be even worse, since there’s a sizeable number of people who are ”skinny fat”, i.e. not overweight according to the BMI, but with an unhealthy body fat percentage (above 32% for women, 26% for men).

This is pretty well known, just like the fact that overweight and obesity is a serious risk factor for a number of diseases and negative health conditions.

So if this is common knowledge, why is it still a problem? Many of us know more or less what we should and should not eat, drink, and do to avoid gaining weight, but still we do.

Because information is not enough. Knowledge is not enough. Willpower is not enough.

We live in an “obesogenic” world. The environment around us is to a great extent (by design) leading us to make dietary choices and lifestyle choices that lead to overeating and overweight.

  • There is much more “junk food” on the market than ever before, i.e. food and drink with high caloric content, low nutritional value, and that doesn’t satisfy the hunger. (candy, soft drinks, snacks, fast food, etc.)

  • The availability of food, in particular “junk food”, has exploded  -  you can get something to eat or drink anywhere, anytime.

  • We are bombarded with marketing for food and drink which leads us (consciously or unconsciously) to make poor decisions when choosing and buying food

  • The norms and customs have changed towards accepting and encouraging more “junk food” consumption (in large part due to marketing)

  • Physical activity is designed away in public spaces, work places, transport, and homes to make life more convenient, comfortable, and efficient.

Because of all of these factors, those of us who don’t carefully keep track of how much we eat (which the vast majority doesn’t do) will tend to eat too many calories and gain weight. That is the core of the problem today.

We don’t get fat overnight, though. The trend in all industrialised countries is that the average person has a relatively small weight gain of maybe just one or a few kilos per year, but it adds up over time. This is not a natural effect of our biology  - historic data and studies on populations living in “non-modern” environments show that their weight is rather stable during life  -  it’s related to our current diet and lifestyle.

So, what’s the takeaway from all of this? Why is it so easy to get fat and unhealthy and why is it so hard to stay reasonably lean and healthy?

If there is one takeaway, it should be that eating healthy and living a healthy life is actually an uphill battle for most of us today. Even though we as individuals obviously have the final responsibility for what we put in our mouths and how physically active we are, it is clear that we don’t gain weight just because we are lazy, mentally weak, or stupid (perhaps some of us fall into those categories, but that’s not what drives the overall statistics). It’s just that the odds are stacked against us, or more correctly, that we have stacked the odds against ourselves…

There is some comfort in understanding this and hopefully it could take away some of the blaming and shaming of individuals who are overweight. But the problem remains… However, at least it’s easier to deal with a problem when it’s defined.

My personal takeaway is that this insight stresses the need for each one of us to create simple guidelines, rules, habits, and strategies that help us counterbalance all the factors pushing us towards bad food and lifestyle choices.

The environment always wins, so the challenge is to design your own personal environment to be stronger than the surrounding environment designed to maximize our convenience, pleasure, and comfort rather than our health and well-being.

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