National Geographic’s Obesity BS
2007.10.15 prev next
Kirstie Alley, as played back from snippet of Oprah Winfrey: I really thought, I gotta crack the [weight-loss] code. I’m so irresponsible.
Howard Stern: Here, I’ll crack the code for you. Put a fuckin’ rope around your mouth. I just cracked the code! Here’s Howard Stern’s weight loss program. Tie a handkerchief around your mouth. And put your hands behind your back and handcuff ’em. You’ll lose weight. ... You reduce your calories, and you exercise.
—The Howard Stern Show, May 2009
Here’s a seductive quote from National Geographic’s “Science of Obesity” program:
Contrary to popular belief, eating enormous amounts of food isn’t the only way to become obese. Small increases in calorie intake can lead to large gains in weight over time. A forty-year-old obese man who carries one hundred extra pounds of body fat has only consumed, on average, 25 more calories per day over his whole life, than he’s burned. This is the equivalent of eating an apple every three days.
Yes, tricky doublespeak is a great way to inform people about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to managing their weight.
Try going on a good, comprehensive exercise and nutrition program, such as Bill Phillips’s Transformation, but add one apple every three days on top of Phillips’s program. What will happen? In about three months (maybe more) you’ll be in superb shape and your friends, relatives, and co-workers will be begging to know how you did it! That’s what will happen. And if you keep that plan going for forty years (assuming you started when you were, say, twenty), you’ll still be in great shape. You will not become obese, not to mention morbidly obese.
Now, technically, National Geographic’s program didn’t lie. You just have to listen very carefully to what they said, which was that the 100-pounds-overweight man ate an average of 25 more calories per day than he burned. But guess what? If I weigh 200 pounds, and my next-door neighbor weighs 500 pounds (as does the guy being profiled during the part of the show from which the quote was extracted — a bit more than 100 pounds overweight, I’d say!), then my neighbor’s body burns about 2.5 times as many calories as mine, just in the course of staying alive, walking around the house, etc.
So if I must eat about 3,000 calories each day to avoid losing weight, he must eat about 7,500 calories per day to avoid losing weight! — plus another 25 calories if he wants to slowly increase to about 501.7 pounds over the next few months. To gain beyond 501.7, he’ll need to add even more calories to his already-7,525-calorie daily diet.
So, before you start thinking that a third of an apple a day can turn you into the morbidly obese person next door — think again. There’s a river of high-calorie food going into that guy’s maw when you’re not looking. It’s physically impossible for the human body to get that fat any other way.
Here’s another pearl of wisdom from the same show:
Whatever weight he’s able to lose through diet and exercise comes right back on as soon as he resumes his routine.
The show conveniently neglected to tell us exactly what “his routine” is, but if it’s heavy overeating and little or no exercise, then yes, resuming that “routine” would be expected to reverse the benefits of a (now-abandoned) diet and exercise program. Duh.
The show contained a lot of computer animations and an MRI body scan of an obese person, which is probably how it got the title “Science of Obesity.” But the most important thing about science is an unwillingness to obscure basic facts about a subject. To consider itself scientific, this show really needed to include a blunt exposition of what Mr. 500 Lbs was eating on a typical day. It didn’t contain anything like that, and instead used that “25 calories” sleight-of-hand to make it seem like the guy might barely have been overeating at all.
The rest of the show was similarly obfuscational. A very obese woman went to several doctors who “misdiagnosed her with simple overeating.” When she found the right doctor, he diagnosed her weight problem as caused by an imbalance of the “fight-or-flight” hormone cortisol.
OK, having too much cortisol in your body probably isn’t a good thing. And it might indirectly result in a weight problem for some people who wouldn’t have one, other things being equal. But it’s a scientifically proven fact that the human body cannot become very overweight, and cannot stay that way, without a large overconsumption of calories. Cortisol — or any other hormone for that matter — cannot provide those calories.
Should an overproduction of cortisol (if such is actually determined to exist in a patient) be treated? If possible, yes. But it’s very hard for me to be optimistic about this woman’s future when I see her doctor uncritically repeating his patient’s claim that her obesity exists despite the fact that “her diet is very balanced; she eats about 1,300 calories a day.”
And it’s also very hard for me to be optimistic about the general accuracy of information I get from National Geographic’s “science” shows, when they uncritically repeat such a doctor’s preposterous affirmations of his patient’s delusions.
Update 2007.10.18 — Today I saw the BBC show “You Are What You Eat” for the first time. Gillian McKeith tracked everything a very obese businesswoman ate in one week, and laid it all out on a big table for her to look at. The show doesn’t have the serious tone and computer imagery of the National Geographic program, but guess which one is more scientific? Hint: Science = laying out the facts in plain view, not trying to cover them up.
Update 2009.05.27 — Howard Stern Show quote added
Update 2009.11.09 — “Why Doesn’t Exercise Lead To Weight Loss? ... In the study, 58 obese people completed 12 weeks of supervised aerobic training without changing their diets. The group lost an average of a little more than seven pounds, and many lost less than half that. How can that be?”
They didn’t change their diet from what, exactly? From the diet that made them obese in the first place? Big mystery!
Update 2010.07.01 — “Body-for-LIFE” changed to “Transformation”
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