13 Weeks: Why Obesity?

Week 11 of my second 13 week season: low-carb diet and more exercise, tracking my weight, blood glucose, and body fat. You can follow me at my 13 Weeks Facebook page for daily updates, and you can join Fitocracy (free!) and follow my daily exercise, and maybe even start tracking your own. And yes, I have been slack with the exercise this last couple weeks.  Gimme a break, I had a car wreck.

Last week, Glenn Reynolds linked an interesting article in The Atlantic with a fascinating animated map.

Using CDC data, the map shows reported incidence of obesity by state starting in 1985. The reporting didn't get started uniformly, but as you watch the progress, there is an obvious increase until by 2010 every state is reporting "high" obesity rates.

This image has some obvious problems -- among other things, the definition of "obesity" here is using body mass index (BMI), which has flaws we've talked about before -- but it still makes the point that people in the U.S. have been gaining weight for quite a while now.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Among other things, we've gotten to the point that pretty much everyone can afford to get enough to eat.  As has been pointed out before, this was the first country in history in which the poor people are the fattest. But I noticed something else: if you watch it carefully, the increase in obesity, first in deeper blue  then a sort of funny beige color, and then on to red, starts in the early '90s.  I went looking for historical summaries of the Department of Agriculture's "food pyramid" and found several (see, eg, this.)

We seem not to do animated GIFs in the main pages. If it's not changing, click on the image.

It's an interesting coincidence that this increase in obesity started roughly at the same time that the U.S. government started to advocate low-fat, high-carb diets. I remember that period pretty clearly, because I thought it was wonderful. Entenmann's came out with no-fat pastries -- the no-fat cherry coffeecake was one of my favorites -- I could eat as much rice as I wanted, pasta was good and more pasta was better, as long as you didn't use butter because of the evil saturated fat and cholesterol.  But margarine, rich in transfats made by hydrogenating corn oil, was much better.

Oddly, this didn't seem to do much about my weight.  I was a vegetarian for a number of those years, and while I lost weight during the relatively short interval in which I was vegan, I also had mood swings and health problems until I added back at least eggs and dairy.

Of course, as we've talked about at length over the last six months, there was accumulating evidence that maybe high-carb diets weren't the answer.  Very low-carb diets were repeatedly discovered to produce weight loss, and when studied, it didn't appear that they actually caused high cholesterol.  Not that there were a lot of studies. Seeing that these studies kept being published in Science magazine, where he worked, got Gary Taubes interested; his investigation led to his New York Times article and then his book Good Calories, Bad Calories.

Then, in 2010, the USDA published their new food guide on a plate:

Work it out, and the new food guidelines still suggest getting about 65 percent of your daily calories from carbs, with a whole lot of those carbs coming from grains.

Now, for the last six months, I've been eating a diet that is just about the opposite of the "my plate" plan: it works out to be about 65 percent calories from fat, and less than 5 percent calories from all carbs, with almost none of the calories coming from grains. And of course as I've reported, my weight is down 10 percent, my blood sugar is down by a third (taking me from diabetic to "pre"-diabetic and as I described last week, needing to worry about hypoglycemia, not hyperglycemia), and my cholesterol is in the "very good" range in all measures but one.

I'm not alone on this, of course. It's reported anecdotally over and over again, and there are plenty of scientific publications to back them up.  Why is the "my plate" program still pushing carbs?

I think it's politics. Not in the sense of "right-wing, left-wing," but politics in the sense of the way large groups of people behave. (Although, as so-called "paleo" diets have become more popular among people who just don't trust the government anyway, famous dietary expert Matt Yglesias had no problem connecting paleo to the supposed anti-science attitude of conservatives.) Basically, once a government program gets started, there is a constituency for that program; if a program doesn't solve the problem, even if the problem is actually getting worse, the answer is always:

... more cowbell.

So here's the weekly tabular results. Some good, some bad, and, frustratingly, some good results that happened on Friday and Saturday, so I'm going to hasten to point out that I'm actually down to 268 again today. I just didn't put in a percent body fat this time -- I've now had measurements that range from 26 percent to 42 percent and I've begun to wonder if that measure is worth anything at all.

I also looked at the chart and noticed that my weight seems to hit a periodic high about every five weeks.

Maybe I can ascribe the last week's weight gain to it just being my time of the month.

Date7 day Weight7 day Glucose7 day BodyfatSum Fitocracy PointsWeekly Fitocracy Points
2013-03-28270.57113.8630.26% (??)8180499
2013-04-04271.31103.8629.95% (??)8404224
2013-04-11275.20109.5729.80% (??)9185781
Δ since 2-1-1.47-5.14-3.30% (??)N/AN/A