The Big Problem of Obesity

It’s no coincidence that Americans are the single most overweight population on earth.
And contrary to what you might believe, our obesity epidemic lies more in our minds than in our bodies. Like many other parts of who we are, our favorite foods and activities are influenced largely by our development. I’m not sitting you down on a couch and eagerly awaiting a Freudian slip, but it’s undeniable that the habits we practice as children usually stick with us for the rest of our lives.
These habits stem from a certain mentality we express toward exercise and eating that is ingrained deep within our culture and even our humanity.
We’re programmed by both society and our biology to be as lazy as possible. Our society does host small cohorts of Mediterranean Diet gurus and avid runners who draw genuine pleasure from adhering to their healthy lifestyles — these are mere outliers. If most of us had our say, we’d cruise around the county fair in senior citizen scooters, eating deep fried Twinkies.
Nature is cheap.
Actually it’s even worse; it’s stingy.
Every living organism is evolved to function using the least amount of energy possible. It’s the only way that organisms can survive in a quite literal dog-eat-dog world and it’s the only way we made it out of the rainforests alive without starving to death. Despite the fact that we as citizens of developed nations do not face the same threats of hunger that primitive humans did on a regular basis, there are still remnants of this mentality that hold sway over our neural circuitry. Appetite centers in our brains still entice us to cram as much as we can into our mouths during a single sitting. Simply consider the popularity of the buffet in American dining. By tickling these regions of your brain, the notion of a buffet irresistibly impels you to pay an outrageous price for all too mediocre, lukewarm leftovers from yesterday.
I’m not usually one to advocate going against one’s nature but because our neural software is a bit outdated, I’d have to relent when it comes to overeating and under-exercising. Because of the rapid changes in society’s level of sophistication, namely in progressing from scattered hunter-gatherer cohorts to an agrarian civilization, evolution is still trailing behind us. We’ve transformed our way of living in less than 10,000 years whereas evolution usually works on a time scale ranging in the millions.
We’re on our own then. It’s time to take the next step of human evolution into our own hands and adapt our mentality on dieting and exercise toward one that’s more complementary with today’s lifestyles.
Our lives are distinctively different from those of our distant ancestors whom were unaffected by transient binges of high caloric intake because of a constant tendency for fight or flight circumstances. That’s not to mention that they also had shorter lifespans. We, on the other hand, are firsthand witnesses to heart disease, cancer and orthopedic disorders afflicting older members of our households. And we’re subconsciously aware that these health issues may best us in the future if we don’t watch our health.
Our obesity epidemic is distinguished by the fact that other societies around the world have yet to attain a level of affluence and luxury comparable to that of America. Hunger, malnutrition and physical labor are still integral components of their lifestyles that slow obesity incidence and health- related problems in those regions.
The only way we can effectively evade the long-term effects of overeating the processed, pesticide and hormone-inundated foods that have become unavoidable in our diets is by uprooting our archaic mentalities. Words like “diet” and the restricting connotations that accompany them need to be replaced with “lifestyle choices” that imply restraint from fast food out of taste and not out of obligation.
The foods we eat should not make us feel bloated and sluggish. Food is an energy source and it should give us just that. Similarly, we need to re-examine what exercise means to us. It shouldn’t just be a means of maintaining that beach body; it should be a genuinely pleasurable past time that we just can’t get enough of! Instead of prescribing 20-minute treadmill sessions, personal trainers should encourage their clients to go on morning hikes or learn a new sport. I bet that they’d actually stick with a regimen if their brains were challenged in addition to their bodies.
It’s quite interesting to contemplate the paradoxical nature of our innate inclination toward overeating and laziness.
In our ancestors’ environment, it was one of their greatest advantages to an unforgiving earth. But in our ever developing society, it may be our greatest pitfall unless we learn to evolve our mindsets and always keep them readied for change.

Faisal Chaabani is a fifth-year neurobiology major. He can be reached at fchaaban@uci.edu.