Monday, January 31, 2011

Scientific American Magazine: Looking at the Wrong Solution for Obesity

You could forgive the media for its often ignorant position concerning obesity and nutrition but when the same ignorance is displayed on a magazine that is oriented toward the scientific community and its adherents, one has to wonder to what extent does this ignorance steer people away from exploring the right questions and answers.

The recent issue (February 2011) of Scientific American takes a stab at the scientific view of obesity and offers a remedy. In the article "How to fix the obesity crisis" author David H. Freedman wonders why is it so hard to lose weight and keep it off if the way to do it is simply "consume fewer calories than you expand." The low-carb community will recognize this as the "calories -in/calories-out dogma that is questioned by a number of reputable researchers. yet he admits that not much of a dent has been made in dealing with the current epidemic. Freedman tells us that the best approach to solving the obesity epidemic would be "to build on reliable behavioral-psychology methods developed over 50 years and proved to work in hundreds of studies."

It is interesting that in recent years the behaviorists have zoomed in on another area of human failures  - obesity and ready to treat it as if it were merely a psychological/behavioral problem. The behaviors to be corrected are over eating and maintaining a sedentary lifestyle. Forget biochemistry, forget molecular biology, forget that we are organisms pushed and pulled, twisted and re-twisted with molecules, hormones, and various chemicals. No, we are nothing but a series of behavioral events being manipulated by the environment - on the outside - and therefore obesity can be remedied through behavioral therapy. But don't carbs cause insulin to behave in a certain way? What about the regulation of lipoproteins? Are they behavioral events in and of themselves? The behaviorists don't seem to care - we are an event in an outside world - the inner world does not matter. It is all about friends, economics, food shelves, predispositions, taste buds and so on.

Freedman points out that as early as the 1960s studies based on behaviorism recognized "some basic conditions" that link themselves to the success of losing weight and keeping it off - measure calories, exercise, make small changes, eat balanced meals, and lower fats. Is he confusing correlation and cause? What Freeman does not look into are the numerous studies that show this so-called link to be at the root of the current epidemic. The link is a lie; it is a myth that we have been inundated with. Counting  calories, replacing fats with carbs, and exercising have all come under attack in recent years. Unfortunately Freeman seems to be unaware of it. He wants to fortify that very wrong approach with behavioral modification in order to correct the shortcomings of approaches like Weight Watchers by tailoring it for individuals rather than take the traditional "one fits all" approach. Are we supposed to hire our own behaviorist to deal with our obesity issues in the same way that psychoanalysis has always operated one on one? It would seem so when reading this article.

For Freedman, it seems that only behaviorists can get us to do a better job of counting calories, be motivated to exercise, avoid fats and so on. That is, until the pharmaceutical companies find the solution. As he says, "someday biology will provide us with a pill that readjusts our metabolism so we burn more calories or resets our built-in cravings so we prefer broccoli to burgers."

It is obvious that Freedman is out of touch with recent developments in the low-carb scientific community. Perhaps, he chooses to ignore it but, in any case, the article diminishes the stature of Scientific American. To uphold a dogma that has failed us and say it only needs to be improved with a new twist puts the brakes on critical thinking and innovative research.

Freedman supports a point of view that has been a monumental failure for more than 40 years and it comes just when the new updated 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans comes out, once again, in favor of this misguided and wrong approach to obesity. The guidelines will continue to fuel this wrong approach and Freedman's solution will not help. The root cause is not understood. Knowing the cause is the first thing needed before one embarks on a remedy. This failure is given tacit approval by Scientific American magazine.

At the end of the article under the heading of "more to explore" Freedman cites the following works: B.F. Skinner, About Behaviorism, Vintage 1974; Michael F. Rozen and Mehmet C. Oz, You on a Diet: The Owner's Manual for Waist Management, Free Press, 2006; Nia S. Mitchell et al., Determining the Effectiveness of Take Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS), published online; the National Institutes of Health website:  That says it all.

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