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A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. November's Theme: "Faith"
Volume 3 Issue 1 ISSN# 1708-3265
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No Quick Fix to our Diet Dilemmas
by David Suzuki PhD

If dietary fat was a cartoon villain, it would probably be portrayed as a towering, virtually unstoppable monster. But is it a villain of our own creation?

For years, North Americans have waged a war on fat in our food. Guided by government recommendations, media stories and popular diets, we've been conscientiously watching our fat consumption. A low-fat diet, we have been told, is the cornerstone to a healthy heart and body.

As a result, since the mid-1980s the words "low fat" and "fat free" began to appear on just about every food product imaginable. An entire industry developed around producing low-fat snack foods and consumers have gobbled them up in hopes of losing weight and improving health.

At the same time, more men and women have been dragging themselves to the gym to burn off extra fat, while others have turned to surgery and drugs in attempts to lose weight and appear younger and healthier. It's a booming business. Researchers writing in the journal Science reported that they've bred mice with a gene removed, which thereby appears to inhibit the accumulation of body fat. The researchers say they hope to produce a drug that would suppress the gene in humans, enabling people to eat more without gaining weight.

Obesity is indeed a huge problem in North America. It shortens lives, increases the likelihood of illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, and creates a terrible burden on health care - with an annual price tag of $110 billion in the US alone, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

On the surface, it appears we're winning the war on fat. Dietary fat consumption has actually dropped from more than 40 per cent of our total calories 30 years ago to 34 per cent today. So why aren't we getting thinner? Obesity rates in the US remained relatively constant between 1960 and 1980. But since then - as dietary fat consumption has decreased - obesity rates have jumped from 14 per cent to more than 22 per cent. Today, more than half of all Americans are now considered overweight and Canadians aren't far behind. Meanwhile, incidence of heart disease, which a low-fat diet was originally thought to reduce, has yet to drop.

In fact, according to an article in Science, there is actually very little scientific basis for our demonization of dietary fat. Decades of research and hundreds of millions of dollars have failed to prove that eating less fat will make us live longer. Recent data on heart disease trends in Europe suggest that eating fresh vegetables year-round is more important to health than is the amount of fat we eat. Even saturated fat, which is often regarded as the worst culprit in heart disease, has both beneficial and negative health effects.

One of the reasons why our reduced fat diets are not reducing obesity is that we haven't been eating less overall, just less fat. Instead, we've switched to highly processed, carbohydrate-rich foods which could actually be making things worse because they can induce a hormonal change that stimulates hunger and promotes overeating.

A sedentary lifestyle punctuated by weekly workouts at the gym may not be the best way to reduce obesity either. A study published in the journal Nature found that the best way to increase metabolic rate (the rate at which our bodies burn calories) is through frequent, moderate levels of exercise such as walking, rather than less frequent bouts of intense exercise.

Oh, and those genetically engineered, gluttonous mice? Although they appear normal, researchers caution that they also run a consistently higher body temperature, which may not be very healthy for them in the long-term. In other words, there appears to be no quick fix to our weight woes. And there doesn't appear to be an ultimate villain, either.

David T. Suzuki PhD, the Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. David has received consistently high acclaim for his thirty years of award-winning work in broadcasting; explaining the complexities of science in a compelling, easily understood way. He is well known to millions as the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's popular science television series, The Nature of Things. Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

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