Stress Causing Americans to "SuperSize"
IT IS CURRENTLY REPORTED that two out of three adults are either overweight or obese, and the numbers continue to climb. As a result, statistics demonstrate that a significant portion of our population is being diagnosed with chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. Even more shocking is that we are experiencing these conditions at earlier ages than previously reported. It is not unusual today to hear about a young person in their twenties diagnosed with mature onset diabetes, which is normally developed during middle-age.
On May 7, 2004, a controversial and award-winning movie aimed at exploring the
obesity epidemic hit theatres. In Super Size Me, a tongue-in-cheek look at the legal,
financial and physical costs of America's hunger for fast food, filmmaker Morgan
Spurlock explores the horrors of school lunch programs, declining health education and
physical education classes, food addictions and the extreme measures people take to lose
weight. As a centerpiece of the film, Spurlock puts his own body on the line, living on
nothing but McDonald's for 30 days following three rules:
1) Eat only what is available over the counter
2) No "super sizing" unless offered
3) Consume every item on the menu at least once
In the end, Spurlock has a weight gain of 24 pounds and experiences harrowing visits to the doctor. The issues that are explored in Super Size Me beg the question, what has changed in our environment to cause this obesity problem to reach epidemic proportions? Furthermore, what is causing people to overeat as we do?
A groundbreaking study, reported in 2003 by the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill, found that between 1977 and 1996, portions sizes for key food groups grew
markedly in the United States, not only at fast food restaurants but also in homes and at
conventional restaurants. In particular, portion sizes for salty and sugary foods,
essentially "comfort foods," experienced the most dramatic portion size increases. For
example, the USDA's recommended serving size for a cookie is half an ounce, while the
average cookie sold in restaurants was found to be 700% larger.
The by-products of our affluent American society, envied by many around the
world, have a definite dark side, our obesity rate, for starters. In a culture where more is
better and disposable income is abundant, when it comes to eating we have developed a
"more food, more conveniently and more often" attitude.
STRESS: A PRECURSOR TO OBESITY
Certainly, no one forces us to eat more than our body needs, so what is driving
this "hunger" for more? Over the last two decades, almost proportionally to the dramatic
increase in food consumption and chronic disease diagnoses, the amount of stress in our
society and on each of us individually has increased significantly. Stress is the term
medical researcher Hans Selye, M.D., Ph.D., gave to the experience our bodies go
through when we have to adjust or adapt to various changes during the course of the day.
While many of us think of stress in relationship to emotional states, many other factors
can exert an equally detrimental effect on our bodies. When we do not get enough sleep
or rest, work or exercise too much, neglect our nutritional needs, have an infection, have
allergies, injuries or trauma, undergo dental or surgical procedures, have emotional
upsets, or deal with any aspect of reproductive function such as pregnancy, menopause,
etc., our bodies must chemically and neurologically adapt in order to survive. Part of this
adaptation process relies heavily on the nutrition that is available for the kidney's adrenal
glands to produce the adaptive hormones. It is often this aspect of stress that can lead to
overeating, and what's more, overeating the types of foods that cause unhealthy weight
HOW IT WORKS
Thanks to the work of M.I.T. professor Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., and others we
now understand the significant role that a neurotransmitter or "chemical messenger"
called serotonin plays in producing our cravings for complex carbohydrates and sugars,
two of the largest contributors to unhealthy weight gain. Serotonin and other
neurotransmitters are produced by our bodies as "feel good" hormones. Under stress, we
do not have enough of these hormones and we become motivated to "self-soothe" by
behaviors that lead to the increase of serotonin. Overeating of carbohydrates and fatty
rich foods or "comfort foods" such as cookies, ice cream, etc., significantly increases
these hormones. Many addictions such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and abusing drugs
are also attempts to self soothe and increase serotonin, but no other addictive or
unhealthy behavior is as socially acceptable and as easily available as overeating. We can
do it anywhere, anytime, alone or with company. It is no wonder we have such a love
affair with eating.
In addition, our body's need for certain nutrients, specifically protein, vitamins A,
C, and E, unsaturated fatty acids, cholesterol, and minerals, skyrockets when we are
"adapting" under stress. Often, if we do not stop the stress cycle or do not appropriately
supplement these nutrients, we can turn to overeating to satisfy the body's demands for
the fuel it needs to keep dealing with the stress we are experiencing.
For a period of time, foods that comfort, soothe or supplement can make us feel
calmer until our level of serotonin drops again or until we become more exhausted and
need to feed ourselves, yet again. Then, we start the cycle all over and consume more
carbohydrates and fatty rich foods until we feel better. This is the cycle of self medication
or self-soothing practiced in homes, offices, restaurants, automobiles and, yes, even
bathrooms across America. The long-term effect of such behaviors, apart from obesity
and escalating chronic diseases, is that our nervous systems are being hyper-stimulated.
Anxiety, exhaustion, depression, overeating and insomnia are just a few of the symptoms
we experience when our nervous systems are working on overload.
As a result, it is no wonder that within the last year, low-carbohydrate diets have
proven effective for so many people. Approximately 20% of Americans or 20 million
people are currently on a low-carb diet. For many of us, our stress level is a major factor
in the over-consumption of carbohydrates; therefore, reducing or eating normal amounts
of carbohydrates is spawning weight loss. The real issue, however, is: How long can we
reduce our carbohydrate loading without reducing our stress levels and the behaviors that
create elevated stress in the first place?
CAUSES OF STRESS
Prior to the early 1970s, the majority of family units were structured as a one
wage earner household where the male worked and the female stayed at home taking care
of the house and family. Driven largely by social and socioeconomic factors, all of that
has changed. Now, the overwhelming majority of families include both parents working
and we find ourselves on a treadmill of more work, more responsibilities, more demands
and non-stop scheduling that has many of us in a state of physical and, at times,
Added to the mix is our competitive culture, which often leads to isolation or
"them against us" thinking. Isolation of this nature causes additional "hidden" stress. A
perennial truth is that the whole world is one family." It is said that
there is only one disease, the disease of separateness; separating
oneself from the awareness that as members of the human family,
we are one living collective, or organism. The drama created by a
"oneup" or "one-down" dynamic, which we find in competitive
societies, can lead to the exhaustion and the psychosocial
behavioral issues that can contribute to overeating.
UNDERSTANDING EXHAUSTION AND ITS EFFECT ON OBESITY
The tipping point at which our bodies can no longer
compensate for or adapt to the stress they are under is based in
large part on the threshold of nutritional competency and the state
of integrity of our nervous system. When our central nervous
system, which governs every cell in our body and makes life
possible, is not working efficiently, we have a decrease in bodily function and the ability
to adapt to the world we live in. Chronic fatigue syndrome, CFS, is rampant in our
culture today and growing at an alarming rate because of the over-stimulation and
increased demands placed on our nervous systems. Add to this inadequate nutrition and a
decreased ability of our bodies to digest and absorb properly because of the stress, and we
see the foundation of the epidemic of chronic diseases being currently reported.
What is so shocking for us as Americans, is that while we live in one of the most
affluent societies ever to exist on earth and have one of the most technologically
advanced medical systems, we are ranked at approximately twentysixth in the world
health Olympics. This is not the failure of our medical system but, in fact, the failure to
live in our bodies mindfully and respectfully, taking time for rest, proper nutrition,
reflection, intimacy with self and others and serving the common good of society. It is
this imbalance that leads us to chronic stress, which leads to physical and, if you will,
spiritual exhaustion that is producing the levels of chronic disease and the rampant
obesity we see today.
SELF-ESTEEM AND HEALTH
We have an innate understanding of how we need to choose to live to be healthy.
Yet, adages about health, e.g., "early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy
and wise," are often ignored in favor of our instant gratification or immediate comfort.
Physical labor has taken a back seat to "mind work," and today we work harder
than ever before to have the money to buy a membership to a gym or spa so we can do
the physical exercise we need to be healthy and attractive. However, rarely do we
actually have the time to go to the gym we pay membership fees to. Statistically, the
average gym membership is used for the first 4 to 6 weeks after signing up and then falls
off dramatically. Workout facilities count on this phenomenon when planning their
recruitment and enrollment numbers. Likewise, diet plans and weight loss centers know
that 90% or more of their customers will continue to have body weight issues, in spite of
their best efforts to re-direct to a different way of eating. Why?
AN OVERWEIGHT SYNDROME
Some of the most powerful, successful people in the world have the "super size"
syndrome in our culture. With every possible service, care and expert available to them,
they continue to struggle with significant weight gain and loss for many years. Even
during the height of their popularity and professional success, their body weight can rise
to dangerously elevated levels. The reasons most of us give for not taking care of
ourselves include: not having enough time to shop for or cook the right foods; not being
sure what's best for our body type; not enough money for domestic help so we can
exercise, meditate or relax; stress over money and achieving success. However, there are
many individuals who have more than enough money and success to eliminate all those
concerns, yet in spite of that they still do not consistently maintain a proper body weight.
Driven by personal history and ambition, they offer perfect examples of the
potential outcome of serotonin-driven self-soothing, which invites us to ask and answer
questions about self-esteem and self care. When we understand the relationship between
our unconscious mind, our self-esteem and the stress of looking for love "out there," it
becomes quite clear that what is at the core of our "super sizing" is not solved by the "diet
of the month" or the next "how to" bestseller. Rather, what is called for is an examination
of our personal worldview, our ego state, our treatment and regard for nature and for
others, what we value, what we believe in, how much we consume and how much we
accumulate. When these aspects of self are aligned with choices that lead to moderation
rather than ambition, that produce balance rather than extremes, that debunk the thinking
that "more is better," we then select the foods we innately know are healthy, even when
we must choose from the fast food menu.
In a culture comprised of 5% of the world population, using 75% of the world's
resources, we have come to accept excess as a way of life and a
standard to subscribe to. In the 1980s, Robin Leach's television
show, Life Styles of the Rich and Famous, tainted our appetites
for a standard of over-consumption that has brought us to where
we are today-obese and chronically diseased.
TAKE A TIP FROM THE GURUS
Worldwide, healthy cultural traditions offer us an
opportunity to re-think our approach to the way we live. Folk
wisdom invites us to ponder, "How much do I really need to do,
to have, to eat, to own, to control in order to be content with my
life; and what is the role of gratitude in my life?" Having a
calm, well functioning nervous system can be a main objective
for all of us instead of trying to trick the body into doing what we want with the latest
diet craze or vitamin pills available.
CHANGE THE QUESTION
It may be time to change not only the questions we ask ourselves, but the
questions we are asked as consumers. Maybe, if when making his fast food purchases:
Morgan Spurlock had been asked the question. "Super size or down size sir?" the choices
he might have made could have resulted in significant weight loss rather than weight
gain, a road to health rather than heart disease and diabetes, which more and more
research shows come from stress and poor food choices.
Welcome and Enjoy!
Health is not just the absence of symptoms. It is the optimal performance of the human body. Explore natural ways to reach your highest level of health.
About Our Practice
Dr Polk delivers gentle and conservative care for Neck and Back Injuries, Sports Injuries & Extremity Injuries utilizing hand and instrument manipulation, electrical therapies, ultrasound and cold laser. Dr Polk provides custom strengthening and stretching programs along with nutritional supplement recommendations.
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