Obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other diet-related diseases are at an all-time high. According to three new books, the real problem is how we try to lose weight.
—Gretel H. Schueller
Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard
The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease (Pantheon)
"We’re well adapted by millions of years of evolution to be very efficient at making and storing fat," explains Lieberman. That’s because we desperately needed it: the average hunter-gatherer walked 9 to 15 miles a day. "It’s only in the last few generations that we have had access to as much energy as we want," he says. We can spend an entire day without ever raising our heart rate, while eating an excess of food—food high in sugars and fat. "Our bodies can’t cope with high levels of sugar in the absence of fiber. We don’t have the metabolism." This "mismatch" of our bodies to modern life results in a litany of new ailments, including obesity and diabetes.
Lieberman is not suggesting we return to a hunter-gatherer (aka Paleo) diet: "There is no single hunter-gatherer diet." In the Middle East, early people harvested wild barley to make flour; other foragers got most of their calories from fish. We can’t change our genes, Lieberman says, but we can keep them in mind, for example by limiting sugary foods and being more active.
David L. Katz, doctor of preventive medicine at Yale, public-health guru and
Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well (Penguin)
"Think of a really hard thing, like going up Mt. Everest," Katz says. "You could want it really badly, but still fail if you have no mountaineering skills." It’s the same when trying to lose weight or find health. "People are using only willpower," he says. In a world that works largely against us—he points to ads telling us that marshmallows are part of a complete breakfast—the reliance on just willpower often results in failure. So Katz offers a toolbox of skills to make it easier to get on a healthy track—like how to eat less and still feel full or how to tame your sweet tooth.
Old Way: With willpower you give up dessert. But you still crave it and think about it all the time. So, eventually, you fall off the wagon.
Smarter Way: With "skillpower" you reduce the stealth sugar hiding in your pasta sauce, bread, crackers, yogurt, etc. by reading labels. The less sugar you eat, the more sensitive to sugar your taste buds become. The result: that dessert you used to crave will soon taste too sweet.
Jonathan Bailor, fitness expert
The Calorie Myth: How to Eat More, Exercise Less, Lose Weight, and Live Better (HarperWave)
Just reducing calories doesn’t work, according to Bailor: "Every single relevant study proves that when you eat less your metabolism slows." There’s no need to count calories if we eat the right foods, he says: nonstarchy veggies, proteins (seafood, grass-fed beef), whole-food fats (nuts, olives, eggs), most fruits (not apples, bananas or grapes). The idea is to enjoy so much of these foods that you’re too full for unhealthy ones.
It’s difficult to lose weight and keep it off because you’re fighting against your set-point weight, he explains, which is determined by the level of fat our body automatically works to maintain. The best way to lower your set point is with healthy food and exercises that use all four muscle-fiber types, particularly type 2b muscle fibers, at the same time. Eccentric forms of exercise—high-resistance, low-impact movements as a muscle extends—do just that. For example, slowly lowering into a squat or lowering a weight.
Old Way: Pedaling along for half an hour on a stationary bike.
Smarter Way: Crank up the resistance so you have to stand in order to push down. Pedal for 15 to 30 seconds; do 3 to 5 sets.