competitive gluttony and obesity

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Fourth of July is all about celebration. There are picnics, parades, fireworks and sport. While baseball is the all American sport and the country rallied behind the Women’s World Cup victory, perhaps nothing epitomizes the American spirit like the Nathan’s annual hot dog eating contest. Gluttony may be a deadly sin but it is also major programming for ESPN, the network that live broadcast the competition and aired replays over its numerous outlets. The winner, Matt Stonie, ate 62 hot dogs (including buns) in the 10-minute contest, and to make certain that equality has arrived to competitive eating, there was a women’s division, with Miki Sudo crowned champion after consuming “only” 38 dogs. Unlike Wimbledon, there was no junior division.

It should come as no surprise that the American public embraces competitive gluttony. Two thirds of the adults in this country are overweight and one third qualifies as obese. Overweight describes excess weight that comes from muscle, bone, fat or water. The excess weight in obesity all comes from fat. There is no benefit to obesity. It increases the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes leading to more heart attacks and stoke. The skeleton of the body is also not well adapted to carry extra weight and that leads to muscle and joint problems including joint and back pain, arthritis and degeneration.

There is no single cause for the epidemic of obesity and there is no single approach that can be recommended or prescribed for prevention and treatment. Some who are obese look for an “easy” answer in a pill or through surgery, but it takes a lifelong combination of diet and exercise to control weight. Food, especially empty calories, are readily available and these empty calories are especially prevalent in poorer neighborhoods where food desserts are the norm and healthy eating alternatives are not available.


When it comes to weight loss, it’s all about the math…sort of. A pound of human fat contains 3,500 calories. A calorie is a unit of energy. Eat more than you burn and weight is gained, eat less and the weight comes off. In obese people, that weight loss will likely come from fat, with a smidge of water loss thrown in. Cutting carbohydrates means forces the body to used stored glycogen for energy and that releases a little water that gets peed out. Add protein and exercise and there may be increase in muscle mass, which is a good thing, but that may mean that the weight loss slows just a little. As the body gets closer to ideal body weight, some of that weight loss will come from muscle, as the body tries to retain some fat, just in case famine strikes.

The body is a machine and requires a certain amount of energy intake to function. If there is a calorie deficit, the body uses its energy stores to make up the difference. Weight loss takes dietary control and all food is not created equal. A glazed donut from Krispy Kreme contains 190 calories, while one from Dunkin Donut rings at 260 calories.

It takes effort to lose a pound of fat. A mile of walking or running will burn roughly 100 calories. It doesn’t matter how fast that mile distance is covered; the calorie burned is the same. Moving faster increases cardiovascular performance and allows more distance to be covered in the same amount of time. More distance equals more calories burned. All things being equal, and if food intake remains the same, walking an extra mile a day (about 2,000 steps), will result in a 10-pound weight loss in a year.

Weight control is a national obsession but a frustrating one. Good intentions can be waylaid by a few moments of indiscretion. The few minutes at the Nathans’ hot dog eating contest that crowned Matt Stonie champion, cost him more than 15,000 calories or almost 5 pounds. And we celebrate gluttony for why?

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