Food for Body and Soul - part II.Whome to blame for current obesity epidemic? The environment or ourselves?

19. January 2023.

The current obesity epidemic is the result of multiple, complex and interacting dynamics, which have progressively converged to produce lasting changes in people’s lifestyles.

Overproduction of food

First comes overproduction of food. In order to increase quantity of food, more and more crops are grown using chemical fertilizers. These industrial grown crops grow more quickly, but this also gives them less time to accumulate important nutrients. Industrial crops also develop smaller and shallower root systems than organically grown plants and, therefore, have less access to soil minerals than deeply rooted plants. In addition, organically grown crops contain more phytochemicals, which defend plants against pest and diseases, and many of which have important antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and other beneficial effects for humans.

Because plants growing on organic farms are not sprayed with synthetic pesticides, they are forced to defend themselves and, therefore, produce between 10-50% more of these valuable secondary compounds than conventionally grown plants. Thus, our quantitative overproduction of food has come at a significant cost to its quality. An analysis of British government data found that, from the 1930s to the 1980s, there have been “marked reductions” of 7 minerals in 20 fruits and 20 vegetables¹. In result, already in 1991, you had to eat three apples to get the same iron content supplied by one apple in 1940; and the iron content of meat products declined by an average of 54%.

Food transportation and storage

In addition, due to long time spent in transport and storage, most fruit and vegetables are picked green and ripened artificially. Produce picked early does not develop sunlight-related nutrients such as anthocyanins and polyphenols—compounds that give fruit their color and flavor, and which protect humans against DNA damage, brain cell deterioration and cancer. For example, blackberries picked “green” contain 74 mg of anthocyanins, compared to 317 mg in ripe ones – more than four times less. Apples and apricots have no vitamin C when picked green, but significant concentrations of the vitamin when picked half or fully ripe².

Food technology

The industrial production of food also brought along major changes in food production technologies. Today, ingredients are being dehydrated to prevent them from spoiling, but this makes them more energy dense. Moreover, in order to make products more palatable, whole wheat is turned into white flour, and brown rice into white rice, thus eliminating 50-96 % of the fiber, vitamin and mineral content². Then, enormous amounts of sugar or fat are added to make products tastier, thus further increasing the energy content of already energy dense foods. Finally, our food gets seasoned with tons of additives and preservatives – not in order to ensure the longest and healthiest life for the customers, but the longest shelf-life for the products in an air-conditioned, blind-story supermarket.

Ultra-processed food

This is what in the food industry we call “ultra-processed food” or, in full, “low-quality energy dense food, high in free-sugars, sodium and fats, and low in protein, fiber, minerals and vitamins, that contain little to no whole food” – for our convenience, we may also just call it “junk food”. The list of such ultra-processed junk food is long, perhaps much longer than most of us would spontaneously think. It ranges from usual suspects such as carbonated drinks, chocolate, candies, cakes, biscuits, pastries, desserts and ice-cream, and powdered and packaged “instant” soups, to sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged breads with emulsifiers, ready to eat pasta and pizza dishes, noodles, margarine, spreads, pastries, energy bars, energy drinks, poultry and fish nuggets and sticks, sausages, burgers, hot dogs, and includes even purportedly “healthy” foods, such as sweetened and flavored yogurts, milk-based drinks and fruit juices.

As a result of overproduction, the availability of calories per person worldwide increased by approximately 500 kcal/day. Roughly 15% of these calories stem from sugars, another 15% from added fat, some 50% from (mostly refined) grains; and the remaining 8% from fruits and vegetables – all of which supplies lots of energy but very little of anything else.

Ultra-processed foods are convenient (durable, ready-to-eat, drink or heat), attractive (hyper-palatable) and profitable (low-cost ingredients) and increasingly displace foods that humans have been eating throughout their evolutionary history. Currently, the percentage of calories of an average diet that comes from ultra-processed food is about 30% in Spain, 50% in Canada, 60% in the US, and even 80% in Germany. But the food industry did not stop here. In order to deliberately encourage over-consumption, they started to supersize their food and beverages because, as research has shown, people presented with large portion sizes tend to “overdose”, i.e. they end up eating unintentionally up to 30% more than they would otherwise eat³.

As far as our nutrition is concerned, the major health problems we currently observe are primarily rooted in excessive caloric, salt, and saturated fat intakes. At the same time, we have inadequate intakes of vitamin and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, and fiber. A diet based on quantity rather than quality has brought a new creature onto the world stage: a human being that manages not only to be overfed, but also to be malnourished, two characteristics seldom found simultaneously in the same body in the long natural history of our species.

Is Health Care the Answer?

Without any doubt, we are the most comfortable generation that ever lived on this planet, sacrificing our health, well-being and productivity for short-sighted benefits of ease and convenience. Even when we start to feel the consequences of our self-destructive behavior, we usually start blaming the scale, the shrinking laundry, the kids, and the weather, soothing our emotional discomfort with intensified compensatory eating, excessive drinking or smoking. Once we realize that passive worrying and blaming our circumstances is not going to solve the problem, most of us already give up and turn to the health care industry for salvation.

Unfortunately, just like the food industry, the health care industry does not keep us healthy. We are running a system of “sick care”, not “health” care. The medical system has perfected the art of keeping us alive after the modern lifestyle has made us sick, because the only contact we get with the medical system is once we are already sick. And the medical system certainly has little or no interest in shrinking its own customer base. In fact, its purpose is to turn obesity and related diseases into business opportunities: diet pills, heart bypass surgery, insulin pumps, bariatric surgeries. So let’s get real: just like any other industry, the health care industry prioritizes profit over people, prescription over education, and treatment over prevention.

Ultimately, however, our life, our health, our happiness and our satisfaction are our responsibility, and cannot be found in the magic boxes sold by the food industry, nor in the magic treatments offered by the health care industry, but only in the magic of our own resolve and self-discipline.

For the absolute majority of us, our health and our productivity is what we choose it to be. As long as we keep blaming others and try to outsource our responsibility, we will be good customers but unhappy people, seeing ourselves as victims unable to respond to the challenges of living a healthy life in our modern world. Because, in essence, “respons-ability” means the “ability to respond”. Without it, we are predestined to fail. We may have all the right arguments and excuses but, deep inside, we will always know we have just chosen the path of least resistance, deluding ourselves that we are actually comfortable being increasingly uncomfortable.

Is Natural Body Self-Regulation the Answer?

Ok, we may say, but doesn’t the body simply self-regulate and adapt food intake to its actual needs? In fact, the body’s natural energy balance regulation has long been my main research interest. Indeed, as my research at the Swiss Federal Institute for Sports has shown, prolonged increase in energy expenditure due to exercise is automatically followed by an equivalent increase in caloric intake. For example, during the Tour de France, a 22-day cycling race of up to 4000 km, cyclists expend 4-5 times their basal metabolic rate, around 7500 kcal, which corresponds to about 20 hours of jogging!

So, in order to retain their body weight, they have to increase their energy intake. This self-regulation happens naturally, but only when we increase our physical activity level to around 2 (i.e. two times our basal metabolic rate) which corresponds to approximately 2-3 hours of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. Unfortunately, it does not work in the other direction in sedentary lifestyles. When a person does no physical work, the body will not recognize that it is being overfed and will not compensate the absence of activity with a reduction of food intake. Why?

Historically, of course, this was an important survival mechanism. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would use every opportunity to feast and build up reserves of fat against future famine. But what represents a useful adaptation in an environment of food scarcity and unpredictability, is simply a disaster in an environment of abundant junk food, where the “feast” never ends. Since our DNA has not changed much in the past 50’000 years, our bodies frantically keep storing fat reserves for times of famine that never come. At some point, of course, the body starts being oversaturated with the stored energy that is not being used for muscle activity. Sugars, fats and cholesterol accumulate in our organs and blood and start to cause dysregulation of our hormonal and metabolic system, diabetes, or cardiovascular diseases. Overall, if we want to avoid obesity and chronic diseases, we cannot rely on the body to self-regulate, but we must adapt our energy output to our energy intake, or vice versa. For  most of us, this means 2-3 hours of physical activity every single day.

Is “Superfood” the Answer?

No generation before us worried more about health consequences of their food choices, and no generation before us suffered from as many diet-related health problems. We are an unhealthy generation obsessed with healthy eating! The self-help market is full of gurus, athletes and celebrities promoting contradictory and confusing nutritional doctrines, many of which have little or no basis in science, but offer empty promises of overnight success, health, and happiness ever after.

For example, Reese Witherspoon promotes a “Baby Food Diet”, which involves eating 14 jars of baby food per day, with the option of adding in one actual low-calorie meal. Should you do it? No. The jars of baby food are 80 calories. Eat 14 and you end up with roughly 1000 calories each day plus one real meal. So long as the meal you allow yourself is about 400 calories — think a small piece of grilled fish or lean meat and some sautéed veggies — you’ll definitely lose weight. But it will be because you’re not eating enough calories to maintain your weight, not because mushed-up fruit is a miracle diet product.

Christina Aguilera ate foods of a different color for every day of the week. Day one starts with white, which is followed by red, green, orange, purple, yellow, and, on the seventh day, all of the colors. I am not going to discuss the scientific merits of this colorful diet here, except to point out that, if you choose to go for this one, you can just eat as much gummi bears and m&m’s as you want, as long as you switch the color each day. I’ll let you do the math on the calories yourself.

Another diet virtually impossible to ignore is the “gluten-free” diet, which is promoted by celebrities for weight loss, and by athletes for improved performance. Gluten is a high molecular weight protein found in grains, including wheat, barley and rye. But while celebrities including Novak Djokovic, Gwyneth Paltrow, Miley Cyrus, and Victoria Beckham all reported to suffer from gluten sensitivity, 50% of Americans buy gluten-free food for reasons other than gluten sensitivity, believing that is generally healthier. As a result, Between 2004 and 2011, the market for gluten-free products grew at an annual rate of 28%, with sales estimated to reach $2.6 billion in 2012 and $6.6 billion in 2017.

Then there is the “low-carb ketogenic diet”, of course: high in fat, low on evidence. Normally, the body’s main source of energy is blood sugar, which comes from carbohydrates. In the absence of blood sugar (that is restricted to 20-50 g on this diet), we start breaking down stored fat into molecules called “ketone bodies” until we start eating carbohydrates again. Because it lacks carbohydrates, which normally account for at least 50% of our diet, a ketogenic diet is rich in proteins and fats and typically includes plenty of meats, eggs, processed meats, sausages, cheeses, fish, nuts, butter, oils, seeds, and fibrous vegetables (very low carb vegetables such as cauliflower and leafy greens), but very few fruits and vegetables, with unknown consequences in the long-term. The diet is heavy on usually uncontrolled sources of red meat and other fatty, processed, and salty foods that are notoriously unhealthy.

Of course, the list of “superfoods” and magical diets could continue endlessly. In nutritional science, however, the term “superfood” does not even exist. In fact, the recommended science-based healthy reference diet largely consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils, and includes a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry, and no or a low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables. It really is as simple as that! Obviously, within these broad recommendations, plenty of variations are possible to suit personal preferences, and there really is no sound scientific basis for being more specific – variety is an important part of avoiding one-sided diets.

Even science-based research reporting adverse health effects of specific unprocessed foods should be taken with caution, particularly when the physical activity level of the evaluated persons was not adequately taken into account. Studies showed that such negative effects of particular ingredients tend to be insignificant for persons with sufficient levels of physical activity.


….to be continued (in Food for Body and Soul – part III).


Dr. Katarina Melzer

Be balanced, be free!




  1. Mayer Anne-Marie. British Food Journal. 1997; 99(6): 207 – 211.
  2. Brian Halweil. Critical Issue Report. Still No Free Lunch: Nutrient levels in U.S. food supply eroded by pursuit of high yields. The Organic Center. September 2007
  3. Pollan M. The Omnivore’s dilemma: a natural history of four meals. Pinguin Random House, 2016.