A Fallacy of Biblical Proportion

An excerpt from “Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease.”

The following is excerpted from Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, by Robert Lustig, M.D.

Juan, a 100 lb. six-year old Latino boy whose mother is a non-English-speaking farm worker from Salinas, California, comes to my clinic in 2003. He is wider than he is tall. I ask the mother in my broken Spanish, “I don’t care what your kid eats, tell me what he drinks.” No soda, but a gallon of orange juice per day. On calories alone, this amount accounts for 112 lbs/yr of body fat. of course, some of that is burned off, and it might influence total food intake. I explain to the mother, “La frutta es bueno, el jugos es malo (the fruit is good, the juice is bad). Eat the fruit, don’t drink the juice.” She then asks, “Then why does WIC (Women, Infants, and Children; a government entitlement program for the poor run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) give it to us?”

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One kid, one mother, one question, my life was changed, and the need for this book was born. Why does WIC give it to them? There is real science behind our worldwide obesity catastrophe. And science should drive policy, but as you will see, the politics get in the way. This is the most complex issue facing the human race this side of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has become incrementally more complicated over time, has multitudes of stakeholders with set agendas, and has become bigger than the individual parties involved. It is devoid of simple solutions, has destroyed families, and has claimed the lives of countless individuals in its wake.

You can’t pick up a newspaper or log onto the internet without seeing some new statistic on the obesity pandemic. It’s All Obesity, All the Time. And how many of them have something good to report? You can bet that any associated tabloid is about one of two things—either the statistics are getting worse or another obesity drug was denied or withdrawn by the Food and Drug Administration. I’m sure you’re sick of it. I know I am. And weight loss has turned into a blood sport—just tune into The Biggest Loser. Eleven years ago, the media reported that six million kids in America were seriously overweight. We have tripled that number in a decade and the numbers are now surpassing 20 million.  Yet for all the media attention, visibility, discussion, and weight loss programs, even Michelle Obama can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

While we’re getting fatter, we’re also getting sicker. Our risk for illness is increasing faster than the increase in obesity per se. Indeed, the cluster of chronic metabolic diseases termed metabolic syndrome— which includes obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), lipid (blood fat) disorders, and cardiovascular (heart) disease—is snowballing by leaps and bounds. And then there are the other obesity associated metabolic diseases such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, kidney disease, and polycystic ovarian syndrome. Add to that the other co-morbidities associated with obesity, such as orthopedic problems, sleep apnea, gallstones, and depression, and the medical devastation associated with the obesity pandemic is staggering. Every one of these diseases has become more prevalent over the past 30 years. What’s more, all of them are now found in children as young as 5. We have an epidemic of obese 6-month olds!

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease


The human damage in this scourge of metabolic syndrome is showing. in 2005, an analysis showed that, despite the increased availability of medical care, this is the first generation of Americans that will die earlier than their forbears.2 This analysis placed the blame squarely on the obesity epidemic. In the U.S., quality-adjusted life years lost to obesity have more than doubled from 1993 to 2008. Emergency rooms are taking care of 40 year-old heart attack victims. Teens with type 2 diabetes were unheard of before. One hundred sixty thousand bariatric surgeries a year in the U.S. alone, at an average cost of $30,000 per surgery. Over 40% of death certificates now list diabetes as the cause of death, up from 13% twenty years ago.

The loss in American productivity due to time off from work is staggering and the waste in medical expenditures ($147 billion a year) is breaking the bank. Guess what? There’s no money to pay for it all. The Health Care Reform Act (HCRA), if it survives intact, is going to put 32 million sick people on the insurance rolls in 2014. The President says we’ll make up for the costs in savings from preventative care. However, it is unlikely to improve our health in any significant way since there are no provisions for the prevention of chronic disease, most notably those that attend obesity. How do you prevent all the ravages of chronic metabolic disease when we bust the scales and the statistics show no sign in improvement? It’s often been said that we wouldn’t need Health Care Reform if we had obesity reform.

It would be one thing if obesity were an isolated problem in America, but it’s happening everywhere. The obesity pandemic has expanded the world’s collective waistline. The World Health Organization (WHO) has showed that the percentage of obese humans globally has doubled in the past 28 years. In fact, obesity has become an equal, if not greater, contributor to the burden of chronic disease than smoking. Even developing countries are obese. In one decade, there are now 30% more people who are obese than are undernourished worldwide. the WHO reported in 2008 that ~1.5 billion adults were overweight and at least 400 million were obese globally3; these numbers are projected to reach ~2.3 billion and ~700 million, respectively, by 2015. in September 2011, the U.N. General Assembly declared that non-communicative diseases (diabetes, cancer, and heart disease) are now a greater threat to world health than are infectious diseases, including the developing world. Is the whole world now comprised of gluttons and sloths? Over the next 15 years, these diseases will cost low and middle-income countries more than 7 trillion U.S. dollars.4 People are dying earlier and national economies are losing billions of dollars in lost productivity while governments pay for the medical expenditures. Millions of families end up in poverty, guaranteeing the cycle will not be reversed.

For the 55% of you adults who are overweight or obese, listen up. I’m talking to YOU, at a doctor-to-patient level, at a person-to-person level. Obesity is not an automatic death sentence. A full 20% of morbidly obese persons are metabolically healthy and have normal life spans and it doesn’t even have to be so for the other 80%; everyone has it within their capacity to improve your health and regain those years the actuaries say you will lose. But that depends on identifying the cause of the problem, assessing your metabolic risk, and changing your biochemistry. OK, full disclosure: despite your best efforts, you may never lose your stubborn subcutaneous fat (which pads your thighs and derrière). And if you do, you’ll gain it back in short order unless you become a gym rat, because vigorous exercise is the only rational way to prevent weight regain. In fact, if you lose meaningful amounts of subcutaneous fat and you keep it off for more than a year, I’ll be shocked. Pleasantly so, but shocked nonetheless.

For you 45% of adults who are normal weight, pay attention. You either sneer at or pity the other 55% of your brethren who take up two seats on the bus. You look down at them as weak gluttons and sloths. You resent them, and you show it financially and socially. You’re indignant that they cost you money. And you think you’re out of the woods and home free. You’ve been told that you’ll live a long and happy life. Whatever you’re doing, it must be right. For those of you who are “naturally” thin, you’ve been told that you have great genetics and can consume all the soft drinks and Twinkies you want without gaining a pound or getting sick. Were that it were true. A few years ago, you were the majority of Americans. Now you’re the minority. And you’re losing your percentage year by year.

That means many of you are flipping. Indeed, current projections suggest that by 2030, the U.S. will be 65% overweight and 165 million American adults will be obese. The movie Wall-E (Pixar, 2008) is a prophecy; that’s where we’re all headed. And as you get older, your risk for flipping keeps going up. Your genetics didn’t change. So, if you’re flipping (which more and more of you are), something must be going on to turn you to the “dark side.” and if it’s not your fate, it will be that of your children. Nobody knows this better than me because I take care of them every day.

Here’s the kicker. Being thin is not a safeguard against metabolic disease or early death. a full 40% of normal-weight individuals harbor insulin resistance—a sign of chronic metabolic disease—which will likely shorten their life expectancy. Of those, 20% demonstrate liver fat on MRI of the abdomen. Liver fat, irrespective of the rest of body fat, has been shown to be a major risk factor for the development of diabetes. You think you’re safe? You are SO screwed. And you don’t even know it.

The overriding thesis of this book is: your fat is not your fate provided you don’t surrender. Because you don’t die of your obesity per se. You die of what happens to the rest of your organs. On the Death Certificate, the Medical Examiner doesn’t put obesity; he puts down Heart Attack, Heart Failure, Stroke, Diabetes, Cancer, Dementia, or Cirrhosis of the Liver. These are diseases that “travel” with obesity. They are all chronic metabolic diseases. But normal weight people die of these as well. That’s the point. It’s not the obesity. The obesity is not the cause of chronic metabolic disease. It’s a marker of chronic metabolic disease, otherwise known as metabolic syndrome. And it’s metabolic syndrome that will kill you. Understanding this distinction is crucial to improving your health, no matter your size. Obesity and metabolic syndrome overlap, but they are different. Obesity doesn’t kill. Metabolic syndrome kills. One doesn’t cause the other. But then what causes obesity? And what causes metabolic syndrome? And what can you do about each?

I wrote this book to help you and your kids get healthy and improve your quality of life, to increase your productivity, and to reduce the world’s waste of medical resources. If you get thin in the process, great. But if that’s what you expect, then go find your own diet guru and good luck with that. Want to get healthier? Want to get happier? Want to get smarter? It’s your visceral (around your abdominal organs) fat and hepatic (liver) fat that’s keeping you down. And getting rid of visceral fat is not as hard as you might think. This is the more metabolically active fat, and there’s plenty you can do to shrink it.

The proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This book is a journey into the workings of the body. It is a journey into the biochemistry of our brains and our fat cells. It is a journey into the mismatch between our environment and our biochemistry. And it is a journey into the world of business and politics. And this journey starts with a single, but very large step—to abandon our current thinking of obesity, by challenging the age-old dogma: “A calorie is a calorie.”

This arti­cle has been adapted by arrange­ment with Hud­son Street Press, a mem­ber of Pen­guin Group (USA) Inc., from Fat Chance, by Robert Lustig, M.D. Copyright 2012 by Robert Lustig, M.D.

Meet the Writer

About Robert Lustig

Robert Lustig, M.D., is a professor of pediatrics at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, and the author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease.