Contemplating Obesity


Here’s what I learned back in biochemistry:  It’s simple math.

Calories consumed > calories burned = Stored fat

Calories consumed < calories burned = Weight loss

  • Calories provide fuel.  Fuel is used for every single thing the body does:  thinking, growing, watching TV, running, digesting, listening, repairing injuries, recovering from illness, even something as simple as maintaining normal body temperature requires energy.
  • About 10% of the calories consumed are used by breaking the food down into a usable form.  The more complex the food is, the more energy it takes just to break it down into a usable form.
  • All food is converted to simple a carbohydrate, glucose, before it can be used to fuel the body.
  • Unused fuel it’s converted to stored energy (fat.)
  • Each pound of fat is equivalent to 3500 calories. (Excess of 3500 calories means you’ve gained a pound, a deficit of 3500 calories is required to lose a pound of fat.)
  • The amount of calories to maintain a healthy weight is dependent on body composition, activity level, and age.
  • Roughly, roughly, an average woman, at ideal weight, requires 1200 calories a day just to fuel her body at rest or Basal Metabolic Rate.  (No activity)

Although it’s simple math, there are many complexities within the math.  For example:  here’s how to calculate your own Basal Metabolic Rate.

A little more arithmetic, but something most 4th graders can do.

The human body is pretty much the same as it was when my grandmother was a girl.  So what’s changed?  Why are we struggling with an obesity epidemic?  Super-sized soda?  Process corn syrup?  Time spend in front of a TV/computer/video screen?

I’m sure all of these things play a part.  But, it’s got to be more than that.  My mom and my grandmother both loved cookies and candy when they were kids.  I had Kool-Aid, Jello, and 2 chocolate chip cookies nearly every day when I was growing up.

Still, a lot has changed since my grandmother or my mother were girls.  Heck, a lot has changed since I was a little girl.

Some ways we use fewer calories (move less):

  1. Drive-through banks, restaurants, pharmacies, etc.  (each 15 minutes of walking burns 65 calories, more if you are carrying bags of money, food, drugs, etc.)
  2. Delivery services for groceries, movies (carrying in groceries requires 111 calories/15 minutes)
  3. Convenience foods  (preparing food, setting the table, doing dishes takes 26 calories/15 minutes)
  4. Air-conditioning:  it takes about 281 calories more a day to maintain body temperature in a room at 81 degrees, than at 71 degrees.
  5. Pre-packaged food:  I don’t have the numbers on this, but surely it takes a whole lot more calories to knead and bake break than it takes to open a loaf of bread.  Butchering your own meat requires 85 calories/15 minutes.
  6. Even “back in the day,” people like me could sit and read all day, if given the chance.  On the other hand, my chores included feeding the animals, doing dishes, weeding the garden, and a whole lot of other things required around the farm.

Some ways we consume more calories:

  1. Size of portions  of almost everything (Gyro, bagel, hamburgers, apples, you name it; everything is bigger.) When I was a kid, McDonald’s only had one size hamburger, one size of fries and one size of shake.  Eating out was a rare treat for us.  Eating out at McDonald’s meant tailgating.  We each got a hamburger, and Dad cleaned up the scraps.  He had plenty to eat.
    English: Cheeseburger 20 years ago had 333 cal...
    English: Cheeseburger 20 years ago had 333 calories well a modern cheeseburger contains 590 calories. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


    I remember Mom talking about how satisfying a Hershey Bar was back in the days when it was half the size it was when I was a kid.  A regular size Hershey bar grew from 1 oz to 1.45 oz and is now 210 calories.

    Apples are waaaay bigger than when I was a kid.  A small apple is 77 calories, a large apple is 116.

    Now the gyro I buy at the local take-out has one pita and about the same amount of meat I use for six gyro sandwiches when I am home.

  2. Calorie denseness (this is where refined vs complex comes in)All calories must be broken down into glucose in order to be used for fuel.  That said, it takes more energy to digest an apple than 9 teaspoons of table sugar, which can start to be absorbed by the body while it’s still in the mouth.
  3. Slipperyness:  chocolate, ice cream, pudding, and other treats that are smoother tricks your brain into believing you are eating less than you actually are.
  4. More/bigger snacksWe always had cookies and cake when I was a kid.  Still, we had to spend some calories making cookies (yes, I did that when I was a kid), or cracking nuts for Mom (she was an expert at keeping kids busy.  Do you know how long it takes to smash enough hickory nuts for a batch of cookies?)Now, we sometimes eat unconsciously as we watch TV, attend a sporting event, or drive in the car.  A few chips turns into a bag of chips.  Ten Oreos disappear, when we meant to eat two.

Of course we all have control over how much and when we eat.  Stomachs stretch and shrink based on how much gets consumed.  In other words, we become accustomed to eating more as our habits change.

Another interesting psychological impact on portion size, is that people tend to buy the larger size of anything if it’s a better deal.   Plus, we tend to eat what’s on our plates.

 Balancing the Equation:

The obesity epidemic is a long time coming. Here is a graph of the change in Body Mass Index (BMI) over the years.

Change in BMI for the average 18 year old male


We eat more and we do less.   Our conveniences and our lifestyles underpin the situation.  Correcting the problem is not as easy as just eating less or doing more.  Sure these things help, but they don’t quite compensate for the evolution of, not we as human beings, but the evolution of our way of life.  Exercising at the gym for a couple of hours each day, is not an option for most of us.  Even an hour a day does not add up to the number of calories a person burned up in the “old days,” just living a normal day.

My personal anecdotes:

The beginning of my battle with weight correlates to when my youngest of four children turned five.  That’s about when I could say, “Could you go get XXX for Mommy?”

Every year I go camping with my family for a week.  We cook outside.  We  do dishes, by hand, outside.  We walk or ride bicycles to the beach.  We walk about two blocks to the bathroom.  We walk to get water and lug it back to the campsite.  We eat whatever we want, when we want, including ice cream ever day. We sleep when we get tired, and we wake up when we’re ready.  I ALWAYS lose weight.  ALWAYS.

 The only way to reverse the trend is to do more and eat less.

It’s simple math.

Now if I can find someone to teach my how to play Jai Alai, I could burn off half my daily calorie allotment in one hour. (768 calories burned!)  In  the meantime, I’ve got a goal to walk 10,000 steps a day, 10 flights of stairs, and at least 20 minutes of high activity.  That, and eat less than 1240 calories a day.

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