Americans exercise. We have been exercising for years, and we love creating new ways to exercise. We invented gyms, popularized marathons, created the home exercise culture, and with Crossfit, Tough Mudder, and P90X, we continue to innovate new ways to exercise. Sports remain an integral part of the American education, and the American diet and fitness industries continue to be far larger than that of any other country.
So why are we so fat?
We’re fat because of our food. We’re fat because our culture of innovation extends beyond sports, technology and banking, to include innovation in food. The foods we eat today are radically different from what we ate 40 years ago, with special emphasis on two factors: cheap, omnipresent sugar and cheap, omnipresent wheat (and wheat flour). Thanks to these two ubiquitous ingredients, one in three Americans over age 18 is diabetic or prediabetic.
Blame the new sugar and the new wheat. Thanks to innovations in corn and wheat, our crops last longer, grow faster, yield more, and have the unintended consequence of making us fat. Both high fructose corn syrup and wheat cause our insulin to spike as soon as we taste them. Too many insulin spikes over too many years will lead to diabetes, and along the way we usually get fat. Our hormones determine how fat we get, and these foods wreak havoc on our hormones. Wheat, my friends, has a higher glycemic index (GI) than table sugar.
Our grandparents ate carbs and wheat and didn’t get fat because their carbs and wheat were different. Compared to today’s sugar and wheat, theirs was as genetically as different as humans are to monkeys. Even a small change in the DNA can lead to profound consequences.
But why aren’t athletes fat? They are. Go to any marathon and you’ll see many non-professional competitors who are neither lithe nor muscular.
But maybe fat people don’t exercise enough. Many do. One third of triathletes are overweight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , 22% of overweight people meet the guidelines for aerobic activity - 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise – each week. That is a lot of people doing a lot of exercising. If exercise were effective, far more people would be losing weight each year.
Weirdly, our competition cultures ritualizes eating sugar by “carb loading.” Go to any race and you’ll see athletes guzzling sugary energy drinks while they run.
Exercise is not the answer. The only way to consistently lose weight and keep it off is to dramatically reduce the amount of sugar and wheat in our diet. Eat the normal American diet, and you’ll struggle to keep off the weight, despite all your exercising. Exercise has countless benefits, but weight loss is not among them.
I recommend exercising less. As shown in Gretchen Reynold’s book, The First 20 Minutes, many of the benefits of exercise happen in the first few minutes of movement. When people exercise longer, their chances of injury increase, their immune system weakens, and (in my opinion) all that effort starts showing on their face. This is why all our apps call for 20 minute workouts.
Instead, follow a whole-food, plant-based diet. Eat mostly fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and grains like quinoa. Avoid added sugars and wheat-based carbs and, to maintain heart health and reduce cancer risk, minimize meat consumption. My guide to eating healthy can be found here.
For more resources on these issues, I recommend reading these two books: