Of all the health topics swirling around in American society and media today, weight captures more attention than almost any other issue. Currently, obesity is considered to be epidemic in our country, with childhood obesity rates more than doubling over the past 30 years (and with adolescent obesity rates quadrupling). In 2012, more than one third of Americans, both children and adults, were overweight or obese. There is no question that weight has become an issue worth addressing. However, I’ve learned that it is often addressed in ways that do not solve the problem or help people in the long term. Although there is merit to the concerns surrounding overweight and obesity, it can also be dangerous to focus on weight as a determinant of health.
Being overweight or obese puts people at higher risk for disease. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), people who are overweight have a greater chance of experiencing heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, gallstones, sleep apnea, certain cancers, and joint problems. These associations are well documented and are important to take into consideration.
The fact that overweight promotes diseases makes sense when one considers the toll that excess weight takes on the body. For example, being overweight puts more stress on the weight-bearing joints because they must carry the extra weight of the body. Similarly, added weight of the chest wall squeezes the lungs and restricts the ability to breathe, which is what causes sleep apnea. Excess fat also brings about oxidative stress, a state of inflammation and imbalance between free radical production and antioxidant defenses. Being overweight also causes the body to need to work harder in general, increasing the effort that it takes to circulate blood or do physical activity.
Cardiovascular disease is perhaps the condition most commonly associated with overweight and obesity. People who are overweight or obese tend to have higher blood pressure, higher triglycerides, and higher cholesterol, all of which lead to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and cardiac events. As mentioned above, overweight or obese individuals’ bodies often need to work harder to circulate blood, causing high blood pressure and consequently putting added force against artery walls. Over time, this extra pressure can damage the arteries, and injured arteries are more likely to become narrowed and hardened by fatty deposits in the bloodstream.
Type 2 diabetes and obesity often go hand-in-hand as well. When fat builds up in the muscle cells, it interferes with the cell’s ability to respond to insulin. Dr. Neal Barnard explains this as the fat “gumming up the lock.” Usually, insulin attaches to receptors on the surface of the cell, essentially unlocking a door for the glucose to enter. But when there is too much fat in the cell, the fat gums up the lock so that the door can’t open to let the insulin in. So even though the body makes plenty of insulin, the fat inhibits the cell from properly responding.
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, obesity is overtaking smoking as the leading preventable cause of cancer. The most common weight-related cancers are endometrial (uterine) cancer, postmenopausal breast cancer, and colorectal cancer, but the effects of obesity appear to increase mortality of many other types of cancer including gallbladder, pancreas, kidney, esophagus, and thyroid. Being overweight also increases the chance of cancer recurrence and/or mortality from cancer. There are a number of possible mechanisms for the association between overweight and cancer, such as increased levels of estrogen and other hormones, increased levels of insulin and IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1), and chronic low-level inflammation.
Given the numerous risk factors associated with overweight, it can be easy to fall into the trap of associating healthy body weight with good overall health. But the fact of the matter is that, while weight is indeed an important health marker, it is by no means the be-all and end-all indicator of personal health and wellbeing. On the contrary, maintaining a healthy body weight makes no guarantee of overall health, and putting the focus on weight can be dangerous. For those who are at a healthful weight, it can give a false sense of security about their overall health—and for those who are overweight, it can misdirect attention away from the source of the problem, as well as its solution.
The food that you put into your body is more significant than the shape of your body or the number on the scale. In fact, the risk for the majority of the diseases and ailments associated with overweight and obesity can be reduced or eliminated entirely by changing your diet—even if you are still overweight. Too often, weight is seen as the problem instead of what it truly is: a side effect. Weight is not the problem, what we eat is the problem. And, perhaps not surprisingly, what we eat is also the solution.
The reason that overweight and obesity are linked with conditions like hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes is because overweight and obesity are primarily caused by poor diet. It is the cholesterol, fat, animal products, and highly processed foods in a standard American diet that lead to these ailments. By addressing weight without addressing diet, we are only covering up a problem rather than fixing it.
As mentioned earlier, being at a “healthy weight” can be misleading. While some people are predisposed to gain weight more easily, others are predisposed to stay thin. Because we focus so much on outward appearance, someone who looks physically fit or thin is often seen as being healthy. However, this is often not actually the case. Being thin does not protect a person from developing conditions like heart disease or hypertension. In fact, being thin and/or fit can give people a false security that they are in good health when in fact, more important characteristics—such as cholesterol or blood sugar levels—indicate that they are at high risk for disease. People who are thin may put themselves in even more danger if they see no weight-gain repercussions of eating unhealthfully and therefore receive no warning that something is wrong. With the first sign of heart disease being cardiac arrest for more than half of heart attack victims, viewing weight as the main indictor of health is not only misleading, but also life-threatening.
Just as being at a healthy weight does not necessarily mean that a person is healthy overall, being overweight does not necessarily mean that a person is unhealthy in every regard. We all have to start the journey to health somewhere, and for some people, they start at a high weight. As dietary changes are made, weight loss will be gradual—which is healthy. But although weight loss is a relatively slow process, many of the health improvements that come with a plant-based diet happen rather quickly. Accordingly, as an individual’s weight gradually declines, or even reaches a plateau, he or she may be in excellent overall health despite being overweight. Even type 2 diabetes can be completely reversed in someone who is still overweight or obese—if they are eating a plant-strong diet.
Focusing too greatly on weight can also lead those who are overweight or obese to use extreme and/or expensive means to lose weight, which are often unsuccessful anyways. Procedures such as gastric bypass surgery can not only drain one’s bank account, but it also doesn’t address the root of the problem, therefore offering no protection from recurrence of weight gain and disease. Fifty percent of people who undergo gastric bypass surgery become overweight or obese once again in the years following the procedure, and one third experience a relapse of type 2 diabetes within 5 years of remission following the surgery. Other common weight loss strategies such as calorie counting, fad diets, and diet pills can also be quite dangerous and lead to their own set of health complications, as well as promote an unhealthy mental relationship with food. Such measures do not fix the problem—on the contrary, they often just create more (and sometimes severe) issues.
I would also like to note that being overweight or obese does not come from lack of willpower. As mentioned earlier, some people gain weight easily and others do not, even if both groups are eating a diet consisting of the same foods. This is due to genetic variation—some people’s bodies are hardwired to store fat more easily. Back in our ancient hunter-gatherer days where food was sometimes scarce, this was favorable. But in today’s world of artificially concentrated “food” full of excess fat and refined carbohydrates, the caloric density of our diet has been significantly raised, and some bodies do not accurately assess the amount of calories in such foods. When we raise the fat content and lower the fiber content in our diet, our bodies are fooled. Switching to a whole food, plant-based diet, however, eliminates this problem entirely.
Focusing on weight takes attention away from the real problem(s). As with all health conditions, we need to address the root cause, not just the symptom. The way to achieve optimal health is not through weight loss, but through dietary change. Going plant-strong is the number one thing that you can do to protect yourself from disease and promote the best of health. To quote Dr. John McDougall, “It’s the food. The food is the problem. We have to fix the food!”
Love your body and feed it well. Here’s to health!
*To learn more about social issues with focusing on weight, read posts by Natala Constantine on the Engine 2 Daily Beet blog.
*To learn more about heart disease, watch Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn’s TEDx talk on heart disease or read his book.
National Institutes of Health (NIH). What are overweight and obesity? http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/obe/
Borrell LN, Samuel L. (2014) Body mass index categories and mortality risk in U.S. adults: the effect of overweight and obesity on advancing death. Am J Public Health. Published online January 16, 2014.
Ogden, C., Carrol, M., Kit, B., & Flegal, K. (2014). Prevalence of Childhood and Adult
Obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. Journal of the American Medical Association, 311(8), 806-814.
May, A., Kuklina, E., & Yoon, P. (2012). Prevalence of Cardiovascular Disease Risk
Factors Among U.S. Adolescents, 1999-2008.
Renehan A. (September 2009). Obesity and overall cancer risk. Presented at the Joint ECCO 15-34th ESMO Multidisciplinary Congress. Berlin, Germany, September 20-24, 2009. Abstract I-327.
Magro, D. O., Geloneze, B., Delfini, R., et al. (June 2008). Long-term Weight Regain after Gastric Bypass: A 5-year Prospective Study. Obesity Surgery, 18(6), 648-651.
Christou, N., Look, D., & MacLean, L. (2006). Weight Gain After Short- and Long-Limb Gastric Bypass in Patients Followed for Longer Than 10 Years. Ann Surg, 244(5), 734-740.
Arterburn, D.E., Bogart, A., Sherwood, N.E., et al. (2013) A Multisite Study of Long-Term Remission and Relapse of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus Following Gastric Bypass. Obesity Surgery, 23(1), 93-102.
Higdon, J. & Frei, B. (2003) Obesity and Oxidative Stress: A direct link to CVD? Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 23, 365-367.
Lisle, D. and Goldhamer, A. (2003) The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health and Happiness. Healthy Living Publications: Summertown, Tennessee.
We talk a lot about how eating a whole food, plant-based diet can influence your health, but we haven’t written much on specific health topics. This post is the first of what I hope to be a spotlight series where we will look at individual health issues and examine the role that diet can play. The first topic that I’ve looked at is cholesterol. Cholesterol is something that is very important to our health, especially when it comes to heart health, and is also something that we have a lot of control over—much more than most people realize.
First of all, what is cholesterol? Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is found in the body’s cells. Cholesterol is important because it helps to build and maintain cell membranes, and is also important for making hormones and vitamin D. Thankfully, we never have to worry about whether we are getting enough cholesterol because as the National Institutes of Health states, “Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs.” However, some people take in external sources of cholesterol through the foods that they eat. All animal products contain cholesterol. Plant foods, on the other hand, do not contain any.
There are two main types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Sometimes, LDL is referred to as “bad cholesterol” and HDL is referred to as “good cholesterol.” This is because when too much LDL is flowing through the bloodstream, it builds up along artery walls. This buildup is what causes atherosclerosis (narrowing and hardening of the arteries), which can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and other life-threatening events. But whereas LDL is like the litterbug that throws garbage all over our precious inner environment, HDL is kind of like the garbage truck that collects everything and takes it to the dump. HDL drives through the bloodstream and picks up LDL along its way, eventually dropping it off at the liver to be broken down. The HDL truck can only hold so much garbage though, so when LDL levels are too high, the HDL truck can’t carry all of it, and it ends up piling up in our arteries.
So how does what we eat affect our cholesterol levels? Well, as I said earlier, some foods contain cholesterol while others do not. All foods made of/from animals—red meat, white meat, fish, eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, etc—contain cholesterol. This makes sense because animals produce cholesterol within their bodies, and when we consume animals and their by-products, we are in turn consuming their cells, which contain cholesterol. People are often surprised to find out how much cholesterol some of the animal products that are usually labeled as “healthier choices” have. For example, a typical steak has around 100g of cholesterol. Chicken breast is hardly much better, averaging at about 93g, and the “heart healthy” salmon comes in around 110g! One cup of cheddar cheese has about 120g, and a single egg has 187g of cholesterol. Plant-based foods, on the other hand, have none.
But eliminating animal products may not be enough to keep cholesterol levels within a safe range. When talking about cholesterol, dietary fat intake is also important. Keeping the amount of fat, especially saturated fat, in your diet low helps to lower one’s cholesterol level. Saturated fat causes the liver to produce more cholesterol. Though the highest amounts of saturated fat usually come from animal products like butters, cheeses, and meats, some plant-based foods contain high percentages of saturated fat as well. This is one reason why oils—which are 100% fat—should be avoided. In addition, other high-fat plant foods like nuts, seeds, and avocado should be eaten sparingly (or eliminated completely) if cholesterol levels are not within a healthy range.
The typically prescribed blood level of cholesterol to shoot for is 200mg/dL or less. However, this cholesterol level does not mean that you are free from the risk of having a heart attack or other cardiac event. In fact, in the Framingham heart study—the longest-running study of cardiovascular disease—35% of cases of heart disease were among people who had cholesterol levels between 150 and 200 mg/dL. To truly protect yourself from heart disease, you should try to keep your cholesterol below 150 mg/dL. The best way to do this is to eliminate animal products from your diet, thus eliminating your intake of extra cholesterol, and to keep your diet low-fat as well.
Sometimes when people reduce their total cholesterol, their HDL level goes down to a point that concerns some doctors. However, this is not something to get too caught up on. Though there is a correlation between having higher HDL levels and having a lower risk of heart disease, this is not necessarily the case if your total cholesterol is below 150 mg/dL. To put it simply, it makes sense that the more HDL garbage trucks you have, the more LDL garbage that can be picked up—but the less garbage you have floating around in your bloodstream, the fewer garbage trucks you need to collect and dispose of it.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States—one in every four deaths is from heart disease. The good news is that this is very preventable if people make healthy diet and lifestyle choices. As Dr. Esselstyn likes to say, “Heart disease is a toothless paper tiger that need never ever exist, and when it does exist, it need never ever progress.” Heart disease is one thing in life that we have control over. We do not have to live in fear. We can prevent atherosclerosis from ever developing, stop it in its tracks, and in some cases, even reverse it. And all of this begins with cholesterol.
Eat plants and make your heart happy <3
Esselstyn, C. B. (2009). Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. New York: Avery.
National Institutes of Health (2012). What is Cholesterol? Retrieved from:
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Cholesterol and Heart Disease.
Retrieved from: http://www.pcrm.org/health/health-topics/cholesterol-
Right now, I am in a period of transition in my life. So many things are changing all at once, and it has been overwhelming at times. I moved to a new city, and got a new apartment, a new housemate, and a new job. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s all very exciting! I love my new job, and my new housemate, and where I am living. These are all good things!! But still, it is a lot of change and a lot of newness being thrown into my life all at the same time, and there is a lot to process and grow accustomed to.
One thing that isn’t changing, though, is my plant-strong lifestyle. I still eat, breathe, and live plant-strong—that is an irrevocable constant in my life. However, this transitional time made me think of how what I am going through is very similar to what many people experience when they first begin to change their diet.
At my new job, there are standards of procedure that I am unfamiliar with, tasks I’m not used to doing, and skills I need to develop. I’m doing my best to do everything as efficiently, and as high-quality, as possible, but I have not yet settled in to the point of full familiarity and comfort. As with many things, there is a learning curve, and I am very much looking forward to being past it. In the meantime, however, I am fortunate to have very kind, supportive co-workers who are willing to help facilitate my learning process and offer guidance when I need it. With time, I will learn the ins and outs of my job, and juggling all of the tasks will become second-nature. I am determined to serve the position well, and I am looking forward to reaching a point where I feel settled and confident.
In the same way, many people transitioning to a plant-based diet find themselves in foreign territory where they aren’t completely sure how to navigate. Many of the necessary tasks (such as grocery shopping or cooking) are ones that they are already familiar with, but not in the new context. People may feel overwhelmed as they walk through the grocery store aisles checking label after label and wondering which ingredients to avoid, or as they dice up onions and wonder how they are possibly going to sauté them without oil. Thankfully, just as I have coworkers to look to for guidance, Engine 2 offers lots of resources and help to those who ask. The website is full of helpful information, and the Engine 2 Extra online community offers personal coaching as well as connections to others who have been, or are still, in the same situation. And beyond Engine 2, there are also lots of great resources from organizations like Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the T. Colin Campbell Foundation, and countless books and documentaries. In time, eating a plant-strong diet will become integrated into your life, and you don’t have to think twice about what to buy at the grocery store or order at a restaurant. Recipes with cheese will no longer tempt you, olive oil will seem unnecessary, and you may even mentor others as they are inspired by your lifestyle changes and want to join the plant-strong parade as well.
Everyone has to go through a period of transition when they are experiencing change, and this is especially true when it comes to things like diet and lifestyle. But though it can be overwhelming at times, it is leading to a better, brighter, healthier, and happier future. Making the switch to a plant-strong diet is worth the effort. Just as I am excited about my new job, so should E2 newbies be excited about their new lifestyle. Plant-strong living brings a wealth of benefits to improve your life. It is worth it, and YOU are worth it.
So, if you’re in the transition period, don’t give up!! You can do it :) Don’t be afraid of mistakes, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Learn and grow—you’ll be so happy that you did.
Happy New Year, everyone! May 2014 bring you lots of adventure, love, sunshine, positive change, and, of course, plants! :)
Hugs, Happies, Healthies,
I recently read an article (stop right now and read it!) in regards to the attitudes and culture that surround working out. The message the author conveyed captured a really important philosophy of exercise that deeply resonated with me, and that I wanted to share. Especially in light of the upcoming New Year’s resolution fitness craze, her message of fitness as a healthy and joyous lifestyle opportunity instead of a burden, punishment, atonement, or merely a means to get thin is an important one to keep in mind.
I believe the viewpoint of embedding activity into your whole life — instead of forcing some sort of workout just to “fit into a dress” or get a beach body for a certain occasion — is the most healthy, rewarding, and fulfilling approach to exercise. The human body is truly amazing. Be thankful for what you have and honor your body by using it every day. No matter what you choose, find something that you love and enjoy. Embrace an active lifestyle, have a positive body image, be adventurous, and always have fun.
Living actively can open so many doors. Moving your body, no matter how you choose to do so, is a great way to experience the beauty and wonder of nature and the world around you (whether that is your backyard or exploring someplace new). It can also be a time to yourself for thought and reflection or a social time to meet new people or catch up with old friends.
If you’re stuck in a rut, try something new and different! This winter I’m looking forward to cross country skiing for the first time (weather depending.. we’ve had a warm spell here in western PA lately), maybe ice skating for the first time since I was a little girl, and even trying some rock climbing with friends. Or simply incorporate more movement into your life — depending where you live, try walking or bicycling to work/the store/running errands/etc; take the stairs; park in the back of the parking lot. If you’re feeling tired, in a rut, or experiencing a bad mood, try a short, brisk walk, jumping jacks, a mini dance party, or anything to get your blood flowing. Don’t be afraid to expand your horizons and do something adventurous, fun, or just plain silly.
It is not about perfection or rigid exercise demands, rather it is about getting out there and enjoying yourself and the world around you. I do activities that I love every day and feel countless positive side effects. Running is a mental release. Yoga is rejuvenating and energizing. Going for a walk is peaceful. Bicycling is one of the best ways to explore the streets around you and feel the wind in your hair. Dancing around my house lets me be silly. I could go on and on… Living actively gives me confidence, strength, peace, adventure, competition, endorphins, and sanity in the midst of a crazy, beautiful, busy, and sometimes stressful world.
Even though I am a competitive athlete and run cross country and track for my college team, I do it because I fundamentally love to run. It is my favorite way to move my body and running is just a part of who I am (it doesn’t define my worth but it’s a part of what makes me, me — although I can’t say this has always been true about my relationship with exercise). And I hope to exemplify this healthier and happier relationship with running. Even though I’ve certainly had many ups and downs, I will never give it up because I enjoy it too much. It is my release, it gives me so much joy, it helps me think more clearly, it lets me explore and experience new places/scenery/wildlife, and it has allowed me to meet and connect with others and share in some awesome company.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t still set goals for myself, am dedicated to running, and like working hard, because I do. But I don’t have such a perfectionistic viewpoint about working out. The day isn’t ruined if things don’t go as planned, because there is always tomorrow to get back out there. So despite all the negative and degrading imagery and motivation tactics that sometimes surround our work out culture, remember to stay positive and do what you love. Instead of using exercise just as a means to a beach body or fitting into a dress, keep the focus on doing the things that you enjoy and incorporate activity into your everyday lifestyle, along with having a positive body image and healthy attitude too. Embrace a happy and healthy active lifestyle and you will be sure to reap countless benefits.
Here’s to 2014 being a year full of doing what you love every day!
As I start to type this it is not even 5pm and starting to get dark outside already. Fall is my favorite season of the year (the beauty of the changing leaves and pumpkin-everything being only two of the many reasons why), except for how early it gets dark outside. This year, however, as I think about the recent daylight savings time change and the transition to fall and eventually winter, I have not only taken stock of the beautiful changing world around me, but have also started thinking more about my personal life as well. The major uncontrollable seasonal change happening around us can also be representative of changes in our own lives.
Winter (especially in the northeast) is bitterly cold and barren. It is a time where things externally die off, the trees become bare, and animals go into hibernation. However, rather than internalizing this death and negativity, this external process can be a powerful symbol for our own lives. It presents a time to constructively sever things off that are not serving us and that are preventing us from being whole and well (physically, mentally, and spiritually). We can take this season to evaluate unhealthy relationships (with food or people), harmful habits, destructive thoughts, etc. that are negatively impacting our lives. Much like I love to sit in front of a crackling fire in these cold months, now is a time to kindle the real, true you and let your bare limbs and raw core shine through.
It is important to realize that this change is happening, so as to not fight against it. Rather, feed off of the changing world around you and work with it to become a better version of yourself. Take this season of change internally with intention. By no means am I saying this is easy — it is not. But it is important to honor yourself and nurture the core of who you are. Self-reflection is a challenging, yet fulfilling action for each of us to do.
It is easy to feel like we are victims of change or as if we are the only ones going through certain changes, but this change (both happening around us and within us) is a shared and collective experience. You are not alone out there. Just as we are all experiencing the change to fall and winter, so too can we all experience a deeply meditative, internal change for the better.
While this post has mainly been about food for your soul, I don’t know about you but all I want lately is a steaming hot bowl of food on these dark, cold, reflective nights. Oatmeal, soups, stews, and hot green tea are staples for me these days. So in addition to the soulful and reflective message, I wanted to end with a bonus soup recipe I recently created. Stay warm and be well my friends!
Health & Happiness,
(ps. I apologize for not writing in such a long time! I have gotten caught up in the crazy busyness of life. I hope to be able to start posting more often though!)
Red Curry Soup
1 onion, chopped
1 eggplant, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped (I’ve also made this with a head of chopped cauliflower instead of zucchini)
1 small container mushrooms, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 red pepper, chopped
1 small bunch kale, stems removed and roughly chopped
1 can each chickpeas & kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 can pumpkin puree
3-4 cups water or vegetable broth, depending how thick you like your soup (check out this easy recipe on how to make your own vegetable broth!)
2-3 tbsp red curry paste (make sure to use a vegan version with no fish! I use the Thai Kitchen brand)
2 tsp turmeric
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 avocado, diced
In a large stock pot, sauté all the vegetables in a little bit of water or vegetable broth. Once softened, add the kale, beans, pumpkin, and water/broth and mix well. Add the spices to taste and bring to a boil, then simmer for 5-10 minutes to allow the flavors to blend and the kale to wilt. Stir in the avocado and let heat through for another 2-3 minutes. Serve over quinoa.