How Netflix is making us fat

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Im blaming Francis Underwood.

The soulless snake responsible for all evil in the nations Capitol on the Netflix hit, House of Cards, turned me into a couch potato this winter.

Oh, and those Crawley sisters on Downton Abbey also messed up my metabolism. I was late to that party, so my daughter and I binged on three seasons of love, war and class intrigue, galloping from the sinking of the Titanic through World War I to the Roaring Twenties in a matter of weeks.

Im a health writer so I try to monitor my wellness in part by wearing a pedometer. As my TV watching spiked, my steps plunged.

No surprise there. It turns out that that more than 10,000 people now being tracked on the National Weight Control Registry who have successfully lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a year or more cant be couch potatoes and move a lot more than average Americans.

Of those who have succeeded in losing weight and keeping it off:

  • 62 percent watch fewer than 10 hours of TV per week
  • 98 percent modified their food intake in some way to lose weight
  • 94 percent increased their physical activity, most frequently by walking
  • 78 percent eat breakfast every day
  • 75 percent weigh themselves at least once a week
  • 90 percent exercise, on average, about one hour a day

This week, Ive been getting a crash course on the obesity epidemic during a conference sponsored by the National Press Foundation at the University of Colorados gleaming new Anschutz Health and Wellness Center.

Ill be sharing a series of stories from all that Ive learned in the coming months. So, stay tuned for research that may depress us all. The numbers are bleak. Solutions seem to be elusive. And long-term success is rare. Our bodies seem to be hard-wired to pack on the pounds unless we move a lot more than we do now.

Forget the Caveman diet. Rather than focusing on eating Paleo, we may need to start moving like some prehistoric creatures are chasing us.

For now, here are some tidbits gleaned from experts and fellow journalists to whet your appetite:

  • Our chairs are killing us. Thats the bottom line message from Dr. James Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and inventor of the famous fidget pants that track movement. Levine is convinced that non-exercise movement all the energy we expend living our daily lives could save us if we move more. I watched Levine refuse to sit during a panel on obesity solutions. Perhaps we all need to take a cue from him and start working at stand-up treadmill desks. Levine also consults with schools. And guess what? Kids who move more score better on tests. Rather than focusing on P.E., maybe its time to re-engineer schools so kids can move all day.
  • We think of obesity as a problem of the uneducated poor. Indeed, minority groups have the highest rates of obesity, but were seeing increases in every group. This is a problem that affects the rich and the poor, said James O. Hill, executive director of the Health and Wellness Center.
  • If you think obesity is an easy problem to solve, check out anti-obesity activist, Morgan Downeys list of 83 potential causes that have popped up in scientific research. They range from air conditioning and suburbanization to early antibiotic use and maternal employment. Go figure.
  • If youre biased against surgical solutions to obesity, step for a moment into the shoes of journalist Michael S. Miller, editor in chief and a columnist for the Toledo Free Press. Miller started at 380 pounds and has lost more than 160 pounds since September. He shared his story with us including the double wake-up call one day when he saw how he looked on a super-sized Costco TV (from a pre-taped appearance). That same day, his 6-year-old cried and confessed that other kids were making fun of him because his dad was so fat. Miller now walks as much as 90 minutes a day and said that for the first time in years, he didnt have to endure the humiliation of asking for a seat-expander when he flew to Denver.
  • Want to be grossed out? Liz Neprorent, of ABC News (follow her on Twitter @Lizzyfit) has written about a new gadget that lets people eat like pigs, then dump the calories. The pump allows patients to eat, wait 20 minutes, then pump 30 percent of their stomach contents into the toilet through a tube. The inventors call this a solution. I call it sanctioned bulimia. Click here to read more.
  • Fighting obesity by focusing on the built environment has become a hot topic. But researcher Janne Boone-Heinonen of the Oregon Health and Science University has found that theres not much evidence that food deserts are as common as we think. And while fast food outlets may be more common in neighborhoods where more people are obese, shes not convinced that proximity influences what a person eats. Click here to read more.
  • And while Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whom I think of as the de facto U.S. Surgeon General of the U.S., has been targeting super-sized sugary drinks, the soda marketing geniuses have been boosting the market share of diet sodas. For men who are attracted to the macho black cans of Coke Zero and women who are hooked on Diet Coke, it might be time to take a closer look. It turns out that fake sweeteners may actually be making us fatter. Listen here to a report by Pauline Dakin of the CBC.

James Hill, the head of the Health and Wellness Center, thinks our obesity epidemic began after World War II when work gradually changed and we became so sedentary that our bodies couldnt keep up with our food intake.

In the 1980s, restaurants started serving much larger portions of food to entice people to spend money on restaurant meals after declines in the economy spurred them to eat more at home.

Food is everywhere. Portions are large. It tastes great. This certainly has influenced our choices, Hill says.

How do we fix it? We have to get what Hill calls the energy balance system back in balance.

But, he has some colleagues who are convinced that Americans and increasingly the Chinese and Europeans who are fast adopting KFC, McDonalds and our other fatty habits may simply decide to accept obesity.

Hill is not ready to succumb to the pessimists. He thinks we can succeed by making lots of little changes that would help us expend more energy or reduce calorie intake by as little as 100 calories a day.

Lets hope thats possible. Otherwise, I keep thinking of the images from Wall-E. Once upon a time, back in 2008, the Pixar flick seemed more sci-fi than reality. As Daniel Engber wrote in a great piece in Slate called Fat-E, Wall-E tells us that if we dont change the way we live, well all get really fat and destroy the world.

In the movie, humans get so big they can no longer walk and are too lazy to think.

Thats a bleak portrayal, but if obesity rates keep climbing, we all may be headed toward a life of perma-Barcaloungers with pumps that dump our stomachs.