My Interview with Dr. John J. Whyte

Posted 11/08/2012 | By HealthCorps

John J. Whyte, MD, MPH, is a member of HealthCorps’ Board of Advisors.  He is currently the Chief Medical Expert and Vice President, Health and Medical Education at Discovery Channel, the leading non-fiction television network. In this role, Dr. Whyte develops, designs, and delivers educational programming, that appeals to both a medical and lay audience.  Prior to Discovery, Dr. Whyte was in the Immediate Office of the Director at the Agency for Healthcare Research Quality.  He served as Medical Advisor/Director of the Council on Private Sector Initiatives to Improve the Safety, Security, and Quality of Healthcare.  Dr. Whyte is also noted author of Is This Normal? The Essential Guide to Middle Age and Beyond which has won numerous awards.  Dr. Whyte has a keen interest in the current obesity trend.  He has a new book launching in January.  Here are some of his thoughts on why we continue to gain weight despite all the information available on weight loss, and his approach to this epidemic especially for seniors.


Why do you think there has been little progress in the obesity epidemic in the US thus far?
There is a lot of confusing information out there about food.  One day drinking coffee is good….the next day, drinking coffee will give you a heart attack.  One newspaper study says chocolate is good for you, but then a month later, you’re told it might cause a stroke.  Is pasta ok to eat or is it the enemy?  

I can see how you can throw up your hands in exasperation, and just say “why bother?” Between conflicting and confusing information, as well as often misleading marketing by food manufacturers, it’s hard to know what to do to eat healthy and lose weight. Who do you believe?  I’ve had many patients tell me they thought “fat-free” was healthy, only to learn from me that “fat-free” products are often loaded with sugar. Or they start eating yogurt as part of their goal to start their day with a healthy breakfast, and then they find out some yogurt brands have as much sugar as a Snickers bar.  And there are new data that show diet soda may actually make you gain weight. So it can be challenging to make the healthy choice — because you don’t know what that is.

Combine that with the fact that we drive everywhere, we sit around most of the day, we spend hours in front of the screen even with our free time — it’s not a surprise that we are putting on the pounds.

With the majority of American overweight or obese, the irony is that if you’re normal weight, you’re in the minority.
What are some of the culprits you see causing weight gain in specific age groups, or are the contributors the same across all ages?
As we age, it gets much more difficult to lose weight as well as maintain a healthy weight. Because our basal metabolic rate slows down as we get older, we typically gain about 10 pounds each decade starting in our 20s and it continues to our early 60’s. For many of us, that can be 40-50 extra pounds.  Most of it is fat. At the same time, starting in our mid- 20s, we begin to lose muscle mass if we don’t do anything about it.   As a result, we lose about ¼ pound of muscle every year from ages 25-50 and then a pound of muscle a year from our 50’s on.  This may not sound like much, but over 20 or 30 years, it really adds up. For women, it’s even more difficult. After menopause, weight gain and changes in fat distribution speed up. It’s mainly because there is a decline in the hormones estrogen and progesterone.  These hormones affect the fat cell in a way that causes more fat to be deposited centrally.  Hormonal changes also cause a woman’s body to retain more water all over. By menopause, nearly 2 out of every 3 women have become overweight! So getting older makes it harder – not impossible – but more difficult.
Don’t baby boomers and seniors “know better”?  Why are they struggling with lifestyle modification?
This goes back to my point that it is hard to find accurate information.  Baby boomers and seniors often are confused about what to do.  In addition, they often have developed bad habits that are hard to break.  Combine that with the changes occurring as we age, and it can become a struggle to live healthy.

Remember, most people – including baby boomers – give up on a diet they started within 5 days! It’s hard to change behaviors.
Do you think you have an approach to weight loss and lifestyle change that is different than most of the diet trends we are seeing currently?
I do.  Unlike other diet books, this book (releasing in January) is not based on one person’s experience.  Rather, it is based on some of the best scientific and clinical information about how what we eat impacts our health. Believe it or not, AARP has been involved for years in studying how food affects our bodies.  In fact, twenty-five years ago, AARP and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), began studying the effects of dietary and lifestyle choices on the incidence of cancer among half a million people ages fifty and older. It is the largest study of its kind and it continues to this day.  

Taking data from the NIH AARP Diet and Health Study as well as other well-designed studies, the AARP New American Diet was created. It provides the most up-to-date information about what you should eat, when you should eat, and how much to eat in order to lose weight, keep it off and live longer.  It takes the best aspects of the Mediterranean diet and the Standard American diet and blends them into one diet that’s realistic and easy to follow.  It’s a simple, practical diet that will enable you to live a vital life and may even stave off disease—specifically, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. It focuses on what to include as well as what to exclude. The best news is that it works, because it’s based on science!

There are no gimmicks or fads.  It’s not about denial. It’s also not just about losing weight; it’s also about preventing disease and living longer.  It’s about a diet to live on, rather than a diet to go on.

Is there something special about framing a diet and fitness program in the form of a prescription?
Definitely!  We need to think about food as a medicine.  Just like a prescription medicine, it affects every part of our body.  So you need to think twice before you eat that donut for breakfast!  We also know that when physicians give patients good and accurate information about diet and exercise, patients are more likely to follow it.  Some medical experts suggest doctors should actually write their fitness and diet recommendations on a prescription pad.

Next month: Look forward to a blog highlighting Dr. Whyte’s soon-to-be-released book.

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