Medical correspondent Dr. Ian Smith

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50 Million Pound Challenge founder talks about his new book and his efforts to combat rising obesity rates in the U.S.


Tavis: Dr. Ian Smith is the creator and founder of The 50 Million Pound Challenge, which was designed to help the growing epidemic of obesity in America. He is also a best-selling author whose latest text is called “Happy: Simple Steps to Get the Most out of Life.” Dr. Ian, good to see you.
Dr. Ian Smith: Tavis, always good to see you.
Tavis: I was just whispering in your ear before we came on the air here that with all that you, with this 50 Million Pound Challenge, and others are doing to get obesity rates to go down, this new report just out the other day, you saw this?
Smith: Absolutely.
Tavis: Twenty-eight states, the obesity rate has increased. How is it that so much focus, so much energy, all the TV commercials, all the weight loss programs, how can all this attention on obesity be happening at the same time that the obesity rates are going up in 28 states?
Smith: Two major reasons. One, people have to want it for themselves. You can’t want for people to be healthy and they automatically become healthy. They themselves have to say, “This is what the change, the lifestyle I want.” If they don’t want it, you can’t make them take it.
The other part of it is that while there’s a lot of media attention – the first lady has a program, everyone seems to have a program – you have to get to the people. You have to actually have some tangible things that will have immediate effect on people’s lives.
So policy statements and campaign promises, they don’t matter. You have to go into schools and say, “Okay, no more high-calorie, sugary drinks. You’re going to drink fresh things.” But you’ve got to do it.
So I think that what we’re seeing is yes, there’s this barrage of media attention but there’s no penetration, and you’ve got to have penetration at the ground level.
Tavis: You mentioned these sugary drinks. There’s a lot of traction these days on taxing – what they call the soda tax – taxing these drinks. What do you make of that idea?
Smith: Don’t believe it. This is why I don’t believe in it. Because if you’re looking at it from a revenue standpoint, a revenue-generating standpoint, well, there are other ways to generate revenue than to somewhat penalize someone for a choice they make on their beverage.
The other way I don’t believe it is if you look at it from a penalty standpoint, we’re going to penalize you because you’re drinking something that in effect could lead to diseases, that in effect could cost the healthcare system more money. Look at tobacco.
Look at the price of cigarettes these days. I was astounded in New York City the other day where a guy bought some cigarettes and it was outrageous – $10 or $11 for one pack, right? I said to the cashier, “Have you noticed people are smoking less?” He said, “Absolutely not.”
What they do is they just take their disposable income and they switch it from one place and move it into the cigarette ability of buying, so I don’t think it’s going to work from that – listen, let’s do it the right way. Let’s figure out ways to work with companies to sit down and say there has to be a middle ground where we can still give people things that they like but make them healthier. I think that’s the more constructive way to do it.
Tavis: Here’s a silly question. Let me ask anyway. Of all the challenges that we face in life, for some of us the weight thing is the most difficult. Why is that? Why is it so difficult to keep your weight down?
Smith: Well, because there’s so many pressures and stimuli to want us to make it go up. There’s bad choices in food that are available to us. Nobody particularly wakes up in the morning and says, “I can’t wait to get into the gym,” so it’s the physical activity thing. (Laughter)
As we get older – for all of us, by the way, when we hit 30 our metabolism starts going down, so therefore it becomes harder to burn off things, and we become busy.
People have busy lives and to sit there and allocate how much time you’re going to exercise to make sure you prepare your own food, which you should sometimes, because companies don’t have a lot of good foods there, it just – it’s a myriad of issues that makes it difficult to do it.
By the way, it’s a journey. Weight loss is a journey. Weight loss isn’t just okay, I’m going to lose the weight and I’m over. Weight loss is a lifelong journey and some people, I think, just figure, I’m tired. I just give up on it, and hopefully diabetes won’t come or high blood pressure won’t come, and they just stop.
I believe that if people make slow, gradual changes, Tavis, and they can incorporate into their life – so therefore, you say to yourself, “I enjoy having one piece of fruit every morning.” Some people don’t eat fruit at all, by the way, especially African Americans. The numbers are ridiculous.
But if you say, “Actually, I enjoy having -” I just had a banana in the green room – “I enjoy having that banana. It really felt good.” If you can get people to make these small changes – I took a walk this morning out of my hotel. It was half a mile, that’s it, but I was out walking and moving.
If you can get people to make these small changes then you can make a difference. Otherwise it’s so overwhelming to people to think I’ve got to lose 50 pounds and I’ve got to do all these different things, people just say, “Oh, I can’t take it psychologically.”
Tavis: This book is not about obesity, so I want to move beyond that in just a second. But before I go into the heart of the book, make for me the connection, if there is one, between the happiness, or lack thereof, for some people, and their weight and their obesity. Is there a connection?
Smith: Absolutely, a very direct connection. A lot of people who are overweight, not everyone, but a lot of people are dealing with issues such as emotional issues, stress issues. They become stress eaters and emotional eaters.
Food becomes their medication, it becomes their companion, and that is because there is not happiness in their life. What I’ve found all these years with helping people lose weight is that number one, when they lose weight they do become happier. They really become happier people and it opens them up.
But I’ve also realized that while I’ve been treating the number on the scale, what I should have been treating, really, have been some of the issues behind the numbers, which is how do they feel about life, about where they’re going in their life, what has happened to them.
So this book is an offshoot of all the work I’ve been doing to try to help people realize that weight loss opens your life, but also you’ve got to deal with your happiness and what really matters to you in life.
Tavis: Since happiness, I suspect, means something different for each and every one of us, how do you have this universal notion of what (laughter) it means to be happy?
Smith: Well, let me say that while I’ve written the book, everyone’s definition of happiness is our definition. My definition is no better than anyone else’s. I’ve just thought about it a lot, and this is what I think it is.
I think happiness is a combination of pleasure, engagement and meaningfulness. Now, some people think that happiness is just pleasure, but pleasure to me is a transient thing. You buy a new car; you’re excited for a few months. You buy a new dress, a new handbag.
Pleasure does not equal happiness; it’s part of happiness. Happiness is deeper, Tavis. Happiness is something where even when things are going back around you – the Gulf spill is happening, bad economy in the U.S., because the country’s in a blue mood, I believe. I think the country is depressed.
But even with all these bad things going around you, happiness allows you to still be positive. It allows you to wake up every morning with a smile on your face and saying, “I’m happy to be alive, and today’s going to be better than yesterday.
That is what true happiness is, and that’s why I’m trying to get people to understand that happiness is something that you can control. It’s within you and not something attached to how much money you make, the kind of car you drive and if you got a promotion at work.
Tavis: To the point you’ve made now – and you’re one of the first persons I’ve heard make this point, and I want to explore it – this notion that the country is depressed, the country is in a “blue mood,” to use your phrase, or put it my way, that the country’s in a funk, how is it that – let me rephrase that.
Is it possible that individuals can find their own happiness when they live in an environment, in this case, a country, where everybody around them seems to be in a funk, in a blue mood? Does that make sense?
Smith: Absolutely, and that’s the purpose of the book. The book says that there are things that have nothing to do with all of this other stuff that’s happening that has to do with your happiness.
Look, it’s tough. People are losing homes; they can’t afford their credit card bills. I know people. My family are having this situation. But I say to them, “Listen, this too shall pass. Things will get better. But while things are getting better, don’t put your happiness on hold.” There are things that you can do that you enjoy, whether it’s gardening, painting, walking, spending time with your loved ones, writing – I love to write.
There are things that we can do, Tavis, that are inexpensive, in our control, that truly can bring us happiness. The problem in America is America, we’re taught happiness means do you have a nice job? Are you making six figures? Are you wearing Gucci shoes? Do you have a five-bedroom house?
These are all the things since little kids that we’re taught this is what equals happiness. It doesn’t. What that equals is a journey, a materialistic journey that really is unpredictable.
I say happiness is about spending time with your loved ones and really giving them the roses while they can smell them, Tavis. Keeping in touch with people and doing good things for others. One of my favorite things is – and we’ll get to this, but ways to boost your happiness that scientists have shown five random acts of kindness a week.
That’s what happiness is all about, and when people find happiness, by the way, in that way, they have it forever.
Tavis: Tell me more about the random acts of kindness.
Smith: Sure. Well, the scientists look at ways that you can boost your happiness by up to six months at a time. One of the best is five random acts of kindness per week.
What’s an example? Buying someone a lunch – maybe your receptionist – who people typically ignore or underappreciate. One day, buy her a lunch. I was in Ace Hardware the other day buying something, and a gentleman’s credit card wasn’t going through and he wanted to buy a battery charger for $15.
I said, “Sir, put that on my bill.” The guy was shocked. “Oh, no, I can’t do it. I can’t believe -” “Put it on my bill.” I said, “You know what? You do something nice for someone else.”
Those kinds of small things, where you’re just doing things for strangers that are nice without wanting recognition – it’s not about putting your name in the lights. Those things do so much for the person doing it, because you realize that you helped someone. It makes you feel good, and then at the end of the day, when you think about it and you go home at night, you say, “Wow, if I had been in that jam I would have loved to have someone do the same thing for me.”
Tavis: You’re in the media; I’m in the media. We’re both in the media at this moment in this conversation. How culpable are we, the media, in determining what people’s happiness is or at least telling them that we know best what their happiness is?
Smith: Very culpable. The media has done a very bad job of positioning things for people to understand what’s true happiness. The media has been so saturated with negativity or coverage of celebrity, what Paris Hilton or Lindsey Lohan does, and getting people to think that that kind of lifestyle of walking down the red carpet, that that’s what happiness is all about.
These people are very – you know this – these people are very unhappy, and they’re unhappy because they don’t have a grounding. Unfortunately, the media, instead of spending time on showcasing regular people, not always celebrities, but regular people who are doing good works for people and are happy people and living great lives, the media doesn’t do that because they don’t think it sells.
Instead, the pop culture, the Lindsey Lohans of the world, that sells, and it’s unfortunately, it’s sad. I think that the media does have a role and a job to be able to at least perpetuate some goodness, and I think we do a poor job of doing it. I’m hoping the book will be able to resonate with people in that sense.
When you subtitle a book “Simple Steps to Get the Most out of Life,” you think that finding happiness is really that simple? Is it really a simple prospect or is it more complicated?
Smith: It is simple, but you have to be willing to work. Meaning you have to think about happiness. You have to sit down –
Tavis: Wait, wait. Why shouldn’t happiness just come? Why do I have to work at being happy?
Smith: Oh, oh, great. I love that. (Laughter)
Tavis: Why I gotta work at it, man?
Smith: No, no, no.
Tavis: That seems oxymoronic – happy, go work for it.
Smith: Death just comes, not happiness. Because when you’re trying to find happiness, you’re trying to navigate a very, very murky minefield of distractions, of disappointments, of deceptions. That’s why you have to work on happiness. Because you yourself have to block out all of the white noise that has come in and is trying to brainwash you into understanding what happiness is.
By work I mean you have to sit there and think about your importance. That’s one of the exercises in the book, is figure out what is important to you. Honestly – name the five – when I go give speeches I say, “Name the five things most important to you.”
People get up to three and they freeze. They don’t know where else to go, right? So the thing is we don’t take time to think about our priorities, and I open up the book with my epiphany about how I got my priorities together, because here I was, halfway around the world in the South China sea on my honeymoon – you went to my wedding.
So we’re on the honeymoon and I’m sitting there and I’m trying to get to the lodge in this very remote area to get connected to the Internet because our rooms didn’t have Internet wi-fi. Every day, I’ve got to get to that Internet to be able to connect to New York to find out what’s happening. Why?
Tavis: And you’re on your honeymoon.
Smith: On my honeymoon, right? (Laughter)
Tavis: And (unintelligible) is going crazy.
Smith: That’s right, and she’s – and we’re negotiating. (Laughter) Two times a day I can do it, we negotiated that already ahead of time, right?
Tavis: Yeah, two times a day (unintelligible).
Smith: Two times a day I can do this, right? The resort worker, who was making $200 a month, he told me, finally, he had to drive me to the lodge every night in a little golf cart. He finally said to me, “You like the Internet, don’t you?” I said, “Well, yeah, I have to get connected to New York.” He said, “But you’re on vacation.”
I went back like this. I was like, this guy just put a mirror up to me. This $200-a-month worker who says that he’s happy and he has all that he wants just put a mirror up to me and said, “You’re crazy.” That made me realize what’s important in life.
Tavis: Finally, back to something you said a moment ago that got my attention. What do you make of the fact that for all that we hear, for all that we say about how happy we want to be, when you put people on the spot, to your earlier point, they can’t move past three things. What’s that say to you about who we are or who we aren’t?
Smith: Because we are robotic. Because we are so caught in the rat race of what we think is called life, and in the book I distinguish between living and surviving.
A lot of us in America are just surviving. We’re not really living; we’re not really maximizing life. What I wanted to do was let people know that when you read this book and see these simple questions and take the happiness test, that you’ll start realizing that even amongst all this darkness out there, and all of us have our own darkness, that there is light.
But you have to find that light, and when you find it, you’ll never forget the path to it. But people have to sit down and want it, Tavis, and that’s why I wrote the book.
Tavis: I think Ian’s right. The country seems to be in a blue mood and a funk, and what better time for a book about happiness than now? So the book is here, it’s called “Happy: Simple Steps to Get the Most out of Life,” by Dr. Ian K. Smith. Ian, good to have you on the program. Thanks for the book, man.
Smith: Tavis, man, I love you, thank you.
Tavis: I love you back. I appreciate it.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm