We’re losing the war on weight. Overweight and obesity rates are on the rise, even in children. Along with the extraneous weight come the associated chronic diseases: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and immune system dysfunction, to name the worst. (1) The rate of obesity worldwide has almost doubled since 1980. (2)
A 2012 review of the obesity epidemic states:
“Despite growing recognition of the problem, the obesity epidemic continues in the U.S., and obesity rates are increasing around the world. The latest estimates are that approximately 34% of adults and 15–20% of children and adolescents in the U.S. are obese. Obesity affects every segment of the U.S. population. Obesity increases the risk of many chronic diseases in children and adults. The epidemic of obesity arose gradually over time, apparently from a small, consistent degree of positive energy balance…Because of the complexity of obesity, it is likely to be one of the most difficult public health issues our society has faced…Since the 1970s, the prevalence of obesity has increased throughout the U.S. adult population–among men and women of all ethnic groups, ages, and educational and socioeconomic levels.” (3)
Unexplained Weight Gain
The problem of obesity can’t be distilled to one factor—it is the result of many. One thing is for certain: people are generally more overweight than their ancestors and find it much more difficult to lose weight than they did.
Using data from a study of over 36,000 Americans that covered the years from 1971 to 2008, a 2015 York University (Toronto) study attempted to determine the correlations among caloric intake, nutrient intake, and amount of physical activity with obesity. The findings are somewhat surprising: compared to 1988 for a given the amount of calories, the quality of the calories, and the amount of time spent engaging in physical activities, the expected body mass index (BMI) increased by 2.3kg/m2, or about 10% heavier. This led researchers to conclude that there are factors other than how much you eat, what you eat, and how much you exercise when it comes to how much weight you gain. (4)
It’s Not Just About Calories
The York University study demonstrated that addressing the problem of being overweight has to take a broader view than only diet and exercise, though these are a given.
When it comes to losing weight, there’s more to the equation than “energy in versus energy out”, i.e., the number of calories you eat versus how many you burn. Our bodies are affected by environmental and lifestyle factors that must be considered. (5)
Weight Gain Factors
We are surrounded by human-made chemicals. They’re in our food, water, air, packaging, building materials, and personal care and household products. As the effects of these chemicals are studied, science is finding that many of them seriously mess up human physiology. Many chemicals (called obesogens) are known to cause weight gain and a resistance to weight loss by disrupting the endocrine system. (6)
- Plastics and metals used in grocery packaging leach into the food (e.g., BPA, aluminum), making it toxic. These substances accumulate in the body—in adipose (fat) tissue.
- Chemicals are added to municipal water supplies to kill potentially harmful micro-organisms. Fluoride is also added to the water in many areas, presumably to prevent tooth decay. The truth of the matter is that there is no definitive proof that fluoridated water decreases the risk for dental cavities. Additionally and more importantly, fluoride is a neurotoxin that disrupts thyroid function and is a contributor to obesity.
- Many personal care products contain xenoestrogens: chemicals that act like estrogen in the body. A few of the many potentially harmful consequences of long-term use of these products are hormone disruption, development of metabolic abnormalities, and weight gain. (7)
- Chemicals and metals in the air we breathe contribute to many illnesses and diseases, obesity and diabetes among them. What we take in through our lungs and skin goes directly into the bloodstream and is distributed throughout the body, nutrients and toxins alike.
Most of these substances didn’t exist 100 years ago; they are a modern challenge to human health.
Emulsifiers, coloring, preservatives, flavoring, and pesticides in and on our food are causing inflammation, illness, and disease. The more a food is processed, the less nutritional value it retains. Even fresh produce is questionable: the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, along with genetic modification and varietal reduction, are detracting from inherent nutrition of vegetables and fruits.
One example is triflumizole (TFZ), a common fungicide sprayed on food crops. It has been shown to cause weight gain in mice and to put their fetuses at significantly higher risk for developing obesity than mice not exposed to TFZ. (8)
Organic is the way to go.3. Prescription Drugs
We’re a drug culture. Almost half of us are taking at least one prescription. Over 23% are taking three or more on a regular basis. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that over 75% of doctor visits resulted in patients leaving with a prescription. Over three billion prescriptions were filled that year. (9) Some of the most commonly-prescribed classes of medications are known to cause weight gain:
- antihypertensives (beta blockers for high blood pressure)
- diabetes drugs
- antiseizure medications. (10)
“The changing relationship between diet and physical activity with obesity could be a reflection of other factors that have changed over time and have also been linked with obesity. These factors include a decrease in sleep duration, increased endocrine disruptors in the food chain, and a large increase in the use of prescription medications…Specifically, antidiabetic, antihypertensive, and anticonvulsant prescriptions have increased nearly twofold from 1990 to 2001…and could be playing an influential role in the rise in obesity.” (11)
Our grandparents didn’t rely on pharmaceuticals for their everyday lives.
4. Gut Microbiome
The modern Western diet is killing our guts. The majority of our immune system lives in our gastrointestinal tract; it’s packed with friendly bacteria that break down food, destroy harmful bacteria and other micro-organisms, promote waste elimination, and more. Chemical-laden and nutrient-poor foods discourage pre- and pro-biotic bacteria and that’s directly affecting our health.
Antibiotic medications kill both harmful and health-critical gastrointestinal microflora; their overuse and misuse have led to antibiotic resistance, which has resulted in the evolution of superbugs that are difficult to eradicate. Further, we get antibiotic chemicals from conventionally-raised meat and animal products that we eat and drink. These factors throw our internal ecosystems out of whack. The consequences include changes to metabolism, hormone imbalance, and systemic inflammation—all contributors to obesity.
5. Chronic Stress
Everyone has stress in their lives; not only is it normal, it’s necessary for survival. Chronic stress, however, potentiates a whole host of health problems, including weight gain. Stress hormones such as cortisol initiate a chain reaction that puts your body in survival mode, regulating blood pressure and blood sugar, heart rate, hunger, other hormones, and overall metabolism. There is a definite link between chronic stress and obesity, often leading to diabetes. (12)
Our forebears’ stress centered around day-to-day survival but there were regular physical outlets for stress by simply taking care of daily needs. Modern stress is different and many people don’t employ regular physical and emotional outlets for it. Imbalanced body chemistry coupled with routine emotional stress bring long-term adverse consequences for health.
Most of the Industrialized World can claim a high standard of living with many common conveniences. With all this luxury, however, has come a more sedentary lifestyle for many of us. We drive when we could walk or ride a bicycle. We take an elevator instead of the stairs. We sit and watch television after dinner instead of going for a walk. We opt to go shopping at the mall instead of spending time outdoors engaging in physical activity. We pick up dinner at the fast food joint instead of making a nutritious meal at home. We have electronic devices of all kinds to entertain and inform us so we don’t have to physically interact with other people. In many ways, we’ve become privileged to our own detriment and our waistlines reflect that.
How to Fight Back
Knowing the cause of a problem helps a great deal toward finding solutions. Directly addressing culprits that cause us to gain weight will help us to lose excess and keep it off.
- Eat whole foods, keeping processed foods to a minimum. Stay away from anything artificial, anything you can’t pronounce, and anything you wouldn’t use if you made it yourself. Be wary of anything that says “light” or “diet” or “low-fat” on the label—think about what is being substituted and/or processed out for the manufacturer to market it as such.
- Choose organic foods to avoid synthetic chemicals and genetically-modified food.
- Use natural personal and household care
- Ensure you get regular adequate, good-quality sleep.
- Find constructive, healthy ways to manage stress.
- Use salt in moderation and keep an eye on sodium content of packaged foods.
- Cut out added and refined sugars.
- Cut out artificial sweeteners of all kinds, including high fructose corn syrup, sucralose, and aspartame.
- Don’t drink soda (regular or diet).
- Keep up or increase your aerobic and resistance training exercise program.
- Use natural antibiotics and immune system boosters instead of prescription drugs.
- Increase your intake of prebiotic and probiotic foods.
We now know that we have to work harder to achieve and maintain a healthy BMI than in years past. There’s no magic bullet but there’s nothing complicated to getting to where you want to be. Knowledge is your most powerful ally.