How did we get this overweight, this quickly? In part one of this series, we talked about what obesity is and if it's really a disease, you can read that here. Obesity has been around since recorded history, but never to the degree we have experienced the past 30 years. In nature, people and animals who store energy are more likely to survive famine, yet there is more food available now than ever. Several experts feel we’ve encountered the “perfect storm.” We’ve experienced a significant change in our environment with increased stress levels, while sleep, free time, and activity levels have decreased. In our food, nutrient levels have decreased while use of chemicals and preservatives has majorly increased. (Side note: Did you hear Twinkies are coming back with an increased shelf life of an additional 3 weeks? They aren’t just refrigerating those things.) Let’s look at a few of the causes of this increase in weight gain over the past 30 years.
Let’s eliminate pre-existing diseases which lead to weight gain from the start. Pre-existing diseases have not seen much of a change over time and our diagnosis and treatments have improved drastically. For that reason, it’s easy to eliminate this from the causes of our recent epidemic. As a quick example, let’s look at hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid gland, or type 1 diabetes, when your body does not produce insulin and breaks the ability to convert sugars, starches and other food into energy. If untreated, these two diseases can cause significant enough hormone imbalances to slow the metabolism and induce fat storage.
Next, when the first law of thermodynamics is applied to the world of health and fitness, “The change in internal energy of a body is equal to the heat supplied to the body minus work done by the body”, it can be roughly translated as “calories in vs. calories out.” This is a point many argue on. If this were the only factor to consider, weight loss would literally be as simple as a math problem. If it was true, it would mean everyone who is overweight or obese is just lazy and eats too much. Eat less, exercise more! But then why, according to the Institute of Medicine, is there an increase in obese children under two years old? They don’t diet and exercise. Are you going to call them lazy? Unfortunately, the issue is not as simple as “Eat less, exercise more!” and goes way beyond personal responsibility for any age. Thinking the answer is simply “calories in vs. calories out” is wrong and ignorant. Personal responsibility is only a part of the equation for many people; nonetheless, assessing dietary trends is critical to solving the issue. As well, average caloric consumption is up and average activity levels have decreased with the advancement of technology.
In February of 1977, the U.S. government released a directive urging Americans to “Reduce overall fat consumption from approximately 40 to 30 percent of energy intake” in an attempt to lower the occurrence of heart disease, our #1 cause of death in the U.S. According to the CDC, since roughly that same time mean caloric intake has increased, mean percentage of calories from carbohydrate has increased, and mean percentage of calories from total fat and saturated fat has decreased. In addition, we’ve experienced not just an increase in carbohydrate over that time but more specifically an increase in sugar. In 1975 our average sugar consumption per capita was roughly 25lbs/yr; we hit over 100lbs/yr per capita in 2000 and it is now estimated to be over 150lbs/yr per capita. This coincides eerily with our obesity epidemic. So we’ve succeeded in adopting our hallowed low fat diets but we’ve only gotten fatter and heart disease is still our #1 killer.
In my opinion, this change in our diets has caused a wide-spread toxicity and hormone imbalance in our bodies; our epidemic. Americans (and now much of the world) are sick and it’s not because we’re lazy. Of our total sugar consumption, much of it is estimated to come from High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). HFCS is a man-made sweetener introduced to the U.S. in … you guessed it… 1975. Use of HFCS has increased at about double the speed of standard sucrose (table sugar) since its introduction. You’ll find more foods at the grocery (roughly 60-80% of products) packed with sweeteners and chemicals than those without. Now we can’t simply correlate the introduction and steady incline of HFCS or other chemicals to our obesity epidemic, but it’s certainly a culprit and part of the equation at least, causing a huge debate all by itself.
What are your thoughts? Comment below and look for my 3rd post in the 3-part Obesity Blog Series on the cure for obesity.