Two-thirds of U.S. adults are now overweight and one-third are obese, making normal-sized people an actual minority. Americans have so ballooned in size, government safety regulators worry that airline seats and belts won't restrain today's men, who average 194 pounds, and women, who average 165 pounds, in a crash.
Not everyone agrees that obesity is always a health problem. You can be overweight and still have normal blood pressure, blood sugar, HDL cholesterol and other metabolic markers if you exercise, say some, pointing to U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, who hiked the Grand Canyon in 2010 despite her extra poundage.
But others say fitness and exercise will not reverse the health effects of obesity. For example, the British medical journal The Lancet recently reported that rising obesity in the U.K. will cause an extra half million cases of heart disease, 700,000 cases of diabetes and 130,000 of cancer by 2030. And the overweight and obese are 80 percent more likely to develop dementia, writes Kerry Trueman on AlterNet.
And there other obesity "negatives." The obese are less likely to be employed, earn less than people of normal weight and "have more days of absence from work, a lower productivity on the job and a greater access to disability benefits," reports the Paris-based policy group Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Obesity raises Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance costs and affects national security, writes David Gratzer, M.D., on KevinMD.com, "since thousands of recruits are turned away from military service because of failed physicals and poor overall health." It also shortens "the lifespan of millions of decent Americans who deserve better," he writes.
Yet eating too much and exercising too little, considered the root of obesity, are not the only probable culprits. Here are some other factors that are often overlooked.
Depression and Depression Drugs
Classic depression is characterized by a decrease in appetite, weight loss and general despondency. But in 1994 "atypical depression" debuted, a subtype of depression characterized by an increase in appetite and weight gain (as well as oversensitivity to rejection by others). Unfortunately, both types of depression are often treated with popular antidepressants like Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro and Paxil and antipsychotics like Seroquel, Zyprexa and Risperdal, all of which can pack on the pounds. To keep the weight gain from affecting Pharma sales, the pro-pill site WebMD tells patients that keeping the pounds off is their responsibility since only "healthy eating and exercise help control your weight gain." But it also counsels if the pill weight gain is "so strong that it simply can't be offset by any amount of calorie restricting or even exercise," the psychoactive medication "to help overcome your depression is far more important." To whom?
High Fructose Corn Syrup
The consumption of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has grown 1,000 percent since its introduction in soft drinks in 1984. Corn-derived sweetener not only lacks sugar's wild price swings (from unstable geographic and political regions and trade barriers), it can be pumped into trucks and tanks unlike bulky dry sugar. It also provides moisture retention, flavor enhancement, resistance to crystallization (allowing "moist" baked goods) and "freezing point depression" for ice cream, say industry professionals. But HFCS also metabolizes differently from sugar in the body and is so linked to obesity and diabetes, public health groups recommend regulation (like New York City's Mayor Bloomberg). HFCS stimulates production of triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood), increases fat deposition in the liver and causes permanent metabolic changes, say some. Other researchers say U.S. obesity is not so much linked to HFCS as the bioengineered (GMO) corn it and countless other products are now made from.
Artificial sweeteners, found in soft drinks, many diet foods and an astounding number of children's cereals for unclear reasons, may do more harm than good. While marketed and perceived as helping people avoid calories, they can have two insidious side effects: Because they are sweet, they can encourage sugar craving and sugar dependence just like salty foods train people to crave salt, says research in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. And, because sweetness is "decoupled from caloric content," they fail to satisfy the sweets reward system and actually further fuel "food seeking behavior," wrote the researchers. See: giving starving dog a rubber bone. One artificial sweetener, Splenda, also has molecular similarities to endocrine disrupter pesticides, say some food safety advocates.
Noting that the average child in the U.S. and other developed countries "has received 10-20 courses of antibiotics by the time he or she is 18 years old," microbiologist Martin Blaser published some disturbing suggestions in the journal Nature last year. By killing "good" bacteria with important roles in the body, "Overuse of antibiotics could be fueling the dramatic increase in conditions such as obesity, Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, allergies and asthma," he reports. Yes, obesity. Mice given low-dose antibiotics that mimic farm use and high-dose antibiotics that mimic infection treatment in children exhibited preliminary "changes in body fat and tissue composition," says Blaser. Mice developed as much as a 40 percent increase in fat and a 300 percent increase in fat when given a high-fat diet too, extrapolated Alice Wessendorf on the research. Denmark researchers found eerie parallels in humans. Babies given antibiotics within six months of birth were more likely to be overweight by age 7.
Antibiotics are not the only widely-used substances that may be associated with a host of human problems. Chemicals called endocrine disrupters are found in everything from canned foods and microwave popcorn bags to cosmetics and carpet-cleaning solutions and are linked to breast cancer, infertility, low sperm counts, genital deformities, early puberty and diabetes in humans and alarming mutations in wildlife. Many are aware of the endocrine disrupter BPA (Bisphenol A) banned in baby bottles and sippy cups in Washington state but given a pass by the FDA in March. But fewer realize that similar endocrine disrupters are found in flame retardants like phthalates and PBDEs, thermal receipts given out at stores and in "antibacterial" dish detergents and toothpaste, like Tricoslan found in Colgate's Total. Endocrine disrupters may also be linked to obesity. Pregnant women with high levels of PFOA, one disrupter, were three times as likely to have daughters who grow up to be overweight, reported the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof in May.
Coming: 10 Hidden Reasons for U.S. Obesity, Part Two
An earlier version of this report appeared on Alternet.org.
Martha Rosenberg's new book, Born With a Junk Food Deficiency, has been the top health policy book since its April release. She recently appeared on Book TV's "After Words" on C-SPAN.
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