A post-New Year article in Bloomberg Opinion addressed a topic that invariably arises in early January, in the US at least: how can I drop the holiday weight I’ve gained? It addressed the issue less from how to lose it than why some gain more of it. The article was based on the research of Dr.Mary Jane West-Eberhard of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institutes, a theoretical biologist interested in how and why humans evolved to deposit fat around the midsection, among other interests of hers.
West-Eberhard recently published an article in a scientific journal proposing that fatness, especially visceral fat around the internal organs in the abdomen, may have served the immune system in pre-industrial times and in youth but may be pathogenic – disease-causing – in modern times. This hypothesis diverts attention from the other, more reproductive, thesis many ascribe to that says fat deposits in certain areas of the body increased the attractiveness of some of our early ancestors. That is, having broad, meaty tushes and large breasts both attracted male suitors and provided some beneficial fat stores for reproductive and baby-nutrition purposes that ensured the continuity of the gene pool.
But in modern, more urban times, these storage depots have become sources of disease. That is, belly or visceral fat is more closely associated with heart and metabolic diseases and even some cancers.
This is an interesting hypothesis for those interested in why and how humans evolved since the advent of agricultural and industrial societies 20,000 years ago. But the reality is today, modern, and now, not just January 1.
Why do humans today put on weight so readily? Let me count the ways. As almost any detailed article in the literature will tell you, it’s because we eat more sugary foods and drinks, including alcoholic ones; more fatty foods; more foods in general; and we move less. And yet the data doesn’t support these in the aggregate.
Studies have found we, on average, consume maybe 100-200 calories/day more than our peers 50-60 years ago. Granted, that kind of excess would surely add 10-15# a year assuming all things equal. And that alone would account for the weight gains over the past half-century if not for other factoids.
What accounts for the extra calories? After all, we had processed foods when I was a kid, and we surely ate them. Remember when potato chips were served with sandwiches? Of course, serving sizes were smaller then and we’re now living in an age of supersized meals, home and in restaurants and stores. But sugar and fat were always elemental to our diets, even though the fats post-WW2 were often hydrogenated to protect the American heart from saturated fats. We now know that that was a bogus endeavor based on pseudo-science and political lobbying.
We also know that sugar supplanted fat content as fat became vilified. A recent article reviewed the work of some University of California- San Francisco researchers who’d found the insidious if not immoral efforts of the sugar industry – including the snack foods and soda moguls – to obfuscate sugar’s role in our health. Manipulative and falsified research and heavy lobbying have combined to justify a near-hands off approach to dealing with the sugar that we consume daily in many forms. Clearly it has a role in the current obesity crisis.
Importantly, too, is the role of processed foods of which so much of our diets are. Not just restaurant foods but store-bought foods, even ‘fresh’ foods like fruits and veggies, are processed for taste, transportability, storage-ability, and visual appeal – ever notice how red store-bought apples are vs picked from the tree??? What role do chemicals, not just hormones in meat and dairy products, play in storing fat around the midsection and below?
Other obvious causes of obesity are inactivity and sedentariness. I just read an article that said native hunters from Tanzania walk about 5-10 miles/day and that that was about what Americans walk daily. I can tell you most do not but walking towns like NYC and Philly, and active communities in places like LA, SF and Denver might bump the average up to that; but not here in the South where the culture and the climate combine to de-activate most residents.
Nonetheless, perhaps our reduced overall activity contributes to the excess weight gathering on our waistlines. But I would suggest that this starts young enough that it would start to show in early high school, not just after college graduation. It does a little but not nearly as one would expect once you include some of the other causes we discussed above.
You’d think as a fitness pro that I’d pin most of the problem on sedentariness. I think it has greater impact on muscle mass, cardiovascular fitness and overall well-being but I don’t think the data is sufficient to pin obesity largely on levels of activity. The human body has quite the ability to maintain some stasis even in the face of crappy diets and slovenly habits.
Too, I think it’s presumptive to suggest the kind of linkage to immune function as a primary contributing factor to visceral obesity. My own thoughts are that genetics – both epigenetics (those that are impacted by post-conception environments) and DNA – are the biggest factors in the obesity crisis.
Too many of us born to overweight, or big-boned, parents, tend to be overweight, too. And those of us luck enough to have lean parents and grandparents tend to be lean. Granted it takes work to sustain leanness but it takes less than it does for those with lean genes than with fattier genes. And even epigenetic effectors will have less affect on those born lean than on those born fattier.
When I was a sociology major in the early 1970s, we learned that much of human behavior was rooted in social circumstances. B.F. Skinnerism was a dominant theme whereby reconfiguring society would reconfigure human interaction and social intercourse. I bought into that pretty much until I had my third child, two from the same mother. There I saw how very different children raised in the same household born of the same parents could be, granting that no child is raised in exactly the same environment even if raised as twins. I became more aligned with genetics when it came to behavior than I had been when studying sociology.
And I see today, after 30 years of working with clients, some of whom wanted to lose weight, that, along with all the best science, dietetics, and availability of exercise options, some folks lose weight easier than others. There are mental and emotional elements involved as well as cultural and family components. But at the end of the day, exposed to the same temptations as the rest of us, to foods, TV shows, computers, cell phones, sweets, fats, long hours of work, stresses, etc., only some of us fend off visceral fatness while others balance out our leanness to weight the scales toward population obesity. What’s the underlying difference?
I truly believe it has as much if not more to do with what our genetics make of our circumstances than what our circumstances make of our genetics. Maybe I’m just getting old, maybe I’m just getting stuck in my ways, but there are simply too many people who don’t eat crappy foods and watch tons of TV to say it’s those that cause obesity. I think it’s that their genes are simply not comfortable with living that way, emotionally and physically. Turning those on in others will be a lot harder than imposing diets and exercise regimens on the near-70% who are overweight and obese.
Happy new year.