It’s no secret that obesity is a major health challenge these days — and one that has grown steadily over the last few decades.
At one time, experts thought the cause of the epidemic was simple: consuming too many calories + a sedentary lifestyle = excess weight.
But as it turns out, the reasons behind being overweight are more involved than that. Of course, food intake and exercise play critical roles. But according to Jennifer Kuk, the lead author of a recent study from York University in Toronto, excessive weight is “actually much more complex than just ‘energy in’ versus ‘energy out.’" She explained in a press release that lifestyle and environmental factors may also be key in why “maintaining a healthy body weight is now more challenging than ever.”
In their study, Kuk and her colleagues wanted to determine if the relationship between obesity and three health factors — total calories consumed; amount of physical exercise; and intake of protein, fat, and carbs — has changed over the past three decades.
To accomplish this, they reviewed dietary data between 1971 and 2008, along with exercise data from 14,419 people between 1998 and 2006. As it turned out, when all three factors were equal, a person in 2006 who ate the same amount of fat, protein, and carbs, consumed the same amount of calories, and engaged in the same amount of exercise as a person of the same age in 1988, the individual in 1988 would be thinner. That is, the person in 2006 would have a body mass index approximately 10 percent higher than the person in 1988.
Kuk and her team concluded that “factors other than diet and physical activity may be contributing to the increase in BMI over time.”
Although the study did not investigate the possible factors, Kuk and her colleagues did suggest some culprits. Here they are with what you should know about each:
1. Exposure to environmental toxins
We come into contact with hundreds of chemicals on a daily basis, from common items like shampoo, furniture, food and food packaging, plastics, building supplies, and household cleaners. Among those that have been associated with obesity are the endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which include bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, found especially in plastics and personal care products.
While these chemicals are rampant in our modern world, there are some things you can do to avoid exposure, including using glass and stainless-steel containers instead of plastic, and opting for natural beauty products.
2. Changes in your microbiome
Kuk and her team also suggested that changes to the microbiome — the population of bacteria and other microorganisms living in and on our bodies — may have a role in the obesity rise. While research is ongoing, these changes may be related to the growing use of artificial sweeteners and processed foods, both of which have a negative impact on bacteria in the gut.
In fact, experts have established a close relationship between the gut microbiome, obesity, and insulin resistance, with the hope that further understanding will help in the fight against this epidemic. It's one more reason to eat probiotic foods and consider taking high-quality probiotic supplements.
3. The use of prescription antidepressants
The use of antidepressants has skyrocketed by nearly 400 percent since 1988, and now 11 percent of people aged 12 years and older are taking at least one of these drugs.
Weight gain is, among others, one of the side effects of these drugs, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Celexa, Lexapro, Paxil, Prozac, and Zoloft. In fact, up to one-quarter of people who take antidepressants gain at least 10 pounds.
4. Chronic stress and cortisol
Stress takes a massive toll on health, resulting in unhealthy behaviors such as overeating. According to a 2012 American Psychological Association report, “Stress in America,” survey responses indicate that “the nation is on the verge of a stress-induced public health crisis” and the concern is especially critical among people who are obese or depressed.
The connection between stress and obesity lies mainly within hormones, especially the stress hormone cortisol. When stress levels remain elevated, so do cortisol levels, which can increase your appetite. Emotional eating — turning to comfort foods when faced with tension, stress, anxiety, depression — can become part of this pattern as well.
5. Lack of sleep
Research has shown there's a clear relationship between lack of sufficient sleep and obesity. One such study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention evaluated data from 13,742 adults and looked at how long they slept and their weight. The authors found that compared with individuals who slept seven to nine hours per night, individuals who got six or fewer hours of shuteye were more likely to be obese and have abdominal obesity.
A recent Gallup poll indicates we're getting less sleep today than our peers did back in the 1940s. In 1942, Americans got nearly eight hours of sleep per night, compared with an average of 6.8 hours today.
6. Lower metabolism.
The fight against weight gain can become a vicious cycle for many overweight people who restrict calories for a while and then experience the yo-yo effect: weight loss followed by weight gain over and over again.
This weight cycling can lead to a reduction in metabolic rate, a significant hurdle when one is trying to drop pounds and keep them off. Add in the fact that fatty tissue requires less energy to maintain than lean tissue, and you have another factor that contributes to obesity.
What You Can Do to Help Reach Your Goal Weight
The York University findings suggest that you need to eat fewer calories and exercise more than your same-age peers of three decades ago. But you can also help fight against obesity by focusing on a few other moves:
- Avoid environmental toxins as much as possible by using all-natural, organic personal care items and household cleaning items.
- Ditch the aftershave and other fragranced product.
- Choose organic foods whenever possible, including grass-fed, hormone-free meats.
- Use glass and stainless steel instead of plastic containers to store your food.
- Only buy products in BPA-free plastic, tins, and cans.
- Get seven to eight hours of sleep every night.
- Practice stress management techniques daily, such as meditation, progressive relaxation, deep breathing, yoga, tai chi, or visualization.
- Support your microbiome by avoiding artificial sweeteners and processed foods, and eating foods rich in probiotics to support beneficial bacteria in your gut.
- Talk to your health care provider about alternatives to prescription antidepressants you may be taking. Other drugs that may contribute to weight gain include beta-blockers, corticosteroids, diabetes medications, and mood stabilizers.
There’s not a simple solution to maintaining a healthy weight — but it’s likely more complicated than eating less and exercising more.
Doctors and other health professionals need to be trained in lifestyle approaches to weight management in order to better counsel their patients. And we need to understand that true health isn't about 9 percent body fat and six-pack abs. It’s about having our mental, physical, hormonal, sexual, and digestive systems working in harmony. That’s something we can all strive for.