The next time your parents remind you that things are so much easier now, here’s a rebuttal: maintaining weight isn’t. According to a new study published in the journal Obesity Research & Clinical Practice, it’s possible for the waistlines of adults today to be larger than someone 30 years ago, even at the same levels of caloric intake and exercise.
The study, which examined dietary data from 36,377 U.S. adults between 1997 and 2008 and physical activity data from 14,419 adults between 1988 and 2006, found that BMIs in 2006 were about 2.3 points higher. In other words, people are about 10 percent heavier now than they were in the 1970s, even when they’re eating the same amount of calories at the same levels (proteins, carbs and fats) and putting in the same amount of effort at the gym.
So what gives? As habitual dieters can attest to, there’s more to achieving — and maintaining — a steady, healthy weight than just calories in versus calories out. It’s why counting calories just doesn’t work.
“That’s similar to saying your investment account balance is simply your deposits subtracting your withdrawals and not accounting for all the other things that affect your balance like stock market fluctuations, bank fees or currency exchange rates,” said Professor Jennifer Kuk, one of the study’s authors.
Body weight is impacted not only by what people eat and how much they exercise, but also by lifestyle and environment, Kuk added, which have changed quite a bit since the ’70s and ’80s. She attributed three main factors as the likely culprits: prescription drugs, gut health and chemical exposure.
Prescription Drugs, Gut Health and the Link to Weight Gain
America’s culture of prescription drugs plays a role in weight management — and also affects gut health. Nearly 70 percent of Americans are on at least one prescription drug and more than half are on two. Antidepressants are the second-most prescribed drugs in the U.S., and many of those drugs have been linked to weight gain and obesity.
Additionally, antibiotics, the most-prescribed medication in America, can contribute to both weight gain and other health issues, such as serious maladies like leaky gut syndrome and antibiotic resistance, thanks to their effect on gut health. Antibiotics are prescribed to rid the body of bad bacteria — in the process, however, they wipe out good bacteria, too, and it’s why antibiotics are dangerous.
Good bacteria, also known as probiotics, are integral to gut health and maintaining a healthy balance between good and bad bacteria. Because certain types of gut bacteria make individuals more likely to add pounds or become obese, messing with the gut microbiome can have real consequences for the number on the scale — it’s why probiotic foods need to make a regular appearance in your diet.
Processed Foods Strike Again
Chemical exposure, the third factor for the increase in weight gain over the decades, is probably the most significant. “Chemical exposure” might bring up images of toxic spills or things like lead poisoning, but it actually accounts for things the average household is more familiar with: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and pesticide-laden produce; foods packed with artificial sweeteners; canola oil and grains in packaged foods; inferior proteins, like farmed fish and meats spiked with antibiotics; and more.
In fact, processed foods are one of the major reasons that, today, we’re eating the same things and exercising the same amount as people a few decades ago, but still seeing weight gain. Although we might be eating foods that have the same name they did years ago, many of them are vastly different. Consider that GMO fruits and vegetables didn’t hit store shelves in the U.S. until 1994.
Culprit #1: GMO Foods
Before 1994, while traces of some herbicides were evident in some foods, it wasn’t as prevalent as the non-organic produce sold today. Today, about 75 percent of food sold in American stores contains GMOs — that’s all food, not just produce. That’s an awful lot of GMOs the country is consuming. With the widespread use of GMOs come health problems that can lead to weight gain, such as digestive issues and problems with the endocrine system, in addition to things like allergies, antibiotic resistance and yet-to-be-discovered health concerns.
Culprit #2: Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners also pose a threat to those watching their figures. Because of our addiction to them, we seek to satisfy a sweet tooth with unhealthy, fake sugar-filled “foods.” Aside from driving us to processed snacks instead of naturally sweet fruits (no wonder we’re getting fatter), artificial sweeteners can have dangerous consequences. From carcinogens to yet more weight gain and obesity links, these substances are anything but sweet. You’d be much better off going with natural sweeteners instead.
Culprit #3: Vegetables and Soy
The cheap price of canola and vegetable oils, corn and soy (thanks, GMOs!) mean that these processed ingredients are being used as filler in most packaged, processed foods. In fact, even though you probably don’t guzzle soybean oil from a bottle, you’re getting more than enough — 20 percent of the American diet is made of the stuff. It’s even a common vitamin filler!
Soybean oil is quite high in omega-6, a fatty acid that increases inflammation and increases the risk for cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases and cancer. Before the Western diet’s reliance on processed foods, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (the “good” fats) were consumed in fairly equal amounts, allowing the good fats to balance out the bad ones. Today, however, we’re eating about double the amount of omega-6 foods. The result is the proliferation of weight gain and disease we’re seeing now.
Culprit #4: Inferior Meats
Antibiotic-packed farm fish and the standard meat sold at the butcher counter also contribute to those extra pounds. The dangers of farmed fish are many. The pesticides and chemicals used to farm them have been attributed to conditions like asthma, metabolic and immune disorders, and obesity.
Factory farmed meats that produce the ubiquitous hamburger and hot dogs are no better, of course. Ever wonder how fast food restaurants can afford to make burgers at $1 a pop and still turn a profit? These products are full of antibiotics (the same ones that can be harmful to humans), junk food feed and hormones that can cause birth defects and increase tumor growths. It stands to reason that these inferior meats are also pumped with ingredients that encourage weight gain.
What’s the Solution?
Clearly, a change is needed. All the ingredients that have led to more weight gain over the years also have other detrimental side effects, some of which can be literally life-threatening.
When choosing medications, make sure they’re truly necessary. Natural treatments, such as tapping into the many uses of essential oils, can be effective for many conditions or reduce the need to use prescriptions, especially for extended periods of time.
Choosing organic fruits and veggies drastically reduces your risk of consuming GMOs, while opting for grass-fed, high-quality local meats means you won’t get any “extra” ingredients, while also boosting its nutritional value. Also, actively seek out and consume anti-inflammatory foods, probiotic foods and omega 3 foods.
And, of course, forgoing processed foods is probably the single best change you can make for you and your family. Don’t forget to read labels: Many of these harmful ingredients are lurking in unsuspecting foods like breads or nut butters. Remember, weight gain can be just the first symptom of a larger health problem that processed foods and inferior ingredients bring about.