Sunday, September 24th, 2017

Why did the world get fat


The increasing prevalence of obesity across the globe has been too rapid to be explained by a genetic shift.

Over the last few decades we have simply eaten more than we needed.

While the increased rate of obesity can be attributed to changes in the food supply and eating behaviour combined with a reduction in physical activity it is obvious that underpinning changes in human energy balance are inter-related factors spawned by a world that is changing rapidly on a technological, psychological, sociological and economical level.

Here is an overview of what factors I came up with that have contributed to our obesity epidemic. Can you add some more?

Genetics and Hormones

As already noted, there is no way the obesity epidemic can be attributed solely to genetic factors; the epidemic has crept up too quickly to blame genetic mutations! While twin studies have clearly demonstrated a genetic risk for obesity, other research has proved that our genes are not destiny. It has been demonstrated time and again that even those with a genetic risk of obesity can manage their weight if they eat properly and exercise!

Similarly, while hormones have been identified that impact on satiety, appetite and fat distribution and that may predispose people to obesity risk we can’t blame our metabolisms either. There is no way that the 67% of overweight and obese men and 56% of the overweight and obese women in Australia have metabolic issues.

So, let’s look at more likely culprits contributing to the changes we have experienced over the past few years to see what affected the maths equation that determines our weight.

Energy in> energy out -> weight gain

Behaviour, Environment & Technology

When I looked at factors contributing to obesity it seemed to me that technological and economical progress have perhaps had the biggest impact on our environment, our social norms and how we live.

When I looked at what factors appeared to be impacting on our activity levels the most glaringly obvious perpetrator was technology.

Read the summary below.

a) Reduced physical activity appears to be due to a number of changes including:

  • Technology. Technology has definitely reduced our activity levels.
  • Electronic appliances and toys often have a stationary component. Examples include:
  • Computers, laptops, notebooks, netbooks
  • The internet
  • Computer games
  • Electronic games such as playstations and the x-box
  • iPods, the new ipad, smart phones

b) Social networking on line involves sitting. People spend hours in a stationary position on internet sites like Facebook, My Space, Bebo and Twitter and on internet forums, blogs, dating sites and just ‘surfing the net’

c)Television and cable TV also keep us in a stationary position.

d) Elevators and escalators, electric doors, travelators in airports and aeroplanes offloading passengers straight into the terminal instead of on the tarmac have further eroded opportunities to burn a few calories.

e) We choose automated car washes over the hose in the backyard, particularly in areas experiencing water shortages

f) We press buttons to wash our clothes when a few years ago we struggled with twin tubs, wringer washers and hot coppers

g) Instead of burning up calories hanging the clothes on the line, then taking them off, we throw them in the dryer

h) We buy and eat pre-packaged food rather than growing our own vegetables or shopping for the food fresh then chopping and preparing it from scratch

i) We do things quickly, like cooking in the microwave as opposed to chopping, cutting, stirring.

j) Lack of physical safety in public areas has caused parents to be reluctant to allow their children outside. Similarly, many females may feel unsafe walking or running outside alone

k) Changing social norms when it comes to fraternising with neighbours has reduced our opportunity to “do” things with our neighbours. We keep our children indoors, reducing play time that burns up those extra calories. One in five children are now obese. They are electronically baby-sat and this makes them fat!

l) Better transport services mean that people take buses, trams and trains to work or school or drive. I have seen in my own practice that people who don’t have cars burn more energy because they are forced to walk more and often have lower weights.

m) Higher incomes mean that most people own labour saving devices such as cars and can drive places. Others can afford cleaning ladies and gardeners

n) With the decentralisation of some cities those that cannot afford inner city living tend to live in suburbs meaning they are required to drive to shopping centres and other venues

o) Apartment living is on the rise and often involves less energy expenditure that would be devoted to cleaning larger living spaces and caring for gardens

p) Longer work hours means we have less time to devote to physical activity and are more likely not to spend time shopping for and cooking food, so we eat more fast food and convenience foods

q) Growth of entrepreneurial business to save labour time for busy professionals has made us fatter. We have everything from dog washing services, cleaning services, complete meal services, house washers, gardening services and let’s not forget places like MacDonalds, Hungry Jacks and KFC.

r) Unemployment often means people stay at home and watch TV because they cannot afford to go out.

s) Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are on the increase. One of the symptoms of these conditions is low energy and they tend not to do the thing that helps their condition most, which is to exercise. They have lower motivation and energy levels.

t) Increased food intake has also made us fatter.

  • people are eating larger portion sizes
  • access to food has become much easier. It was reported during the recession that three industries that did not suffer were fast food, grocery stores and the weight industry. Better food access is demonstrated by the following facts:
  • we are a supermarket society
  • fast food outlets abound
  • we can dial in takeways or order them online
  • some companies deliver the week’s food
  • there are school tuckshops, and workplace canteens
  • supermarkets offer more than 50,000 food choices, many of them prepackaged foods
  • all shopping centres have food courts and you never see an empty food court
  • we can access food at any time from 7/11 stores, 24 hour petrol stations and cafes
  • we have unashamedly evolved into a cafe society; instead of going for a walk in the park,we go out to drink coffee, eat cake and watch people
  • Bottle shops make the purchase of high calorie liquor easy
  • Nightclubs are open till 3am giving ample opportunity to consume zillions of liquid ‘empty’ calories
  • We have transport to travel to purchase food
  • We have the money to buy takeaway food or eat out
  • Most social functions involve food and the more extroverted of us may struggle with our weights purely because we are out and about and eating so much
  • Having a food focus has become a part of our society
  • Going out to a restaurant is a leisure activity
  • We not only have cooking shows, we have taken cooking to reality TV levels
  • There are travel tours based around cooking
  • Cooking is regarded as an acceptable leisure pursuit or hobby
  • We live to eat, not eat to live

u) Food technology

  • We have a bigger range of soft drinks, sports drinks and milk drinks to choose from
  • We have a larger range of tastier, higher calorie pre-packaged foods
  • Food manufacturers get to put words like “lite”, “no fat” and other labels on food so we think we can eat more of it, but the truth is putting low fat on fruit juice while technically correct only distracts you from the fact that it is full of carbohydrate and has the same calories as cordial!

v) Increased alcohol consumption

  • the easiest way to put on weight is to drink it on, particularly alcohol which is 7kcals or 37kjs per gram.
  • We have become a planet that accepts alcohol consumption. In fact, cultures are recognised by their alcoholic preferences eg Aussies drink beer, the French drink wine, the Russians drink vodka….
  • high binge drinking in women has increased
  • people drink in order to be more accepted socially
  • anxious people drink to calm their nerves so they can actually relax and manage to socialise
  • some people even think they can’t have fun and let go unless they have had a few drinks
  • night clubs open till 3am so we can drink all night
  • both the pub and club culture provide an opportunity to consume more calories
  • the tradition of visiting take-away food outlets after a night of drinking only adds to the overall calorie intake
  • alcohol is a disinhibitor so after a few drinks people cease to monitor how much they eat or drink
  • if your alcohol use becomes addictive the care factor for your health becomes even lower
  • bottle shops have made access to alcohol easier
  • wine clubs ensure we have heaps of the high calorie liquids in the house
  • it’s legal
  • it’s socially acceptable to offer it at social functions

w)  Change in work hours

  • We live in time famines and have the excuse to take the easy way out when it comes to food – takeaways, fast food, pre-packaged food
  • Working long hours also means we exercise less

x) Media and advertising

  • research has shown that TV advertisements affect food choice
  • research has also shown that TV advertising and the print and electronic media have been involved in eating disorders
  • it is easy to condition ourselves to eating. For example, it has been shown that people who eat in front of TV, will cue themselves to wanting to eat each time they turn the TV on!

y) Environmental factors

  • Increased population density in cities has led to smaller yards
  • Apartment living, as noted above means we burn fewer calories gardening and cleaning, and if we have an elevator direct from the carpark to the apartment, well, there goes another opportunity to burn calories.

And, my list is not finished. I just got sore arms because the only energetic movement I made in the last hour or so was to type. I think typing is the most common exercise most of us are doing in the 21st century!

So please respond to this list with your comments on what you think has made the world fat. I am doing research at a tertiary level and I would rather hear it from you than read it in a research article!

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