Will today’s millenials become the fattest generation in American history? If what is happening to British youngsters is a guide, future American adults may suffer from unprecedented levels of cancer and diabetes. Cancer Research UK recently released a study showing Britons born between 1980 and 1995 will by middle age be 70% overweight or obese.
And that’s in a country with an active, often effective public health system. If a healthy economy requires a healthy population, we’re in trouble.
There are lots of reasons youth is getting bigger. Let’s look at some of the newer reasons for our increasing national obesity:
Children born from the 1980s on were often entranced by television advertisements proferring sugared cereals and other sugar/fat laden processed foods. Superheroes and the cutest talking animals sold them sugary foods before the age where they could speak and request the products. Food advertising led the way for public drug advertising, making young Americans very comfortable with demanding from parents and physicians all the ingestibles sold on the tube.
Complaints that televisions became baby sitters have now morphed into the belief by some of the creators of cellphones and social media, like Sean Parker, that they cannot allow their children to use such addicting technology. The large majority of present teens use cellphones, with near three quarters of 12-17 year olds engaging social media.
People do move will texting and talking on cellphones; some so absently pedestrian deaths are rising. However, screen use is generally easier when sedentary. Outside of the small minority of active exercises, users of cellphones, pads, laptops or towers don’t tend to move much when they’re surveying a screen.
A sedentary population becomes a bigger population. And young people today have more incentive to stay sessile than perhaps ever in history.
2. Chemical America
At the end of World War II the US represented about half the economic output of the world. The war revitalized the American and then the international chemical industry, which went on to place well over 100,000 new chemicals into the environment, of which perhaps a couple of hundred have been well researched.
Many of these chemicals’ effects were unexpected. One class, the perfluoroalkyls, or PFAs, were “safe” substances used ubiquitously in food wrappers, cookware, and flooring. Like many substances developed decades ago, their effects on cancer and hormones took a long time to establish. Now its being shown PFAs are higher in obese people who burn fewer calories and gain more weight after dieting. What are the other 100,000 chemicals doing?
Processed foods also change the microbiome of your gut, which change human mood, stress response, and weight. Don’t be surprised if your 40 trillion bacteria have a say in what your brain tells you you want to eat. And a high sugar, high fat diet may change those bacterial populations in ways that make gaining weight easier.
Nor should one should discount the effect of pharmaceuticals on the food chain. Your average chicken has been plumped up by arsenic, made less hostile to its cage mates with prozac, and made weightier by antibiotics and steroids. Those chemicals are still in the chickens you eat, as well as your water supply.
3. Social Acceptance
According to the Duchess of Windsor, one way never be too thin in polite society, but it is clearly becoming more acceptable to be big. Beyond the effects of “social contagion,” where the size of one’s friends affect your own, there is increasing social acceptance of heaviness. One recent study found 46% of overweight American males to consider their weight “about right”; gender clearly matters, as only 21% of women fit that category. Lack of bias against weighty people may be highly positive in school and the workplace, but accepting obesity as normal is less positive for the public health.
What To Do
Many health care professionals feel fatalistic when addressing obesity. However, some recent trends provide some ground for optimism. First, recent research showing that eating whole foods, whether in low fat or low carb diets, led to persistent weight loss, is quite encouraging. More encouraging is the grudging acceptance that America has to look more to health than health care. Health, defined as physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being, is a much greater and more useful goal than weight loss. Obese people who walk and exercise are far better off than those who do not; people who are socially connected have far less heart disease; people with purpose and meaning in their lives last longer; and training people to a mental strategy fixed on solutions can do a great deal for mood as well as waistlines.
An emphasis on health rather than health care, on lifestyle rather than bariatric surgery centers, could do a lot to prevent today’s youth from getting diabetic and suffering innumerable cancers. We owe them that much.