Americans, to state the obvious, are unhealthier with each passing generation. And the most obvious sign of this is rising obesity rate. In one analysis, this was shown to be true even when controlling for levels of food intake and exercise (see article below). This is the kind of data that undermines conventional dietary advice based on Christian moralizing about the deadly sins of gluttony and sloth.
Heart attacks and obesity first became a public health concern in the 1940s and 1950s. That was following decades of seed oil and margarine consumption having mostly replaced lard in the American diet. We were told that saturated fat is dangerous and that seed oils were great for health. Americans were listening and they strictly followed this advice. Even restaurants stopped cooking their french fries in tallow.
In particular, olive oil has been sold as the best. Why is olive oil supposed to be so healthy? Because it has monounsaturated fat, the same as is primarily found in lard. Not too long ago, the healthiest population in the United States was in Roseto, Pennyslvania. Guess what was their main source of fat? Lard. They also ate massive loads of meat, as do other long-lived populations in the world such as in Hong Kong.
Red meat also decreased over that period and has continued to increase since then. Dairy has followed this pattern of decline. Americans are eating less animal fats now than ever before in American history or probably human existence. It’s true that Americans are eating more lean chicken and fish, but we were told those are healthy for us. Meanwhile, Americans are eating more fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds than ever before.
Calories-in/calories-out has been an utter failure. It’s not how much we are eating but what we are eating. That then determines how our metabolism functions, whether it burns fat or stores it. Exercise is largely irrelevant for fat loss. Fat people can exercise all the time and not lose weight, while some skinny people hardly move at all. Another study “demonstrated that there is no difference in total energy expenditure between traditional hunter-gathers, subsistence farmers and modern Westerners.”
One explanation is an increase of obesogens. These are chemicals that cause the body to create fat. In general, fat is where the body stores excess toxins that overwhelm the body. And indeed younger Americans are exposed to more toxins. Then this makes losing weight hard because all the toxins get released and make one feel like shit. It’s hard for the body to eliminate a lifetime of accumulated toxicity. On top of that, the young are prescribed more medications than ever before. Antidepressants and antipsychotics have been given out like candy for anyone with mild mental issues. What is a common side effect of these drugs? Yep, weight gain.
A third possibility is more complex. We know the gut microbiome has shrunk in number and diversity. It’s also changed in the profile of bacteria. Research is showing how important is the microbiome (see The Secrete Life of Your Microbiome by Susan L. Prescott and Alan C. Logan). Toxins and drugs, by the way, also alter the microbiome. So does diet. Even if total calorie intake hasn’t changed much relative to the increased height of the population, what has changed is what we are eating.
In place of animal fats, we are eating not only more seed oils but also more carbs and sugar. Animal fats are highly satiating and so food companies realized they needed to find something equally satiating. It turns out a high-carb diet is not only satiating but addictive. It knocks people out of ketosis and causes them to put on weight. It doesn’t matter if one tries to eat less. In processed foods, when carbs are combined with seed oils, the body is forced to burn the carbs immediately and so it has no choice but to turn the seed oils into fat.
By the way, what alters metabolism also alters the microbiome. This is seen when people go from a high-carb diet to a ketogenic diet. Ketosis is powerful in its impact on how the body functions in so many ways, even changing epigenetic expression of genes. Here is the worst part. Those epigenetic changes have been happening for generations with the loss of regular ketosis. Even epigenetics for obesity, following an environmental trigger like famine, have been shown to pass on across multiple generations. The microbiome, of course, also is inherited and each of those bacteria likewise have an epigenome that determines their genetic expression.
Everything we do as individuals, good and bad, doesn’t only affect us as individuals. People are getting fatter now not only because of what they are doing differently but because of everything that was done by their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. As I’ve said before, even if we reversed all these changes instantly, as we are unlikely to do, it would still require generations to fully reverse the consequences.
* * *
Why It Was Easier to Be Skinny in the 1980s
by Olga Khazan
A study published recently in the journal Obesity Research & Clinical Practice found that it’s harder for adults today to maintain the same weight as those 20 to 30 years ago did, even at the same levels of food intake and exercise. […]
Just what those other changes might be, though, are still a matter of hypothesis. In an interview, Kuk proffered three different factors that might be making harder for adults today to stay thin.
First, people are exposed to more chemicals that might be weight-gain inducing. Pesticides, flame retardants, and the substances in food packaging might all be altering our hormonal processes and tweaking the way our bodies put on and maintain weight.
Second, the use of prescription drugs has risen dramatically since the 1970s and ’80s. Prozac, the first blockbuster SSRI, came out in 1988. Antidepressants are now one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., and many of them have been linked to weight gain.
Finally, Kuk and the other study authors think that the microbiomes of Americans might have somehow changed between the 1980s and now. It’s well known that some types of gut bacteria make a person more prone to weight gain and obesity. Americans are eating more meat than they were a few decades ago, and many animal products are treated with hormones and antibiotics in order to promote growth. All that meat might be changing gut bacteria in ways that are subtle, at first, but add up over time. Kuk believes that the proliferation of artificial sweeteners could also be playing a role.
Why Do Americans Keep Getting Fatter?
by Chris Bodenner
Notwithstanding the known errors of dietary assessment, it is interesting that we observe consistent trends over time in terms of how dietary intake relates with obesity and how this relationship has changed over time. This lends more confidence to our primary findings and suggests that there are either physiological changes in how diet relates with body weight or differences in how individuals are reporting their dietary intake over time. […]
[W]e observed that the BMI associated with a given leisure time physical activity frequency was still higher over time in men. This may be attributed to changes in non-leisure time physical activity such as reductions in occupational physical activity or increasing screen time. However, a study using doubly labelled water demonstrated that there is no difference in total energy expenditure between traditional hunter-gathers, subsistence farmers and modern Westerners. Thus, numerous other factors in addition to energy intake and physical activity may be important to consider when trying to explain the rise in obesity, and should be further evaluated in further studies.