Have you ever seen an old picture of your mom and thought, “Wow, look at her tiny waist”? It seems that everyone was just in better shape back in the day. And that’s not far from the truth.
Millennials grew up hearing doctors, researchers, and media outlets sound the alarm about the obesity epidemic. The statistics are pretty concerning.
Per a report from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans are about an inch taller and 25 pounds heavier than they were in 1960, and the added inch doesn’t account for all that extra weight.
The average body mass index (BMI) increased from 25 to 29 during the same period, now teetering just shy of the obesity mark. And although BMI is an imperfect tool for measuring overall health, it’s still a good indicator that as a nation, we’re heavier than ever before.
So what gives? According to the $80 billion global fitness and health industry, we’re just not working hard enough. Every few months a new fad diet emerges, promising to help us shed inches and get that perfect “bikini body” (though let’s be real: Any body in a bikini is a “bikini body”).
Conventional wisdom says that managing our caloric intake and getting regular exercise will keep us slim and healthy. But a study published in the medical journal Obesity Research & Clinical Practice suggests that’s not the whole picture.
The study, conducted by York University’s Faculty of Health, shows that Americans are actually more physically active than they were in the 1980s. But we also have to work harder to lose weight.
“Our study results suggest that if you are 40 years old now, you'd have to eat even less and exercise more than if you were a 40 year old in 1971, to prevent gaining weight,” said researcher Jennifer Kuk.
“We observe that for a given amount of self-reported food intake, people will be about 10 percent heavier in 2008 than in 1971, and about five percent heavier for a given amount of physical activity level in 1988 than 2006,” Ruth Brown, the lead researcher on the study, explained.
The research team said that this points to other factors beyond simply exercise and caloric intake that are influencing our weight and contributing to obesity.
Here are some of the things that are undermining our efforts to stay fit, according to the York University researchers.
It turns out that some of the chemicals we use to kill off unwanted critters on our food aren’t so great for us. Although pesticides and herbicides are used in both conventional and organic farming, some types have been linked to obesity.
Two chemical pesticides in particular, atrazine and DDE (dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene—a DDT breakdown product), are linked to increased childhood BMI and insulin resistance in rodents. People are exposed to these chemicals in the womb and through tap water, which makes them nearly impossible to avoid completely.
Say what now? Flame retardants are chemicals used in a slew of common household items to prevent or slow the spread of fires in the home.
But a 2013 study found that exposure to FM550, the most commonly used flame retardant, was associated with increased obesity and anxiety in lab rats. A 2015 study confirmed those findings and also linked widely-used flame retardants to diabetes.
These chemicals appear in upholstered furniture, carpet padding, and most disturbingly, in many baby products, such as nap mats and crib mattresses.
Chemicals in Food Packaging
Bisphenol-A (aka BPA) has received a lot of bad press over the past few years. Nearly everyone—92 percent of Americans—has BPA in their bloodstream as a result of the chemical leaching into food and water from plastic packaging.
Girls under the age of 12 with high levels of BPA are twice as likely to be obese. Fortunately, many companies have responded to research by removing the chemical from their plastic products. But its use in canned goods and other plastic packaging is still widespread.
Other components of plastic packaging, like phthalates and organotins, also leach into foods from packaging. These, along with BPA, disrupt hormones and may slow the metabolism, making it more difficult to maintain or lose weight.
One of the most common side effects of antidepressants is weight gain, and the number of Americans using a prescription antidepressant has increased by a staggering amount.
The rate of antidepressant usage increased by 400 percent from 1988 to 1994 through 2005 to 2008 across all people ages 12 and older.
(An important reminder: Depression is a serious medical condition. Never stop taking an antidepressant without talking to your doctor first.)
While it may seem like a great choice to switch from regular soda to diet, the chemicals replacing sugar in your favorite sweet foods are potentially just as bad for your waistline.
Saccharine has been shown to stimulate insulin release (which contributes to fat storage) the same way sugar does. And aspartame, another common artificial sweetener, promoted fat accumulation in trials with mice.
Although these chemicals are listed as “generally recognized as safe” by the Food and Drug Administration, they don’t necessarily deliver on their promises to help you lose weight. It’s interesting to note, though, that the sugar substitute stevia has not been found to have any adverse effects on weight and may even be able to treat insulin resistance in mice.
The American Psychological Association releases an annual “Stress in America” survey that analyzes the causes and intensity of stress in American teens and adults. For the past several years, millennials have reported significantly higher stress levels than older generations.
Millennials are known to be a socially conscious generation, and recent tension in the political climate is believed to be one of the main factors contributing to this stress.
When we get stressed out, our bodies release cortisol, a chemical that, back in the caveman days, helped us out a lot. Stress in prehistoric times meant you were being chased by a lion, or you were trying to survive a famine.
Cortisol prompts your body to store fat so that you can face these threats more effectively. But when your stress stems from a toxic work environment or political arguments at the dinner table, storing extra fat just isn’t very helpful.
Lack of Sleep
Americans just aren’t getting enough sleep in recent years, and this has some serious consequences for our overall health. Sleep helps moderate your body’s glucose metabolism (breaking down and processing sugar).
When we don’t give ourselves enough high-quality sleep, we tend to eat more to try to make up for our lack of energy, which compounds the metabolism issue.
And to top it off, poor or insufficient sleep leads to an increase in cortisol levels, which, as we’ve already noted, doesn’t do you any favors when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight.
So, what can we do about it?
For starters, we can be a little easier on ourselves and on others who are struggling with their weight. Science overwhelmingly suggests that the obesity epidemic is caused by more than just the calories we take in. Even American animals are getting heavier, and they don’t spend a lot of time at McDonald’s.
The best advice out there is simply to limit your intake of processed foods, eat mostly fruits and vegetables, and exercise regularly. Get more sleep. Try meditating to reduce your stress levels. And keep an eye on product labels. It’s still entirely possible to lose weight and maintain a healthy lifestyle. It’s just harder than it used to be.