This article was originally published by The Dragontree

I’ve been thinking a lot about the overweight epidemic – particularly as I gained a bunch of extra belly insulation after my new daughter was born and have had to work harder than usual to lose it. I have tremendous sympathy for those in an ongoing struggle with weight. It’s such a tricky, multifaceted issue. Anyone who claims it’s just a matter of too much food and not enough exercise is simply uninformed.

In coming weeks, I’ll offer some strategies to help you achieve your optimal weight. Let’s start with some of the factors involved in weight gain, so you can identify which of these mechanisms may be at play in your life.

1. Inactivity. I know I just said it’s not just a matter of too much food and too little exercise, but these are still the two most important factors. Humans are less active than ever. Historically, we performed more everyday tasks that burned calories than we do today. Exercise in its current artificial form – performed in health clubs and needing to be scheduled into our lives – is less than a century old.

2. Diet Changes. It may be the case that humans are less active than we used to be, but we’re not that much less active than we were a few decades ago. So, why have we seen such a dramatic rise in the incidence of obesity in the past 30 years?

A. Portion Sizes. One reason is bigger portion sizes. Typical portion sizes of foods and drinks in stores and restaurants have gone way up over the past few decades. Plate and cup sizes have also increased. Research shows people eat more if they’re given more and they put more (and expect more) food and drink in bigger dishes. The result is overeating. Don’t let portion size dictate how much you eat.

B. Prepared Foods from Stores and Restaurants. As Michael Pollan says, we let corporations do our cooking, more than ever. With few exceptions, food manufacturers and restaurants are interested in filling people up on delectable things, regardless of the health impact.

C. Sugar. We consume more of it than ever before. As you know, starting in the mid-1970s, there was a big movement toward reducing fat consumption. It came from an intuitive, albeit incorrect, guess about where body fat comes from. Even the progressive doctor Andrew Weil subscribed to it. In the mid-1990s I read a book of his in which he claimed that the best desserts are pure sugar with zero fat. He explained that we can only gain as many pounds of fat as we eat. Now we know this isn’t true. (Actually, there were doctors and scientists who knew it then, too.)

As we reduced fat, we increased sugar, and sugar is readily converted to fat and stored as fat throughout the body. The sugar known as fructose is especially prone to do this, and we have developed many new sweeteners with lots of it, such as agave nectar, corn syrup, coconut sugar, and fruit juice concentrate.

D. Eating Faster. We have faster, more jam-packed lives than ever, and our speed of eating reflects this. Eating rapidly can harm the digestive organs and makes it easy to overeat.

E. Eating While Stressed and Active. Besides eating rapidly, we eat more than ever while working at a computer, while driving, while doing surgery, while watching television, while repairing dams, and while sprinting to meetings. Stress and activity are not conducive to good digestion. We used to honor mealtime, making space and time for it apart from the craziness of the rest of our day.

F. Eating Irregularly. Along with the speed and stress that modern life has added to the eating process, many modern humans also eat in an irregular way – skipping meals, then overeating, eating right before bed or in the middle of the night, etc. One thing the human metabolic system likes is routine: eating roughly the same kinds of well-tolerated healthy foods, in roughly the same amounts, at roughly the same times of day. And furthermore, going to bed and waking up and roughly the same times; exercising at roughly the same time, duration, and intensity; and working at roughly the same time each day.

3. Sleep Debt. Modern humans get less sleep than ever before. Electric lights and shift work encourage us to stay up at night. Insufficient sleep is associated with higher body mass index.

4. Endocrine Disruptors. We are exposed to more man-made chemicals than ever before. Our food is packaged in them (plastics), our cleaners and air fresheners are full of them, our furniture is saturated in them, our carpets and televisions and mattresses are off-gassing them. We don’t yet know the impact of all these chemicals, but we do know that they accumulate in our bodies, and they have the potential to disrupt our endocrine (hormone) system, with metabolic and reproductive disorders being just a few of the apparent outcomes.

5. Extreme Hygiene. Although germ theory was a vital part of humans overcoming many infectious diseases, we sometimes take it to an extreme degree, pasteurizing and sterilizing foods, using disinfecting cleaners in our homes, and antimicrobial agents on and in our bodies. In the process, we destroy many of the beneficial bacteria that are an integral part of our health, and are vital in digestive function.

6. Food Sensitivities. Through the manufacture and globalization of food supply, we’re exposed to more different kinds of foods than ever before, including more non-native foods than ever before. Also, we’re exposed to some of the same very popular ingredients (such as wheat, corn, dairy, and soy) with incredible frequency. All of this, along with the hygiene factors mentioned above, contributes to the development of negative reactions to foods that are (technically) harmless.

7. Thyroid Disorders. The thyroid gland help propel our metabolism. The rate of low thyroid function (hypothyroidism) – specifically low thyroid function due to our immune system attacking our own thyroid (Hashimoto’s disease) – is higher than ever. I believe this is due, in part, to food sensitivities (gluten, in particular) and endocrine disruptors. One of the most common symptoms of low thyroid function is weight gain.

8. Reduced Temperature Variability. It used to be more common for humans to get exposed to hot and cold weather. These days, heating and air conditioning allows us to live in a “thermo-neutral zone.” But temperature extremes (within reason) are good for us – they stress us and raise our metabolism.

9. Drug Side Effects. One more “more than ever.” More than ever before, humans are taking synthetic drugs, often many at a time. Drugs have side effects, and a common one is weight gain or other metabolic changes.

10. Later Pregnancies and Diabetes and Obesity While Pregnant and Nursing. Research shows that when women get pregnant later in life, their children have a greater risk of being overweight. The same is true of women who are diabetic and/or obese while pregnant and/or nursing. All of these circumstances are more common now than ever before. If you were born to a mom who was older, diabetic, or obese, this is obviously a factor out of your hands, but if you’re planning to become pregnant yourself, you may be able to do your future child a favor by getting your weight and/or diabetes under control. Vitamin D is an important nutrient in this regard.

11. More Overweight People Around Us. I’m going out on a limb here, because it’s rather unscientific, but I believe we become what we expect to become. The ways we conform – or fail to conform – to the norm for our age, race, and social group, vary based on our beliefs. If, for instance, we believe that turning 70 means we’re bound to become feeble and decrepit, we may help make this a biological reality for ourselves, through both our behaviors and the direct effect of our thoughts. In my opinion, the same is becoming true with weight gain as more and more of the people around us “prove” to us that we’re likely to become overweight also. After all, with so many people struggling with this problem, why should we be any different?

However, just as there are 70-year-olds (and 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds) who look and act youthful because they don’t subscribe to the idea that their age must dictate their behavior and biology, there are millions of people who eat and live in the very same ways as those who have become obese – yet they’ve managed to stay slim. We’ll get into this idea more in the following articles.

I’ve provided you with a long list of factors that may be implicated in weight gain. In light of my last point, my intention is not to provide you with proof that weight gain is inevitable and inescapable for you. I want you to simply start to notice which of these factors might apply to you, and consider how you might make favorable adjustments. The outcome I want for you is not specifically less body fat, but better overall health. If better health brings you a smaller body and this feels and looks good to you, wonderful. If your body doesn’t look like that of a supermodel, but you’re healthier and you feel better in your body, I encourage you to see this as a more significant outcome!

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten


Copyright 2017 by Peter Borten