When I looked at my appointment book for the day, I thought something must be wrong. Someone who worked in the fitness industry was bringing his cat in to the Tufts Obesity Clinic for Animals. Did he confuse us for a different kind of weight management clinic? Is he looking to get muscle on his cat or maybe kitty protein shakes?
In recent times, public awareness regarding the dangers of sugar is increasing daily. But why is this anti-sugar movement only gaining enough strength and support to make a real difference now?
The whole world is getting fatter. One 2015 study, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, found that an astounding 2 billion people around the globe are either overweight or obese, and that figure just keeps climbing. While the United States has been unseated as the world’s fattest country, we’re still home to 13 percent of the world’s fat population, despite making up less than 5 percent of the world’s total citizenry. (Taken together, China and India, the world’s most populous countries with a combined total of 37 percent of the world’s people, just pass us with 15 percent of the globe’s fat population.)
Working women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, and 51 percent of professional workers, like doctors, lawyers, nurses and accountants, are female. While climbing the career ladder can be rewarding, it often comes with one big downside: weight gain!
I don’t want to intimidate anyone here, but I recently flew first class on an aeroplane. Yes, I know. You’re impressed. I know. No, I am neither a venture capitalist nor a sultan. Yes, I paid for the upgrade myself. No, I cannot invest in your start-up. (Yes, I know what a “start-up” is, kind of.) And no, flying first class is not a regular occurrence in my life. In fact, I can think of few things more glamorously, unattainably alien than sitting to the fore of that little curtain – that imperious cotton-poly shroud that separates the serfs from their betters. Yet there I was, up front, next to a businessman in a suit that cost more than my car, and behind a man who kept angrily attempting to sell a boat over the phone even after they told us to stop making phone calls.
Ask somebody what makes people get fat, and you’re bound to hear something about too much bad food and too little exercise. And that’s undoubtedly true—scientists have long been warning that our sedentary lifestyles and overconsumption of processed, addictive foods are wreaking havoc on our waistlines.
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Pollution can make children fat, startling new research shows. A groundbreaking Spanish study indicates that exposure to a range of common chemicals before birth sets up a baby to grow up stout, thus helping to drive the worldwide obesity epidemic.
The results of the study, just published -- the first to link chemical contamination in the womb with one of the developing world's greatest and fastest-growing health crises -- carry huge potential implications for public policy around the globe. They undermine recent strictures from the Conservative leader, David Cameron, that blame solely the obese for their own condition.
A quarter of all British adults and a fifth of children are obese -- four times as many as 30 years ago. And so are at least 300 million people worldwide. The main explanation is that they are consuming more calories than they burn. But there is growing evidence that diet and lack of exercise, though critical, cannot alone explain the rapid growth of the epidemic.
It has long been known that genetics give people different metabolisms, making some gain weight more easily than others. But the new study by scientists at Barcelona's Municipal Institute of Medical Research suggests that pollution may similarly predispose people to get fat.
The research, published in the current issue of the journal Acta Paediatrica, measured levels of hexachlorobenzene (HCB), a pesticide, in the umbilical cords of 403 children born on the Spanish island of Menorca, from before birth. It found that those with the highest levels were twice as likely to be obese when they reached the age of six and a half.
HCB, which was mainly used to treat seeds, has been banned internationally since the children were born, but its persistence ensures that it remains in the environment and gets into food.
The importance of the study is not so much in identifying one chemical, as in showing what is likely to be happening as a result of contact with many of them. Its authors call for exposures to similar pesticides to be "minimised".
Experiments have shown that many chemicals fed to pregnant animals cause their offspring to grow up obese. These include organotins, long employed in antifouling paints on ships and now widely found in fish; bisphenol A (BPA), used in baby bottles and to line cans of food, among countless other applications; and phthalates, found in cosmetics, shampoos, plastics to wrap food, and in a host of other everyday products.
These pollutants -- dubbed "obesogens" as a result of these findings -- are so ubiquitous that almost everyone now has them in their bodies. Ninety-five per cent of Americans excrete BPA in their urine; 90 per cent of babies have been found to be exposed to phthalates in the womb; and every umbilical cord analysed in the new Spanish study was found to contain organchlorine pesticides such as HCB.
Two American studies have implicated phthalates in obesity in adult men, but the new research is much more conclusive, and is the first to show the effects of exposure in the womb, where humans are most vulnerable.
Dr Pete Myers, one of the world's leading experts on obesogens, told The Independent on Sunday last night: "This is very important. It is the first good study of the effects on the foetus. Its conclusions are not surprising, given what we know from the animal experiments, but it firmly links such chemicals to the biggest challenge facing public health today."
No one knows how HCB causes obesity. The Spanish scientists speculate that it may have made the mothers diabetic, which would increase the chances of their children becoming obese (see graphic, above).
Dr Myers, who is chief scientist at the US-based Environmental Health Sciences, which helps to increase public understanding of emerging scientific links, says this is "plausible", but adds that the animal experiments point elsewhere. These have shown that obesogens "switch genes on and off" in the womb, causing stem cells to be turned into fat cells. The children then grow up with a much greater disposition to store and accumulate fat.
Whatever the explanation, the research goes some way to undermining David Cameron's assertion in a speech this summer that obesity is purely a matter of "personal responsibility", a view echoed by his health spokesman, Andrew Lansley 10 days ago. The Tory leader said that the obese are "people who eat too much and take too little exercise".
Dr Myers calls that "wishful ideological thinking which does not accord with biological reality", adding: "We need to discover ways to reduce exposures to these chemicals so that changing diet and lifestyle has a chance to work."
Factors that may pile on the pounds
Why is the world getting so fat? Everyone agrees that people gain weight by taking in more calories in their food than they burn off through everyday activities and exercise. But many scientists are coming to believe that changes in diet and exercise do not sufficiently explain the rapid growth of the epidemic. As 'The Independent on Sunday' reported last week, there has been no reduction in physical activity in Britain since 1980, while obesity rates have quadrupled.
The genetic make-up of a population does not change rapidly enough to provide an explanation. So the hunt is on for other factors that might show why more people are gaining weight more easily.
Life before birth. Both overweight and underweight babies are more likely to grow up fat. So are those born to smokers. Evidence suggests pollution is also predisposing the unborn to obesity. The introduction and increase in the use of such chemicals coincides with the epidemic taking off.
Age of mothers. The chances of becoming obese increase with maternal age. And the average age of first giving birth has gone up by 2.6 years in Britain since 1970.
Less sleep. Both children and adults are more likely to get fat if they get too little sleep, partly because they become hungrier. Average daily sleep has fallen from nine to seven hours over recent decades.
Temperature. People burn up more calories when they are cold. Central heating has ensured that they spend most of their time in comfortable temperatures.
Prescription drugs. Some drugs -- including anti-psychotics, antidepressants and treatments for diabetes -- cause people to gain weight.
Stopping smoking. Though mothers who smoke may make their children fat, they -- and all smokers -- are themselves less likely to put on weight. As the habit has decreased, obesity has soared.
Yeah, yeah, I know, it is a cheap shot, riding the news wave of sex talk this week following Spitzer's resignation. But really, I am referring to what one woman said to me during a consultation, after she had heard from her 7 year old's pediatrician, that he was 'obese'. (Now this is also understanding that the technical term obese refers to someone who can be as little as 10-15 lbs. overweight at this point, it is not the older use of the term which conjures up images of true 'largesse'.)
This mom reported to me that her oldest son who was 10, had her husband's body type; long and lean, and her second son had her body type. "I swore I would never do to my kids what my mother did to me; she put me on a diet when I was so young, and she was always telling what, when and how to eat. But I am so worried about Devon and I know that he is starting to get teased at school. I have no idea what to do!"
This mom typifies so many parents whose food legacy includes a parent who was overly involved and critical of their own food. As a result, they have been what I call: 'under-involved'. Paralyzed by fear that they will create an eating disorder, they don't have any tools to help their kids who might have a body type or food style that lends itself to eating more than their body can metabolize. Although this is a sensitive subject, and while you don't want to get too overly involved or critical here, sometimes kids whose body doesn't register fullness as quickly as their lanky, non-'foodie' sibs, can end up eating more portions than they need.
I try to stay away from depriving kids of their favorite foods, but rather try to educate them on how to take better care of their bodies. Here are some tips:
1) Tell your kids that they are the EXPERT on their body, they are the only ones who truly know how they feel from the inside, but they also have a job to do.
2) Their job is to be the best BODY DETECTIVE possible, to take good care of their bodies. Let them know that some bodies' signals from the belly that tells the brain it is 'DONE', FULL, can be a whisper, it is softer than others, and takes longer to hear.
3) Teach them to WAIT, the half hour while you keep the food on the table so they see it is there. If they are still hungry after that time, they can eat. They need to eat food that does something to help them kick the soccer ball, grow taller, etc., as oppose to the dessert that makes their tongue happy. Don't criticize dessert, it has its place, but they need to fill up on food that helps their body do the thing they are most passionate about. (Sports, playtime, even computer time their body is helped by certain nutrients that give them longer concentration.)
4) If they say they are hungry after that time period, they eat the food. AT first they may not trust that you aren't secretly wanting them to stop, and will try to exert control. Stick with this; in time, they will see that you are allowing them space to listen to their bodies and not depriving them of food. But it can take a few weeks.
5) Again, remind them that 'eating healthy' is not just about what you eat, it is eating HOW MUCH your body can use. If they see that they can still have their favorite foods, reminding them of their job to take good care and feed their body the other food groups it needs, they are less likely to struggle. More likely to take this on as their responsibility and to experience it as critical. Have a matter of fact attitude. Don't overlay your own anxiety or legacy of criticism.
Some kids need more involvement and connection and structuring than others. Hang out during that half hour with your kid, let them help you clear the table, do the dishes. Connect with them. This helps feelings of fullness in the belly believe it or not! Don't expect change right away. Still remember though that our hunger levels shift around; some days you are hungrier than others. We are not machines.
Lastly, teach your kids that some foods, like dessert, chips, salty things, don't flip the 'OFF SWITCH'. It is only WAITING that flips it. Then they can truly check in with their body and see what it wants. Don't be scared of the 'F-Word'. (We are so scared to use the word 'fat' now.) This is not about changing their body type, If you adopt a 'matter of fact attitude about their needing some ways to shift their 'eating style', you will teach them some tools and tricks for their lifetime that they can be in charge of.
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A startling new study by medical researchers in the United States has caused consternation among public health professionals by suggesting that, contrary to conventional wisdom, being overweight might actually be beneficial for health.
The study, published yesterday in the respected Journal of the American Medical Association, runs counter to almost all other advice to consumers by saying that carrying a little extra flab -- though not too much -- might help people to live longer.
Struggling dieters, used to being told that staying thin is the best prescription for longevity, are likely to be confused this morning if not heartily relieved. While being a bit overweight may indeed increase your chances of dying from diabetes and kidney disease -- conditions that are often linked with one another -- the same is not true for a host of other ailments including cancer and heart disease, the report suggests.
In fact, scanning the whole gamut of diseases that could curtail your life, being over weight is, on balance, a good thing. The bottom line, the scientists say, is that modestly overweight people demonstrate a lower death rate than their peers who are underweight, obese or -- most surprisingly -- normal weight.
The findings will be hard to dismiss. They are the result of analysis of decades of data by federal researchers at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. This is not a study from a fringe group of scientists or sponsored by a fast-food chain.
Being overweight, the report asserts in its conclusions, "was associated with significantly decreased all-cause mortality overall".
"The take-home message is that the relationship between fat and mortality is more complicated than we tend to think," said Katherine Flegal, the lead researcher. "It's not a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all situation where excess weight just increases your mortality risk for any and all causes of death."
That the CDC has even published the report and thus threatened to muffle years of propaganda as to the health benefits of staying slender has enraged some medical experts.
"It's just rubbish," fumed Walter Willett, the professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "It's just ludicrous to say there is no increased risk of mortality from being overweight."
Not that the CDC results are an invitation to throw caution to the winds and take cream with everything. The scientists are careful to stress that the benefits they are describing are limited to those people who are merely overweight -- which generally means being no more than 30 pounds heavier than is recommended for your height -- and certainly do not carry over to those who fall into the category of obese.
Obesity has been declared one of the main threats to health in the US, including among children. Those considered obese, with a body mass index (BMI) of more than 30, continue to run a higher risk of death, the study says, from a variety of ailments, including numerous cancers and heart disease. It said that being underweight increases the risk of ailments not including heart disease or cancer.
The scientists at the CDC first hinted at the upside of being overweight a few years ago. Since then, however, they have expanded the base of their analysis, with data that includes mortality figures from 2004, the last year for which numbers were available, for no fewer than 2.3 million American adults.
Highlighting how a bit of bulge might help you, the scientists said that in 2004 there were 100,000 fewer deaths among the overweight in the US than would have been expected if they were all considered to be of normal weight. Put slightly differently, those Americans who were merely overweight were up to about 40 per cent less likely than normal-weight people to die from a whole range of diseases and risks including emphysema, pneumonia, Alzheimer's, injuries and various infections.
Aside from escaping diseases, tipping the scales a little further may also help people recover from serious surgery, injuries and infections, Dr Flegal suggested. Such patients may simply have deeper bodily reserves to draw on in times of medical crisis.
Not everyone in the medical profession was surprised or angry about the study. "What this tells us is the hazards have been very much exaggerated," said Steven Blair, a professor of exercise science and biostatistics at the University of South Carolina, who has long argued that the case for dietary restraint has been taken too far.
"I believe the data," added Elizabeth Barrett-Connor, a professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of California, San Diego, who believes that a BMI of 25 to 30 -- roughly the the so-called overweight range -- "may be optimal".
Critics, however, were quick to point out that the study was concerned with mortality data only and did not take account of the quality of life benefits of keeping your weight down. The study "is not about health and sickness", noted the obesity researcher Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina.
The report "definitely won't be the last word", said Dr Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society, who pointed out, in a report released last week by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research, that staying slim was the main recommendation for avoiding cancer.
Others in the American medical community, while a little bemused, were withholding judgement. "This is a very puzzling disconnect," said Dr JoAnn Manson, the chief of preventive medicine at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital.
The suggestion that a bit of extra weight may assist patients recovering from an infection or surgery was of no surprise to Dr Flegal. "You may also have more lean mass -- more bone and muscle," she said. "If you are in an adverse situation, that could be good for you."
In their conclusions, the authors of the study note: "Overweight ... may be associated with improved survival during recovery from adverse conditions, such as infections or medical procedures, and with improved prognosis for some diseases. Such findings may be due to greater nutritional reserves or higher lean body mass associated with overweight."
Those of us mostly likely to benefit from a little bulge beneath the belt, the study adds, are between 25 and 59 years old, although there were also some advantages for people over 60.