Four factors contributing to a generation of obesity

While obesity is growing around the world, it is especially evident in younger generations, who used to be thinner than their thick-around-the-middle elders. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, almost 1 in every 3 college-age Americans is now obese—the “freshman 15” has morphed into the “freshman 30.”

Children are also becoming obese, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse. The BMJ reported: “Among a cohort of 432 302 people aged 2-19 years, the rate of body mass index (BMI) increase roughly doubled during the pandemic compared with the period preceding it. The greatest increases were seen in children aged 6-11 and in those already overweight before the pandemic.”

According to Kaiser Permanente, a health care provider serving 12.5 million members, children between the ages of 5 and 11 gained 5.07 pounds more during the COVID-19 pandemic than during the same time period before COVID-19.

While “fat acceptance” movements reject shaming of bodies that don’t conform to ideals, the issue is not just aesthetics and acceptance but health. Many diseases are associated with obesity, including cancers such as colorectal, uterine corpus, gallbladder, kidney, pancreatic, and multiple myeloma. The cancers are increasingly seen in younger people, according to the American Cancer Society and research published in the Lancet in 2019.

The concept of “fit but fat” may boost morale, but it is as scientifically valid as “fit but smoker.” For example, a study by University of Glasgow researchers found that obese people who were considered “metabolically healthy” still had a 76 percent greater risk of heart failure and an 18 percent greater risk of stroke than metabolically healthy people of normal weights and were 4.3 times more likely to have Type 2 diabetes. They were also at greater risk of respiratory diseases and all-cause mortality, said Dr. Frederick Ho, an author of the study.

Even though the obese but metabolically healthy were younger, exercised more, and ate better than the metabolically unhealthy in the study, their greater risk of obesity-related diseases compared with that of normal-weight people persisted, the researchers said.

Here are some reasons the younger generations are packing on pounds. While some are expected and obvious, others are all but ignored.

Processed food and lack of exercise

Even before the pandemic, the indoor, screen-based lifestyle of so many young people has been indicted as an important obesity factor. Screen time, whether social media apps or video games, usually means less outdoor time and exercise. But that’s only half the problem, researchers say.

“Current evidence suggests that screen media exposure leads to obesity in children and adolescents through increased eating while viewing,” according to a study published in Pediatrics in 2017.

Moreover, food commercials for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages increase “automatic eating” in young people and even alter “young children’s actual taste perceptions” the researchers wrote.

Ultra-processed food is especially risky for those who are genetically predisposed to storing it as fat, says Dr. Caroline Apovian, co-director of the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Someone “predisposed to being lean might burn those same foods” as opposed to those who store it, she says. Such “thrifty genes,” as they are sometimes called, are believed to have developed in humans to survive periods of famine by storing excess energy safely as fat, say researchers writing in Frontiers in Nutrition.

Exposure to chemicals and toxins

But it isn’t only our food that’s problematic. In an article titled “Endocrine Disruptors and the Obesity Epidemic,” published in the journal Toxicological Sciences, Jerrold J. Heindel writes that “the level of chemicals in the environment is purported to coincide with the incidence of obesity.”

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals in the environment that can act like hormones and disrupt endocrine signaling pathways. They are found in most plastic products, even those marked “BPA free.” These chemicals include polychlorinated biphenyls, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, phthalates, and brominated flame retardants—compounds frequently used in industry and found in pesticides as well as consumer goods, household products, and building materials.

While exposure to endocrine disruptors is never desirable, scientists are increasingly looking at exposure “during critical stages of development” in children as a factor in later obesity, according to a study in the International Journal of Andrology. Pregnant women who showed high levels of perfluorooctanoic acid, another endocrine-disrupting class, were three times as likely to have daughters who grew up to be overweight, according to research dating back to 2012.

Sadly, the same obesity effects in young people may also result from early exposure to antibiotics, according to some scientific studies. Both prenatal and postnatal exposure to antibiotics can result in offspring obesity, suggests research published in the Journal of Epidemiology in 2018. The obesity links aren’t surprising when you consider the common use of antibiotics to produce extra weight in livestock. The antibiotics are even absorbed in crops from residues in manure fertilizers found in the soil.

Exposure to prescription drugs

It’s no secret that many children, teenagers, and young adults have been prescribed psychiatric drugs and drug cocktails for the many mental diseases that are thought to afflict them today.

“The consumption of psychiatric drugs by children (and adults) is far higher in the US than elsewhere, partly because of direct-to-consumer advertising by drug companies, which is illegal almost everywhere else,” John Read, professor of clinical psychology at the University of East London, wrote in Psychology Today.

“Some (0.2 percent) very young children (2 to 7 years) are even being forced to take powerful antipsychotic drugs in the USA, mostly for the particularly vague diagnosis of ‘pervasive developmental disorder’ and mostly in conjunction with one or more other psychiatric drugs.”

Authors of recent research in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry that studied 301,311 antipsychotic prescriptions used by U.S. children aged 2 to 7 wrote: “In youths, antipsychotic medication has been associated with risk of weight gain, sedation, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, cardiovascular effects, extrapyramidal side effects, and unexpected death. These concerns are especially salient in very young children, in whom antipsychotics have unknown developmental and other long-term adverse effects.”

Clearly, parents can do a lot to address obesity in their children and teenagers. Screen time and processed food can be limited, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic eases and outdoor activities resume. Parents can protect children—and themselves—from endocrine disrupters in food packaging and consumer and household products and from excessive antibiotic use. Finally, they can explore natural treatments for behavior problems before allowing the use of psychiatric drugs linked to obesity.

It’s true that many people battle weight gain and obesity as they get older, but young people should be free from this preventable health risk and barrier to their enjoyment of life.

Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.

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