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New Ways to Cut Obesity (12/1/14)

December 1, 2014

The Holidays

Holidays are a time for feasts and joyous family repasts. About a third of American adults are obese, two thirds overweight.

There’s a diet collision here.

Before you reach for recipes turning kale into a colloid that tastes like turkey, and tofu transformed into duck, it’s time for a reality check.

What if obesity is not all about calorie counts followed by long hours exercising at the treadmill? What happens when we adopt a public health approach towards obesity – seeing it as part of our environment, culture, and way of life?

Might we be able to have our cake and eat it, too? If we start looking at the larger reality, the answer might be yes – especially at holiday time.

The Air is Everywhere

It appears that pollution – indoor and outdoor – increases obesity.

Researchers followed 3300 kids from ages 10 until they were 18. They tracked outdoor air pollution rates – mainly through monitoring ozone, nitrogen dioxide and particulates – and indoor pollution through parent’s smoking history (tobacco is usually the big factor indoors.) They then controlled for every variable they could, including access to outdoor spaces and parks. When  people have more available green space, they’re less obese.

The results – the kids exposed to pollution and second hand smoke alone had a BMI .8 greater; more than 2 points if both were present.

That’s a lot of weight. For a five foot eight kid, exposure to higher air  pollution meant around 13 to 14 pounds.

What’s the mechanism? Unknown. Weight is controlled by dozens of variables – which does not include the hundreds of which we are presently unaware.

Yet here appears another option for cutting obesity: through public smoking cessation programs; mass transit versus cars; and especially energy conservation. For saving energy and cutting back pollutants may save lives not just through less heart disease and cancer, but through a healthier, slimmer future workforce.

Will policy makers think of a carbon tax as a way to reduce American obesity and gigantic future health care costs? Ask the energy producers who make political contributions. You know how most of them will answer.

But the answer should be yes.

Obesity As An Infectious Contagion

Americans are scared of Ebola – very scared. Yet the number of total American deaths from Ebola might, with some luck, be less than ten.

So why did 17% of the American population in a recent poll label Ebola their highest priority health risk?

People are terrified of epidemics. Still, these folks won’t “catch” Ebola. But could they “catch” obesity?

Consider these facts:

  1. A recent study looked at 436 mothers and their kids till age 7. Those who received antibiotics in the second and third trimester showed an increase of obesity years later in the children of 84%.
  2. Small studies found people with past adenovirus infections had considerably greater weight.
  3. Folks who spend more time around people who are weightier are themselves more likely to gain weight – a contagion effect.

The potential mechanisms for these effects number in the dozens. Many hypotheses involve some interaction with the 100 trillion bacteria in your gut.

For every human being is an ecosystem. The viruses, bacteria, fungi, mycoplasma, rickettsia and prions than live inside us also engage our much larger planetary environment of animals, plants and pollutants. Systems within systems – that is what we are – and how we live.

New Approaches to Obesity

It’s time to face facts. Even if the entire American population scarfed down garcinia cambogia and other “fat busters” by the fistful and provided free Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig diet programs  for every adult, we’d make hardly a dent in our collective size.

It’s not just pollutants, viruses and bacteria that change our weight; it’s the size and format of our cities, our forms of transport, how we move ourselves and our families. Obesity factors include how long we stand bent over cellphones and wake to them in the night and how often we feed antibiotics to meat animals.

Just as we are information systems – the body is information – so we exist inside bigger systems. To make life healthier we have to acknowledge those facts and start to use them.

A healthy economy requires a healthy population. As a by product, it also means a thinner one.

The same policies that can lead to greater public health should also create greater economic and environmental health – and sustainability. If we think and act intelligently we can have bigger cakes, eat them, and enjoy them with less guilt – from Thanksgiving to New Years’ and beyond.

That’s something to celebrate during the holidays.









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