Obesity: Conventional Explanation Not the Whole Story

Researchers say it’s not as simple as too much food, too little exercise

By Martha Rosenberg Created: June 11, 2012 Last Updated: June 15, 2012
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All over the world, people are having to fight obesity, which is caused by a number of factors. (Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)

All over the world, people are having to fight obesity, which is caused by a number of factors. (Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images)

Two-thirds of U.S. adults are now overweight or obese, making normal-size people a minority. Americans have so ballooned in size, government safety regulators worry that airline seats and belts won’t restrain today’s men, who average 194 pounds, and women, who average 165 pounds, in a crash.

The British medical journal The Lancet recently reported that rising obesity in the U.K. will cause an extra half a million cases of heart disease, 700,000 cases of diabetes, and 130,000 cases of cancer by 2030. And the overweight and obese are 80 percent more likely to develop dementia, writes Kerry Trueman on AlterNet.

Obesity has other negative effects. The obese are less likely to be employed, earn less than people of normal weight, and “have more days of absence from work, a lower productivity on the job, and a greater access to disability benefits,” reports the Paris-based policy group Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Obesity raises Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance costs and affects national security, writes David Gratzer, M.D., on “Thousands of recruits are turned away from military service because of failed physicals and poor overall health.” The condition also shortens “the lifespan of millions of decent Americans who deserve better,” he writes.

Yet eating too much and exercising too little, considered the root of obesity, are not the only probable culprits. Here are some other factors that are often overlooked.


Classic depression is characterized by a decrease in appetite, weight loss, and general despondency. But in 1994, “atypical depression” debuted—a subtype of depression characterized by an increase in appetite and weight gain (as well as oversensitivity to rejection by others).

Unfortunately, both types of depression are often treated with popular antidepressants like Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro, and Paxil and antipsychotics like Seroquel, Zyprexa, and Risperdal, all of which can pack on the pounds.

To keep the weight gain from affecting pharmaceutical sales, WebMD tells patients that keeping the pounds off is their responsibility since only “healthy eating and exercise help control your weight gain.”

But it also counsels that if the pill weight gain is “so strong that it simply can’t be offset by any amount of calorie restricting or even exercise,” the psychoactive medication “to help overcome your depression is far more important.” One may wonder, important to whom?

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners, found in soft drinks, many diet foods, and an astounding number of children’s cereals, may do more harm than good.

While marketed and perceived as helping people avoid calories, artificial sweeteners can have two insidious side effects: Because they are sweet, they encourage sugar craving and sugar dependence just as salty foods train people to crave salt, says research in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.

And because sweetness is “decoupled from caloric content,” they fail to satisfy the sweets reward system and actually further fuel “food seeking behavior,” the researchers wrote. It’s like giving a starving dog a rubber bone. One artificial sweetener, Splenda, also has molecular similarities to endocrine-disrupting pesticides, say food-safety advocates.


According to microbiologist Martin Blaser, the average child in the United States and other developed countries “has received 10 to 20 courses of antibiotics by the time he or she is 18 years old.”

Blaser published some disturbing suggestions in the journal Nature last year: By killing “good” bacteria that has important roles in the body, “overuse of antibiotics could be fuelling the dramatic increase in conditions such as obesity, type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, allergies, and asthma,” he reported.

Yes, obesity. Mice given low-dose antibiotics that mimic farm use and high-dose antibiotics that mimic infection treatment in children exhibited preliminary “changes in body fat and tissue composition,” said Blaser.

Mice developed as much as a 40 percent increase in fat; they developed a 300 percent increase in fat when given a high-fat diet too, Alice Wessendorf extrapolated from the research.

Denmark researchers found eerie parallels in humans. Babies given antibiotics within six months of birth were more likely to be overweight by age 7.

Endocrine Disruptors

Antibiotics are not the only widely used substances that may be associated with a host of human problems. Chemicals called endocrine disruptors are linked to breast cancer, infertility, low sperm counts, genital deformities, early puberty, and diabetes in humans and alarming mutations in wildlife.

Endocrine disruptors are found in everything from canned foods and microwave popcorn bags to cosmetics and carpet-cleaning solutions.

Many people are aware of the endocrine disruptor BPA (Bisphenol A), which was banned in baby bottles and training cups in Washington state but given a pass by the FDA in March.

Few realize, however, that similar endocrine disruptors are found in flame retardants like phthalates and PBDEs, thermal receipts given out at stores, and antibacterial dish detergents and toothpaste, like triclosan found in Colgate’s Total.

Endocrine disruptors may also be linked to obesity. Pregnant women with high levels of PFOA, one disruptor, were three times as likely to have daughters who grow up to be overweight, reported the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof in May.

Next week, read more about the other factors contributing to obesity, such as livestock-growth drugs, junk food marketing, unhealthy lifestyle habits, food addiction, and food lobbying.

Martha Rosenberg is a health reporter and author who lives in Chicago.

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