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Story at-a-glance -

  • Obesity rates continue to climb in the US; 38 percent of American adults were obese as of 2014, up from 35 percent in 2011/2012, and 32 percent in 2003/2004
  • Factors contributing to mounting obesity rates include processed food diets, chemical exposures, antibiotic overuse, inactivity, and lack of sleep
  • Obese children as young as 8 now display signs of heart disease

Why the Obesity Trend Continues to Climb Unabated in the U.S.

November 25, 2015 | 293,896 views

By Dr. Mercola

Last year, an analysis revealed that more than half of the world's obese people congregate in 10 countries: United States, China, India, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Germany, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

Obese Americans accounted for about 13 percent of the world's obese people, while China and India together (with more than 700 percent of the US population) only accounted for 15 percent of the total. Now, US health officials report that obesity in America has inched up even more.

Right along with it, drug prescriptions for hypertension, diabetes, and depression and other obesity-related illnesses are also rising, with 59 percent of American adults now taking at least one drug.1,2 

As reported by The New York Times:3

"About 38 percent of American adults were obese in 2013 and 2014, up from 35 percent in 2011 and 2012... And compared with a decade ago, the increase was significant: In 2003 and 2004, about 32 percent of adults were obese...

A paper... published this month in Health Affairs, found that Americans' diets had improved in quality from 1999 to 2012 — with a reduction in trans fats, small increases in fiber and less soda consumption — but that most of those advances were not happening among lower-income, less educated Americans.4"

Obese Children Show Signs of Heart Disease

Childhood obesity is perhaps an even greater concern, as obese children significantly increase their risk of suffering obesity-related illnesses and complications far earlier in life.

According to recent research presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2015, obese children as young as 8 now display signs of heart disease! The researchers took MRI scans of the hearts of 20 obese children, and compared them to 20 normal-weight children.

As reported by Medical News Today:5

"The team found that the obese youths had 27 percent more muscle mass in the left ventricle of their hearts and 12 percent thicker heart muscles, which are both signs of heart disease.

The study also considered 40 percent of the children to be 'high-risk' because the type of thickening seen in their heart wall is associated with a reduced ability to pump blood.

Of the 20 obese children, seven were teenagers, but the younger participants yielded the most shocking results. The researchers were particularly surprised to see signs of heart disease in children as young as 8 years old...

 [Lead author Linyuan] Jing hopes this study might spur parents on to spend a little more time and thought on their child's diet."

Food Advertisements Present False Nutritional Views

Clearly, the strategies to curtail obesity employed so far are not working. Part of the problem is the lack of focus on educating people about how processed foods and "diet" (artificially sweetened) foods6 promote weight gain.

Junk food ads not only confuse and completely miseducate children about nutrition; they also cleverly manipulate parents into making unhealthy choices for their kids.7

As noted by CNN:8

"It is a dual-pronged approach where food manufacturers are targeting kids to pester (their parents) for these products, and then manufacturers are marketing to parents to get them to think these products are healthy and not to feel guilty about buying them...

[P]arent-directed ads emphasized health benefits and nutritional information for the products...

However, a recent report... found that many of the products that are advertised to children, such as sugar-sweetened juice beverages and cereals, do not meet federal standards for healthy snacks. And... the ads that parents are seeing are for these same products."

Industry-Health Partnerships Hide Dietary Culprits

Corporate sponsorships and industry-health partnerships add to the problem by misleading the public about the greatest offenders.

For example, back in 2003, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry came under fire for entering into an agreement with the Coca-Cola Foundation, in which Coke would distribute educational messages on behalf of the academy.9

It was a classic conflict of interest case, where one of the major contributors to cavities pay for the privilege to "educate" children about dental health.

According to a 2014 study,10 sugar is the only cause of tooth decay, and to curtail cavities, avoiding sugar is imperative. Yet when was the last time you saw Coke informing kids that to prevent tooth decay they should avoid soda?

Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics has been allied not only with Coke, but also with Pepsi and McDonalds, "to support patient education on healthy eating."

Ditto for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), which receives millions of dollars from multinational junk food corporations each year, and offer corporate-sponsored education to teach registered dietitians about the "value" of everything from sugary beverages to chewing gum.

As noted by Dr. Michael Greger,11 their official position is that "there are no good or bad foods" — a position that clearly flies in the face of nutritional science. Unfortunately, science is also being grossly manipulated by corporate interests. For example, Coca-Cola funds the Global Energy Balance Network, a front group aimed at confusing you about soda science and diverting attention away from evidence showing soda is a major contributor to obesity and diabetes.

When Confronted About Gross Conflicts, Health Organizations Cut Ties with Coke

On the upside, a number of these institutions are cutting ties with Coca-Cola after the conflicts of interest were revealed in the mainstream media. This shows just how powerful transparency can be, and why we need more of it. As reported by The New York Times12 on November 6:

"The University of Colorado School of Medicine announced... it was returning a $1 million gift from Coca-Cola after it was revealed that the money had been used to establish an advocacy group that played down the link between soft drinks and obesity.

Coca-Cola donated the money in 2014 to help establish the Global Energy Balance Network... that urged people to focus more on exercise and worry less about what they eat and drink...

Coke's chief executive, Muhtar Kent, disclosed that the company had spent almost $120 million since 2010 to pay for academic health research and for partnerships with major medical and community groups involved in curbing the obesity epidemic.

Recipients included the American Academy of Pediatrics, which accepted $3 million from Coke to launch its healthychildren.org website, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics... which had received $1.7 million from Coke. After the disclosure, both groups said they were ending their relationships with Coca-Cola.

In a statement... University of Colorado said it was returning the $1 million seed money that Coke had provided to set up the Global Energy Balance Network because 'the funding source has distracted attention from its worthwhile goal.'"

Little Will Change Until U.S. Government Changes Agricultural Subsidies

Federal food policies and agricultural subsidies13 are another major part of the problem, promoting the manufacture and consumption of addicting junk foods rather than real food. This was clearly spelled out in a 2013 paper14 published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which noted that:

 "Government-issued agricultural subsidies are worsening obesity trends in America. Current agricultural policy remains largely uninformed by public health discourse... Government-issued payments have skewed agricultural markets toward the overproduction of commodities that are the basic ingredients of processed, energy-dense foods."

This includes corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice, which are the top four most heavily subsidized foods. By subsidizing these, particularly corn and soy, the US government is actively supporting a diet that consists of these grains in their processed form, namely high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), soybean oil, and grain-fed cattle – all of which are now well-known contributors to obesity and chronic diseases.

There is no relationship between agricultural subsidies and nutrition, and directly related to this issue is the fact that the government's nutritional guidelines are in large part mirrored by these same agricultural subsidies rather than being built upon sound nutritional science.

Five Components Affecting Your Weight

Mounting research suggests the following five factors contribute to obesity and poor health, and all of them need to be considered if we are to successfully address this obesity epidemic:

  • Processed food
  • Chemicals (in food, environment, and everyday household products)
  • Antibiotics (in medicine and in food production)
  • Inactivity
  • Lack of sleep

To Reverse Obesity Trend, We Must Return to a Diet of Real Food...

Researchers have firmly debunked the myth that all calories are identical, and that to lose weight all you need to do is expend more calories than you consume. It's true that Americans eat too many calories overall, but research also shows that what you eat can make a big difference in how much you eat.

In a nutshell, research shows that calories gleaned from bread, refined sugars, and processed foods promote overeating, whereas calories from whole vegetables, protein, and fiber decrease hunger. It's also true that most Americans exercise too little, but it's important to realize that you simply cannot exercise your way out of a poor and metabolically "toxic" diet.

Over the past 60 years or so, a confluence of dramatically altered foods combined with reduced physical exertion and increased exposure to toxic chemicals have created what amounts to a perfect storm. The extensive use of refined sugar — primarily in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, which is added to virtually all processed foods — is at the heart of it all.

Fortunately, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now recommending a daily cap on added sugars, and food manufacturers may soon have to list the amount of added sugars on the nutritional facts label.

As noted in The New York Times:15

"The goal is for Americans to limit added sugar to no more than 10 percent of daily calories, according to the proposed guidelines. For someone older than three, that means eating no more than 12.5 teaspoons, or 50 grams, of it a day. That's about the same amount of sugar found in a can of Coke..."

But one also cannot underestimate the impact of chemistry, and the creation of truly addictive foods. If you think about it, it's quite revealing that, in contrast to third-world countries, the poorest people in the US have the highest obesity rates. This seeming contradiction is, I believe, a clear indication that the problem stems from the diet itself. Something in the cheapest and most readily available foods is creating metabolic havoc, and indeed that's what studies are finding.

Research into the addictive nature of processed foods reveals that food companies have perfected the art of creating addictive foods through the masterful use of salt, fat, sugar, and a wide variety of proprietary flavorings — most of which are far from natural.

As a general rule, "food" equals "live nutrients." Nutrients, in turn, feed your cells, optimize your health, and sustain life. Obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, and heart attacks are all diseases associated with a processed food diet – a clear indication that it does not provide the appropriate nutrition for your body.

Even the First Lady Was Prevented from Telling the Truth About Processed Food

Five years ago, First Lady Michelle Obama took a strong stance against processed foods, and in a speech at a Grocery Manufacturers Association conference, she told them that:16

"This is a shared responsibility. That's why I've gone to parents and I've asked them to do their part. They have a responsibility to watch what their kids eat and teach good habits. […] And all of you have a responsibility as well.

And we need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you're offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children. That starts with revamping or ramping up your efforts to reformulate your products, particularly those aimed at kids, so that they have less fat, salt, and sugar, and more of the nutrients that our kids need..."

Less than a year later, the First Lady's enthusiasm for healthy food had been substantially watered down, and her "Let's Move" campaign ended up focusing on exercise rather than avoiding foods that harm your metabolic health, and this is precisely the position Coca-Cola's front group The Global Energy Balance Network promotes. Coincidence? I think not.

Many Chemicals Promote Obesity

A number of chemicals have also been found to promote obesity by disrupting your hormones. This includes but is not limited to include bisphenol-A (BPA), PCBs, phthalates, triclosan, agricultural pesticides, and fire retardants.Certain agricultural chemicals, glyphosate in particular, may also affect your weight by obliterating healthy gut bacteria.

Recent research17 also warns that children whose mothers were exposed to perfluorooctanoic acid (chemicals used in non-stick coatings) during pregnancy tend to be more prone to rapid and excessive weight gain. Interestingly, many endocrine disrupting chemicals have been found to promote weight gain specifically at below-toxic levels. As noted in one 2003 study:18

"This article presents data showing that the current epidemic in obesity cannot be explained solely by alterations in food intake and/or decrease in exercise... Indeed, many synthetic chemicals are actually used to increase weight in animals.

This article provides fascinating examples of chemicals that have been tested for toxicity by standard tests that resulted in weight gain in the animals at lower doses than those that caused any obvious toxicity. These chemicals included heavy metals, solvents, polychlorinated biphenols, organophosphates, phthalates, and bisphenol-A. This is an aspect of the data that has generally been overlooked."

Antibiotics in Food and Medicine Also Promote Weight Gain

There's also compelling evidence linking antibiotic overuse and obesity, although the reasons why didn't become clear until we discovered how your microbiome influences your weight. One of the latest studies19,20 linking antibiotics to weight gain found that children who took antibiotics seven or more times before the age of 15 weighed an average of three pounds more than those with no history of antibiotic use.

However, while overused in medicine, the primary source of antibiotic exposure is actually through your diet.  The US uses nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics each year to raise food animals.21,22 This accounts for about 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the US.23

In livestock, antibiotics are used both to ward off disease and to promote weight gain, and research suggests antibiotics have the same effect in humans. According to data analyzed by journalist Maryn McKenna,24 US states with the highest levels of antibiotic overuse also have the worst health status, including the highest rates of obesity.

Other growth-enhancing drugs used to fatten up livestock may fatten you up as well. Ractopamine is one example. This beta agonist drug works as a growth promoter by increasing protein synthesis, thereby making the animal more muscular.

In human medicine, beta agonists are found in asthma medication, and stubborn weight gain is in fact a common complaint among asthma patients using Advair (a beta-agonist drug) — so much so that the manufacturer has added weight gain to the post-marketing side effects.

How Lack of Sleep Promotes Obesity

Previous research has shown that people who sleep less than seven hours a night tend to have a higher body mass index (BMI) than people who get more sleep. The biological mechanisms linking sleep deprivation and weight gain are numerous.25 Alterations to your metabolism account for some of this effect, because when you're sleep deprived, leptin (the hormone that signals satiety) falls, while ghrelin (which signals hunger) rises.

This combination leads to an increase in appetite. Additionally, sleep deprivation tends to result in food cravings, particularly for sweet and starchy foods, due to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. If you're chronically sleep deprived, consistently giving in to these sugar cravings will virtually guarantee that you'll gain weight.

Sleeping less than six hours per night can also radically decrease the sensitivity of your insulin receptors, which will raise your insulin levels. This too is a surefire way to gain weight as the insulin will seriously impair your body's ability to burn and digest fat. It also increases your risk of diabetes. In short, sleep deprivation puts your body in a pre-diabetic state, which can lead to increased weight and decreased health.

Your Weight Reflects Your Lifestyle Choices

As you can see, a number of factors can contribute to your weight problem. Simply eating fewer calories and exercising more usually doesn't work very well, and the reason for that is because not all calories are the same.

Rather than focusing on calories, you need to address the quality of the foods you eat, and avoid chemical exposures. Many people end up throwing their hands up in disgust when trying to clean up their diet, complaining that once they start to read labels, they realize there's "nothing safe to eat."

If this sounds like you, you're probably still looking at processed foods, trying to figure out which ones are "good" for you, and that's the problem. The list of ingredients to avoid is just about endless, and keeping track of it can be really discouraging. The answer is to create a list of healthy options instead, which is far shorter and easier to remember.

And, when it comes to advertising, keep in mind that whole unadulterated "real foods" are rarely if ever advertised, so if you're seeing an ad for a food that promises to do you a world of good, it's probably misleading... The following short list of just three super-simple, easy-to-remember guidelines will not only improve your nutrition, it will also help you avoid countless chemical exposures that can affect your weight:

  • Eat REAL FOOD. Buy whole, ideally organic, foods and cook from scratch. First of all, this will automatically reduce your added sugar consumption, which is the root cause of insulin resistance and weight gain.
  • If you buy organic produce, you'll also cut your exposure to pesticides and genetically engineered ingredients, and in ditching processed foods, you'll automatically avoid artificial sweeteners and harmful processed fats. For more detailed dietary advice, please see my free Optimized Nutrition Plan.

  • Opt for organic grass-finished meats to avoid genetically engineered ingredients, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other growth promoting drugs.
  • Opt for glass packaging and storage containers to avoid endocrine disrupting chemicals.

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