What it Means to Live in an Obesogenic Environment

Whether you know about it or not, are overweight or underweight or even care about it at all we all pretty much live in an obesogenic environment. One weird thing about me is that I love to watch really well done food and health documentaries. If ya’ll want I can do a post about my favorite ones. Lately, I’ve been watching clips from HBO’s The weight of the nation on youtube. 10 out of 10 totally recommend by the way. Even though I’m a non-drinking, exercising, mostly vegetarian with a healthy BMI already there is just something I love about these documentaries.

I’m also a biologist and lots of my friends and family members struggle with their weight and health as a result. There are two things that people don’t acknowledge about the obesity crisis. One is just how widespread it is and the other is just how obvious it is how we got here. I’m a big believer that if you don’t truly understand something then you’ll never be able to change it. Information is power even if its all details. So I want to talk about what an obesogenic environment is, how biologically we got here and I think that in and of itself should help people go forward.

At the end of February 2019 the blog address is changing to http://www.sweatsweetly.ca, not yet but soon. Be sure to follow on another social channel so you don’t lose track. To that end here are all the usernames you can search for in other places.

A short history of weight and human evolution

Evolution is how a species becomes well suited to its environment. Certain traits make some individuals have a slight advantage over others and so they do slightly better than others in the species. They live longer and have more offspring. Those traits are more common and exaggerated in the next generation and so on and so on. The thing is evolution to a new or changed environment takes many, many generations. Like a lot more than 50 generations. Some slight adaptions can be seen in many hundreds of generations but it takes thousands of generations to see big changes. We know this from organisms with short generation times like bacteria (20 minute generations) but human generation time is about 20 years. By that math, we’re about 6 generations out from 1900, 11 generations from 1800 and so we are all perfectly adapted to a very, very long time ago.

For most of human history the only issue humans had was getting enough food and calories and we had to do a lot of what we would now call working out to get it. You certainly had to walk to buy it every day and then cook it for yourself but most people had to farm it over many, many months. Without modern refrigeration there were regular feast and famine periods probably every year. 500 generations ago puts us at around 8000 B.C. and I have no idea what life was like back then I can only guess that they didn’t have wifi yet on their iPads. People who had slow metabolisms put weight on fast, lost it slow and lived through the winter to make babies in the spring. The skinny folks with hummingbird metabolisms either didn’t make it through or had better be in an advantageous situation to make it through. Add to that people didn’t live into their 60’s very often so it didn’t really matter what happened to them later in life.

The fat mouse and his skinny friend go a long way to helping researchers understand obesity. You can get them that way by feeding them or selecting for them genetically.

This environment of the past is the one that humans are adapted to now. Let’s think about the year 1850 for a while. The average person in 1850 lived in a structure they built themselves without any electricity, most people grew their own food on land they worked themselves with only the aid of horses. Even water was likely transported to the house multiple times a day on foot. People walked to get from place to place including the school which was always located at least 5 miles away uphill both ways. All joking aside the average life expectancy was 37 years and people still died of starvation on the regular.  People just didn’t live long enough to realize the negative effects of things like high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, cholesterol, and diabetes. Even if they did the medicine of the day didn’t have to tools to understand any of it or treat it. At this point being overweight was seen as a sign of wealth for obvious reasons and jobs were generally very, very physical as was running a home. About 93% of the North American population lived in rural settings. Think about this for like an hour what was life REALLY like only 7 generations ago. That is the environment we are better suited to evolutionarily speaking than the one we are living in now.

How societal trends made us all fat at once

Things changed for most of us really really fast between the first and second world wars and shortly thereafter. We became mostly urban dwellers, each family got a car and then a second car, we drove to get our food once a week and convince food started to dominate. The work of running a house and feeding ourselves almost entirely disappeared. Work for most people was now sedentary and everyone had electricity and indoor plumbing. Leisure time was now a thing for the first time ever and we spent our free time watching the TV and sitting some more. By 1970 the average American now lived to 72. Incomes got higher and even if food wasn’t plentiful calories were. Fast food was quickly becoming a part of everyday life and portions were growing. People also started getting bigger and so the weight-loss industry started to grow as the world’s waistlines did. Since we were living so much longer things like heart disease and type 2 diabetes started to become endemic. Since we are all adapted to a much different environment this relatively fast change in how we live made us all fat.

No matter the occasion it always seems to call for lots of food!

Living in an obesogenic environment

If you just go with the flow in North America right now you’ll end up overnight if not obese over 68% of us are. Even scarier, almost 20% of our kids are overweight or obese. Lots of times we like to blame overnight people themselves for being that way. We say things like:

  • It’s still a choice what you put in your mouth
  • How does someone let themselves get that far
  • What do you expect when you eat junk
  • You are what you eat

But the thing is it’s not that simple if it was we wouldn’t be where we are now and let’s be honest we’re not going back to the way things used to be. We do all know what we should be doing and it’s not that much. Eat the appropriate number of calories 90% of the days, be physically active for 150 minutes a week and maintain a healthy weight. Easy right? Well if that’s the case why is it that less than1% of the population manages that? There’s a bigger problem here, way bigger. Actually, there’s quite a few:

–  The cheapest easiest to get food we used to grow ourselves now it’s junk food.

  • Exercising on purpose has almost never been a thing we need to do in human history. Now if we don’t set out to move on purpose we might never have to. We drive everywhere, use a lawn tractor, get our driveways plowed and our houses cleaned, just to name a few.
  • Work used to be almost exclusively physical now it’s almost exclusively sedentary.
  • Every food item used to be made from scratch now almost nothing is.
  • Screens are almost impossible to ignore and now they’re everywhere.
  • Are we busy or do we now have a constant need for stimulation?
  • Most of us generally had to struggle to get enough calories now the struggle is to turn them down.
  • Making a meal of pasta and bread used to take the day and started with grinding the wheat now you can order it on your phone and have it delivered in 20 minutes or make it in the same time.
  • Almost no food and virtually no food that was ready to eat was stored in our homes now months long supplies are available in less then ten minutes and if that’s still too much work there’s always a drive through.
  • Whole food categories like sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, snacks, frozen dinners, and ready-made desserts just didn’t exist and they are highly palatable foods.
  • We sometimes had to eat food we didn’t like or that didn’t ‘taste good’ to survive now we don’t do that pretty much ever.
Heart shaped valentine’s pizza!

The thing is even if we take body weight and how you feel in your body out of the equation this is still a really big deal. People born in the last 30 years are the least healthy for their age so far and are expected to live a shorter life than their parents. That’s right the people born into the fitness weight loss age are doing the worst with all that information. How is that possible if it’s all free will and freely available information? People today are sicker, live shorter lives full of disease, are less productive workers who cost health care systems more and I would venture not a single person wants to live like that.

So it sounds like I’m saying that keeping healthy isn’t that hard and at the same time if you don’t it’s not your fault. That’s impossible but it’s also pretty true. We live in these bodies that are biologically programmed not to turn down available food while it’s advertised to us all day long. We’re made to feast so we can make it through famine in a world where highly palatable food is never far away. Moving for 150 minutes a week is nothing for the way we used to live, it was probably hard to avoid in the first day. But our work, cars and our screens keep us seated almost all of the time. The fact of the matter is given our current collective waistlines and how much we know we simply do not match up to the environment we’re living in. If you want to make a change you have to actively fight against the world we live in and social norms.

Working against big factors to be healthy

So why bother writing about this then? I’m a pretty firm believer that if you don’t understand something you can’t really set about to change it. I also think that in this environment it must be so frustrating to know everything you should be doing but somehow not be able to change it. Understanding how messed up the world we live in is compared to the one we’re suited for goes a long, long way in understanding why losing weight and keeping it off is as hard as it is. If you are trying to lose some weight here are some posts you might find helpful to do so in a healthy permanent way:

The myth of 1200 calories

Are you on a diet that’s doomed to fail (again)

How to finally lose weight (no BS nothing to buy)

The science of diets, It’s all lies (mostly)

Is Yo-yo dieting really dangerous

Hard truths about the obesity crisis

What’s the one thing in our world that you think shows just how out of step we are with how we used to live?

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