July 23, 2010

The Obesity Epidemic

A recent study has shown that the skinniest state in the U.S. is fatter than the fattest state only 20 years ago. The thinnest state currently in the union is Colorado with 55% of the population overweight and 18% obese... So 1 in 5 people in the thinnest state is considered a health risk. Only a few decades ago this wasn't the case, there was obesity to be sure, but it was more a sign of prosperity or the like, rather than regarded as the illness it has been called today. The main difference in our interpretation of the condition appears to be its prevalence..

So what happened?

As with most problems, there is never a single cause to it, but rather the culmination of many factors coming together.

Firstly, since the industrial revolution the amount of physical jobs has decreased sharply, in favor of using machines and automated systems, with the workforce shifting towards more sedentary jobs, like the one I possess. Going along with this many works of media (television, video games, computers, etc) all consist of sitting down and little movement.

This is not to say I'm an advocate for being a Luddite, this is progress encourages a more cerebral society that values knowledge over brute force...hopefully. Exercise is not our cultures definition of a good time, we get home and we want to relax, in general. Sociology isn't my specialty... Anyhow, moving on...

Genetics are also at play here. A study conducted by Tulane's Department of Epidemiology has shown that there are heritable phenotypes for obesity that range from as low as 6% of a group to as high as 85%. There are a number of conditions as well with obesity as a symptom. These of course tend to be very rare conditions, but none the less inflate the numbers of the whole. Far less rare conditions however, include diabetes and depression, two conditions that are extremely pervasive in the US, both of which have been linked to obesity (and both links are shown to be causative).

The next issue comes to a very simple cause. Our food and drink. Let us first be honest about something, it is not cheap to be healthy in the U.S. Not only that, it's time consuming to eat healthy in the U.S. Making a home cooked meal, in general, is almost always healthier for you than going out to eat, not only are you doing the work (and burning off calories) but you can control precisely what it is the meal. The reason that most restaurants taste so good is because they tend to slather their product in fat and salt. And going out to a 'healthy' restaurant is more expensive, being a specialty shop they raise their prices to match with a limited clientele.

Now to address the elephant in the room....

High fructose corn syrup.
High fructose corn syrup, as the name implies is made from corn. It is originally a syrup of glucose (the natural sugar in sweet corn) and is enzymatically converted into fructose (which is in fruit). In theory it is 50% glucose 50% fructose, but it can contain up to 80% fructose and 20% glucose. It is frequently used as a sugar substitute

I've seen some ads recently advocating the stuff saying that 'it has the same effects as sugar'. This is, in part, true. High fructose corn syrup in terms of caloric intake is no worse than regular sugar, honey, and other sweeteners... There are other issues with it however. For one thing a study has shown that it contributes more towards obesity than other sugars, due to it's ability to repress the chemicals behind your appetite, making the consumer unaware of when they are in fact 'full'. Another is that apparently there is mercury found in about half of all HFCS tested, mercury contaminated caustic soda has been used to produce HFCS in some companies...

Ignoring the possibilities of neurotoxins and enzymatic inhibitors there is an even larger problem with the stuff.

It's everywhere.

A cursory look over my pantry revealed it was in yogurt, industrial bread, cookies, salad dressing, tomato soup and ketchup. The issue is that this ingredient, and the calories it packs, is virtually in every processed food out there.

This brings back another question... Why use it?

The simple answer? It's cheap. Without delving into politics, the U.S. government subsidizes corn production, making the product dirt cheap. While this does allow for many people to be fed that wouldn't it causes the opposite problem of people becoming too fat (corn was cheap before however, the government simply made it cheaper).

So what comes from this long rant? Obesity is caused from a variety of sources and preventing it would be a herculean task. Or the fact that diabetes, closely related to obesity, has risen sharply in the past few decades limiting the lives of many. Or perhaps simply that high fructose corn syrup has many chemical properties that have enzymatic and neurochemical ramifications?

I think it means I'm going to stick with my caffeine addiction...
Thanks for reading


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