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Our Environment's Influence on Weight Gain

By : Marie Suszynski

Americans have a reputation for big waistlines. About 66 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, and there’s no question that environment plays a huge role in weight gain and our growing rate of obesity.

“Essentially, a lot of people in the field of bariatric surgery say that genetics loads the gun and the environment pulls the trigger,” says Margaret Furtado, RD, a clinical dietitian specialist at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Bariatric Surgery Program in Baltimore.

Weight Gain: Obesity and Our Environment

What is it about our environment that contributes to obesity? Experts haven’t uncovered all of the factors, but there are several that they can confidently point to:

  • Too many high-calorie foods in our diet. Weight gain has a lot to do with the balance between the calories you take in and the calories you burn. That balance becomes compromised when we have a lot of food, especially high-calorie food, at our fingertips. Candy, chips, doughnuts, cookies, fried foods, and other poor foods choices are sold everywhere from gas stations to movie theaters to bookstores. Indulge and the calories can add up fast. A fruit smoothie can pack more than 1,000 calories while an individual pizza may contain 2,000 calories.
  • Out-of-control portions. Americans have gotten used to eating bigger plates of food. A restaurant meal serving can often feed two or more people. In 20 years, the size of a typical bagel grew from three inches and 140 calories to six inches and 350 calories. The size of a soda has exploded as well: Americans used to drink six-and-a-half ounces and get 85 calories, but today we buy 20-ounce bottles that rack up 250 calories. And the list of growing portions goes on and on.
  • Not enough exercise. Cars and SUVs have replaced bicycles and walking. Work on the farm or in the factory has been replaced by work in front of a computer, and studies have found that less activity may be contributing to obesity even more than higher food consumption. There’s about a twofold increase in the percentage of people who become sedentary from age 20 to age 65, researchers say.
  • Too much stress. “I think stress is overlooked as a contributor to obesity,” Furtado says. Stress signals your body’s fight or flight response. In the old days when faced with danger, humans had to either run or fight to get rid of stress. Today, we’re stuck at a desk at work without a direct outlet for stress. Chronic stress can increase sugar and fat cravings and add fat around the belly, the kind of fat that’s associated with diabetes and heart disease. Too many Americans aren’t dealing with stress, either, when they could be getting benefits from mediation, tai chi, yoga, or deep breathing, Furtado says. “The relaxation response can be induced with just five deep breaths,” she adds.
  • Skipping meals. It’s not unusual for Furtado to hear from her patients that they skip breakfast or lunch. While some people may think they’re saving calories when they don’t eat a meal, this can actually lead to weight gain because they end up overeating later in the day. When you skip meals, it tells your brain that you’re in a starvation state, but if you nourish your brain throughout the day it gets the message that it can be happy at a lower weight, Furtado says.
  • Not enough sleep. There’s a very clear link between sleep and weight, Furtado says. Studies have found that the less sleep you get, the more likely you are to be overweight. You may end up eating to stay awake, or sleepiness may keep you from having the energy to exercise. Experts say that seven to nine hours of sleep is a good goal, but if you really want to know how much sleep you need, Furtado recommends not using an alarm clock for three days in a row. On the third day, take note of how many hours you slept before waking up naturally. That’s probably how much sleep you should aim for every night.
  • Factors beyond your control. There are a variety of things that are out of your control that can contribute to weight gain. For one, research shows that adolescents who were breastfed as babies for three months or longer are less likely to be obese. Furtado says it has to do with bacteria in the gut. People who are lean tend to have a different kind than people who are obese, and those who were breastfed as babies tend to have the kind of bacteria associated with a normal weight.

Even the chemicals in plastic and food additives have been blamed for contributing to obesity and are currently under study. “There’s so much more we’re going to find out over the next 10 years,” Furtado says.

In the meantime, knowing which parts of our environment may cause weight gain can give you the power to overcome these influences and find ways to maintain a healthy weight.

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