Last week the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported that more than 12 states now have adult obesity rates greater than 30 percent, and that one in three children are either overweight or obese. However, 16 years ago, no state in the United States had an adult obesity rate greater than 20 percent. So in less than a generation, adult obesity has skyrocketed. Yet at the same time, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of overweight people has remained fairly constant since 1960, while the percentage of obese individuals has increased significantly since 1980. What this suggests is that there is a genetic component that can be activated in those individuals predisposed to gain weight. Once activated, accumulation of excess fat accelerates.
I feel the driving force between this activation of genetic factors is the increasing inflammatory nature of the American diet. We know that it is elevated insulin levels that make us fat and keep us fat. But what really causes insulin to become elevated in the first place? The simple explanation is that it comes from eating excess carbohydrates. However, that is too simplistic an explanation since one-third of adult Americans who are thin are also eating excess carbohydrates.
A more comprehensive answer is it’s insulin resistance that causes elevated insulin levels. Insulin resistance is a consequence of disturbances in the body’s insulin-signaling pathways in the cell caused by cellular inflammation. My most recent book, “Toxic Fat,” goes into great detail on this subject (1). But simply stated, the more cellular inflammation you have in your cells, the greater the likelihood of insulin resistance. And if you are genetically prone to gain weight, increasing insulin resistance will really pack on the extra fat. More insidious is that insulin resistance also creates a “fat trap” through which incoming dietary calories are trapped in your fat cells and can’t be released to provide the necessary energy the body needs. This means you are constantly hungry.
If you are surrounded by cheap processed foods (rich in omega-6 fatty acids and refined carbohydrates), then you are going to quench that hunger with those foods that increase cellular inflammation to even greater levels. The end result is an increasing rise of obesity.
But the fastest growing segment of the overweight and obese population is not adults, but children under the age of 5, with 20 percent now either overweight or obese before entering kindergarten (2). You can’t blame school lunches for this because they are not in school yet. What you can blame is epigenetics (3). This is how the metabolic future of the child can be greatly determined in the womb by the inflammatory nature of the mother’s diet. When these children are born, their altered genetics make them sitting targets for a world full of inflammatory food. Unless you change the foundation of the food supply to become more anti-inflammatory (less omega-6 fatty acids and a lower glycemic load), then the future for these children is incredibly bleak.
- Sears B. “Toxic Fat.” Thomas Nelson. Nashville, TN (2008).
- Kim J, Peterson KE, Scanlon KS, Fitzmaurice GM, Must A, Oken E, Rifas-Shiman SL, Rich-Edwards JW, and Gillman MW. “Trends in overweight from 1980 through 2001 among preschool-aged children enrolled in a health maintenance organization. Obesity 14: 1107-1112 (2006).
- Lustig RH editor. “Obesity Before Birth.” Springer. New York (2011).