Monday, November 23, 2015

Grerp On The Rise of Obesity And Anorexia

If you’ve been paying attention lately, you’ll have noticed that the world has becoming a fairly baffling place, and not just baffling in the sense that mores are shifting and certain cultures are ascending and attempting to annihilate others, but in the sense that actual physical conditions of life have changed in the past five or so decades. Specifically, this would be the rise in strange allergies and autoimmune diseases, obesity, and widespread lower level mental illnesses.

28Sherman asked me to discuss the question of why our society has seen the rise of two very different and seemingly opposing problems: obesity and anorexia/bulimia. I’ve given this some thought over time as I’ve done some reading on health and nutrition as well as changes in societal trends. While I’m not a nutritionist, a doctor, or a sociologist, and I’ve done no research, either in the lab or in the field, on this matter, I’ll wade in with my ideas. Because why not?

The technological breakthroughs that occurred within the twentieth century affected people’s lifestyles in a number of ways, but on a basic everyday level three of them stand out: what people eat, how they treat their health problems, and how people move.

I’ve only been alive since 1971, but I’ll tell you that when I was a kid there weren’t fat kids. There were chubby kids who we thought were fat, but kids were not fat like they are today, let alone obese. Maybe somewhere they existed, but not in my small town/bedroom community. When I go through my high school yearbooks, it’s shocking how thin we all were. And, other than the usual “Am I too fat?” discussions we had with our girlfriends in our budding years, we never thought about our weight. We didn’t.

I’m sure that I probably knew girls who were anorexic or bulimic, and articles about the problem showed up in women’s and teen magazines, but this also was not an issue that we widely discussed, partly because we weren’t obsessed about weight. We weren’t fat.

We also brought whatever we liked or ate at home to school and ate it communally. This included peanuts and tree nuts, all of the gluten, and dairy. I’d say soy, but no one ate anything with soy in it or anything they knew had soy in it. We ate over at friends’ houses and their parents dished out to us the same casserole they were serving to their own kids.

My family sat down and had dinner together every single night, and the food was nearly always homemade and reasonably basic. Some of the ingredients, like cream of mushroom soup, may have been processed or canned, but the entire meal wasn’t. My mom canned and froze fruits and vegetables herself. The snacks that were in our house were homemade as well.

We never went out to restaurants. If we did it was an occasion like a birthday or anniversary. We also rarely drank soda, juices, or other sweet drinks. In our house we drank water, milk (dried skim - GAG), and tea. Every once in awhile my parents would order a pizza, and my sister and I would split a bottle of pop.

My sister and I were bookworms and not athletic, but that didn’t stop my mom from kicking us out of the house and telling us to find something to do. After a certain age we were free to roam the neighborhood. We were in and out of people’s houses all day. My mother wanted to know where we were, but as long as we were home by dark, she didn’t worry. This meant we spent summers swimming for hours at the community pool, biking, playing in the park, and running around. In the winter we played in the snow and went sledding.

Our TV got four different stations: NBC, CBS, ABC, and PBS. Much of the programming wasn’t too interesting. We didn’t have a computer and Atari games didn’t come out until I was in fourth or fifth grade. Since my mother didn’t entertain us and she wasn’t worried about our safety, we were expected to figure out to do with ourselves during free time. We were pretty active. In high school I walked to school. It was only a mile away. Most kids did not own their own cars. They didn’t fix cars either. Many of them had jobs, but they were mostly in the service economy. To get around they borrowed their parents’ cars, got rides, or rode the school bus.

It’s hard for me to comment on medicines because except for ear infections, strep throat, and the kidney infection I had in fourth grade, for which we took antibiotics, we didn’t take medicine. We were vaccinated and we took a multivitamin. None of the kids I knew took regular medication for anything. The spazzy kids just spazzed out, and people got annoyed with them. Honestly, I don’t remember spazziness being a general problem, and I was a kid who was pretty serious about school.

I know this is only first-hand experience, but this is not the world my son lives in. He, like my husband and I did, is growing up in the middle class. Our lifestyle is a bit different than that of his classmates. From what I can tell, kids now play a lot more video games and participate in scheduled activities quite a bit more than they play freely outside. I almost never see kids in our neighborhood just goofing off in groups or hanging out on each other’s lawns. My son texts his cousin to talk to her.

Families rarely sit down together to eat dinner, and nearly all of the snacks and lunch food I see is processed and packaged. People eat out and drink soda on a nearly daily basis. This is because in most of the families we know both parents work. I’ll take a guess and say that a large majority of what Americans eat today, including middle class Americans, is in some way processed.

Finally, kids today are highly medicated. Recently doctors have been trying to stem the tide of antibiotic use, but kids are on all kinds of medications for depression, anxiety, and hyperactivity. What’s more, many of these kids were exposed to medications like these in the womb, and that may have had an effect on their formation. Anecdotally, my son was adopted from abroad. He is probably the healthiest kid I know.

My hypothesis about why kids and adults are simultaneously experiencing high rates of both obesity and anorexia is that they eat a high-sugar, high-caffeine, low-nutrient diet, they rarely exercise and even more rarely exercise in the kind of way people did for millennia, and they have completely messed up digestive tracts that lack healthy gut bacteria.

It seems intuitive that if you eat high calorie foods and you exercise less, you’ll gain weight. But the kind of gross obesity that we’re getting used to seeing is abnormal. I’m not saying that in an “I’m judging you” way. I mean, there are enough people these days who look like lab experiments gone wrong to wonder what is this lab experiment they’re running on us. Food is manufactured to be addictive now. That wasn’t the case when I was little. Most of the food I ate as a kid was okay. I had favorite foods my mom cooked. I did not crave any of it, except for maybe the chocolate chip cookies.

Why are they craving this food? Is it only because of the way the food is manufactured? Or is it because their bodies have changed and are no longer satisfied with the kind of ordinary food we used to eat? This is where gut bacteria factors in. I think that the increase in obesity, immune disorders, depression, anxiety, mental disorders like anorexia, and odd allergies is the result of an entirely abnormal gut bacteria ratio in the digestive tracts of Americans. We are discovering that a healthy gut keeps bad bacteria at bay and actually produces some of the the vitamins and nutrients people need to feel good and think clearly as well as aiding in actual digestion.

New research indicates that gut bacteria produce nearly all of our neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine which are crucial to maintaining good mental health. In fact, depression, anxiety, OCD, and autism have all been linked to gut bacteria balance. Anorexia, some believe, is on the same spectrum as OCD and has much in common with that disorder.

Anorexia and bulimia are both disorders that involve an obsessive anxiety (in both cases, being fat) and a coping behavior designed to nullify that anxiety (avoiding food or purging it after eating). That is why they are linked to OCD. It would make sense that as people actually do get fatter, they would feel anxiety about being fat, but neither anorexia or bulimia are rational disorders. In fact, no matter how thin patients with these disorders become, they continue to feel the same anxiety and continue to try to address it in destructive ways.

Doctors have had some success treating them with antidepressants because, by modifying brain chemicals, including serotonin, in the body to more normal and healthy levels, this type of behavior wanes. Lessening the anxiety will lessen the need for destructive coping mechanisms. Some doctors also believe that antidepressants regular hunger signals that can trigger binge eating. Personally, I believe that the increase in brain chemical imbalances triggering these strange new neurotic behaviors is also a result of diet, lack of exercise, and a proliferation of bad gut bacteria.

In some experiments, researchers introduced gut bacteria from obese women into the gut bacteria of thin mice, and the result was that the thin mice grew fatter than the control group despite eating the same diet. Certainly there are a number of factors at work here, but that to me is fascinating. If we could recreate the living conditions that people had, say, prior to 1930, and instead of sending people to inpatient therapy, drug rehab, or America’s Biggest Loser, we sent them to work on a farm doing regular exhausting manual labor, living a good portion of the day outside, and eating simple foods, including fermented ones like sauerkraut, would that work better? Would they be happier and less neurotic? Would they be thinner and healthier overall?

I believe they would, and it is unfortunate we can’t try this out on many of the miserable people we encounter in our daily lives. It would certainly not eliminate pain or sadness. It wouldn’t solve all of the world’s problems. But it might restore their physical and mental health and make a greater point to society about the lifestyle we’re touting as “better” and “more enjoyable.”


R. Wilbur said...

In twenty years, we'll have the old county poor farm system back up and running, but with a thin progressive sheen (poor farm = "at risk retreat center"; hoeing = "motion therapy"; beans and potatoes = "organic vegetarian diet").

And the head of the poor farm will be a lesbian couple well-versed in organic farming from their time in the peace corps.

Best option available, I think.

nobody said...

I was born in 1986 but still lucky enough to have spent my childhood roaming suburban streets and playing in a creek. What made it possible was a few rules:

1. No TV after school except on Fridays
2. No videogame systems at home
3. No Cable TV

There is new research coming in every month about gut bacteria. I have two probiotics in the fridge that were found to reduce anxiety/stress/depression in lab mice (and some human studies).

* Bifidobacterium longum
* Lactobacillus rhamnosus

I think they're working. Article on them:

Laguna Beach Fogey said...

I had a similar childhood. Long days spent outside in the woods, in the fields, at friends' houses. I also remember the powdered skim milk--WTF?!

I definitely recall video games entering the scene in a big way in the early 1980s with Atari, which cut down on outside activities. Soon after, personal computing took off among my contemporaries.

Are people drinking more alcohol today? I would say yes, including young people.

Paleo diet, lifting weights, and long walks would do a lot of people good.

Laguna Beach Fogey said...

The Right-Wing Organic Farmers of Germany

PA said...

I'm slightly older than Grerp and rode buses and trams alone in Warsaw at the age of seven. To this day the smell of bus exhaust on a cold winter day gives me a childhood nostalgia flashback.

Some wierd realignment happened at the end of the Cold War. Globalization, agrobusiness, cooption of governments and corporationd into a transnational socialist matrix. The Clinton administration was a front for all of that. I don't think a GHWB reelection would have made much of a difference -- their backers were after the same action.

My high school yearbook (big school, mid Atlantic, latter half of the 80s) shows maybe three fat girls.

Portlander said...

Good topic for discussion. It's always fun and interesting to trade mitigation strategies. I have a million of them myself. With a few exceptions for things we didn't know anything about prior to about the last 5-10 years, things like the gut biome, most are simply: how did I live as a kid in the 70's and 80's?

As for the root cause of what ails society: women in the work-force. Worst decision ever. The ultimate SCALE scam.

It sounds hyperbolic, but there's not one modern ill that can't be traced back to women in the workforce. And without women in the work-force the whole modern edifice collapses. The arms race in housing can't be sustained. Tax and spend redistribution can't be sustained -- it loses both its funding source and a fair number of its constituency. Community involvement increases as women have more time to volunteer and less need to out-source to govt. Make-work HR dept's and nanny-state bureaucrats loose their foot soldiers. Promiscuity and infidelity drops as women have less time, fewer options, and no cover-story. People eat healthier, getting home-cooked meals in place of so much processed crap in a box.

BTW, one trivially simple rule to live by: never buy anything at the grocery store that is packaged in cardboard.

Laguna Beach Fogey said...

It's not just women in the workforce, it's women with the vote.

How are we going to change this?

stengle said...

As a much older person than most here -- and born in the UK -- I can say that life was very different when I was a kid. I have a school photograph from 1961 in which all 700 kids are present (the taking of the photo involved some clockwork movement tripod of a slow release shutter camera: we had to do it twice as the first time we all fell about laughing at this absurd thing) but if I look at it now I can see there was one genuinely fat kid in the whole school. The other 699 were normal shape if different heights (though most kids had been born in the post-war rationing years of the UK and diets were pretty basic though food was gradually becoming more plentiful) and no one had any sort of allergy or intolerance to foods. Most food was sold in bulk and the UK in the early 1960s had few supermarkets because there wasn't a lot of pre-packed food available. If you went to a grocer to buy say vegetables you got them as nature made them: I was telling one of my kids the joy of podding peas was that got to eat some peas but also chew the pods. But then, food had taste then. Apples were blemished but had their own flavours, unlike what is sold now with all uniform sizing, smooth skins but tasteless. Like swallowing cardboard.

The entertainment we and wasn't anything more than you could create yourself so kids had hobbies. Television was basic and dull and so kids had to make their own fun. We did, too, though some of it looking back was a bit wild, though most of us survived with only the odd scare or broken bone. Mostly mothers stayed at home and tended us, fathers went to work and we kids had time to sort ourselves out.

The point of this isn't just memories: the thing I would say that affects us today is that most people weren't unhappy. While few doubted money would increase happiness everyone understood there wasn't much chance of getting wealthy so no one worried too much about it. There was no point in being depressed or unhappy or feeling anxious because life was what it was. "Get a grip" was the standard response to people feeling down: the world we knew was full of unfortunate things so why be miserable? In any event the nation had gone though a war and things were far worse then. I used to play as a small kid in the ruins of buildings bombed by the Germans and everyone knew what war and shortages as well as real deprivation could bring.

In short, no one had much time to do anything but make the most of life as it was. No one told us we were wrong, or inferior, or racist or oppressed or whatever. Nor did we have to listen to people who told us equally how superior they were, how cover they were or how they knew best for us. There were enough pressures on people to earn a living and raise a family without imagining that there mental state was at risk or that their diet was full of things they could not cope with. And no, they weren't fat other than the odd person as we could see.

So back then it was a case of not being self-obsessed, or rather, not having the time to be solely concerned with one's own being and never pre-occupied with your own inner world. If you were reasonably healthy you had to get on with life. No point in having people telling you to "get a grip" because you knew that no one but yourself could get a grip.

This to me then is what has changed. People have become indulgent, self-obsessed and full of their own negativity. People are unhappy despite never having so much. They have lost control of themselves because someone is telling them they are a victim, that public money will help them, that they have to make no effort. The indulgences have become rights, and as they fail to make people happy then why not be overweight as well as unhappy? After all, everyone else is, right, so why not me?

Suburban_elk said...

If you were reasonably healthy you had to get on with life.

That is the long and short of it. People are not evolved to equip with endless free time. Cheap oil and easy energy.

I grew up back in the 70s. It was a sweet spot, but we didn’t realize its long-term consequences. The conditions that it had that we enjoyed, were sustainable by preconditions that we wanted to forget about. Scarcity hunger war - good fun stuff.

It is absolutely going to return to those preconditions and so there ya go.

The topic of gut bacteria and a person’s palate is interesting though. A good apple, some beans and rice. It doesn’t necessarily matter what are the particulars - maybe you want to have for dinner some good old-fashioned rhinoceros liver - but the being able to appreciate, to TASTE, what it is on the plate.

The Larger Question is how we struggle with these social matters. We are not equipped to deal with them. We are evolved to struggle to conquer and fight for living space. We are not evolved to struggle and fight for some High Age of the Elves.