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.”