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Francis Koster: Turn attention to pollutants for causes of weight gain

We pride ourselves for being a wealthy nation. It may shock you to learn that in this elite group, we rank 35th in life expectancy. Invisible things in our environment are dramatically impacting our citizen’s health.

A major contributing factor to our nation’s awful life expectancy is that 72% of all American adults are either overweight or obese – and the percentage is rising. Since 1960, the weight of the average American adult increased 28 pounds! 

Clothing manufacturers have noticed this. They even adjusted clothing labels. When women go to buy clothing today, a dress size zero is larger than a size eight was in 1958.

This ties into the pandemic because, if you become infected, your chances of suffering long-term damage to your body or dying increases dramatically the heavier you are.

It is clear that declining exercise and a diet of processed foods and sugar contributes to your weight gain, but that does not explain why you are eating more. Not working out does not make you hungry. 

Turns out the answer is probably caused by the huge growth in the use of unregulated chemicals in industry and agriculture. A subset of these chemicals, called obesogens, alter how your brain responds to food. A few examples out of hundreds include MSG (monosodium glutamate) and the plastic liners found in canned food.

These chemicals work in many different ways to cause weight gain. I call one example the “broken gas gauge” problem. If you get hungry, your brain sends a signal telling you to eat. When your body has enough, a normal brain should send a signal to stop because you are full. One problem people in America are having is that these pollutants and contaminants have broken the gas gauge — it reads empty when the tank is in fact full. Your brain says “keep eating; you are still hungry.”  

A second and, in some ways, more troubling issue is that some of these invisible chemicals turn on a different part of the body, which pushes more of what you eat into storage (also known as fat). You can eat the same number of calories as you did 10 years ago but gain more weight — even if all of your other habits (drinking alcohol, sleeping habits) remain the same.

If these obesogens are present, telling a hefty person to reduce their food consumption does not stop the second broken brain part from doing what it is supposed to do. The body will gain weight even if the person exercises admirable self-discipline and eats less.  

These discoveries do not mean an individual cannot control their weight, but it does clarify why it is so hard. Although they have to struggle against the wiring in their brain, individuals can still tackle this issue by changing their diet to eat fresh fruits and veggies, exercise more, and stop eating processed and canned foods, fat and sugar. That should absolutely be a priority.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has good guidance on that. 

Instead of continuing to blame the overweight person, we need to turn our attention to those who are actively polluting the environment and our food supply for their personal gain and we need to increase funding to help scientists to figure out how to repair the broken brains so they go back to sending the correct signals.

Research now shows that if a parent’s brain is changed, their kids can inherit those changes, which helps explain why almost one in five American kids are obese and a much larger number are overweight. Those numbers are growing rapidly.

Koster, who lives in Kannapolis, did his graduate work with a focus on threats to the basic life-support systems of air, water, food and fuel. He spent a majority of his career as chief innovation officer in one of the nation’s largest pediatric health care systems.

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