Prime Cause for Obesity No One Expected

Prime Cause for Obesity No One Expected

More than a billion adults worldwide are now overweight–and at least 300 million of them are clinically obese. Childhood obesity is already epidemic in some areas and on the rise in others. Worldwide, an estimated 17.6 million children under five are said to be overweight. “The global epidemic of obesity is completely out of control,” the BBC noted, reporting from the first international obesity conference in 2004.
Morgan Spurlok, American documentary filmmaker, humorist, television producer, screenwriter (b. 1970)

News that over half the population of the USA is overweight, one-third is clinically obese, no longer surprises people. The fact that one-third of school children are obese alarms them.

Few seem aware that obesity is a worldwide problem that affects people even in poor countries. That is, poor people in poor countries may be obese. That goes against the belief by many that obese people simply eat too much.

Our natural tendency with social problems is to blame the behaviour of the victims. No doubt this is true of some obese people. But it doesn’t work for others, which must cause us to look elsewhere.

Overeating and obesity are not soulmates.

Valid research has been done on many possible causes, including additives to prepackaged foods and even chemicals in the air we breathe. Most of the research shows positive results. How could we avoid gaining weight if the cause is something in the air? A genetic component must play a role as not everyone gets fat. Some people must be preprogrammed to be thin.

Or others to be fat. Yet how could this be without a family DNA connection, a propensity to become obese?

Advocates of food based theories look back at 150,000 years of human history (as homo sapiens) to claim that we should eat as our previously thin ancestors did for most of that time. However, the fact is that we simply cannot eat the kinds of foods they ate. Almost none of it is available for us to buy or gather.

The names of the animals and plants may be the same, but the foods themselves are not as a result of continual agricultural evolution.

Let’s look at when those ancients might have had cause for their bodies to take more than the normal amount of nutrition from the food they ate. In periods when there was lots of food available, they tended to eat so that they could sustain themselves when the famine seasons arrived. Today we have feast times all year long, so our bodies may tend to over-gather nutrition even when we do not overeat (by common standards).

In times of stress, such as when they were chased by a predator, the condition known as fight or flight would kick in. All the body systems associated with short term high anxiety would cause their bodies to fill the gaps in nutrition left from over-exerting themselves. They would not eat more, but their bodies would take more nutrients from the food they did eat.

That condition existed for almost all of the pre-civilization 150,000 years of homo sapiens. But, after all, humans were not being chased by predators every day, so that natural super-saving of nutrients was only temporary.

A recent study done by the University of Waterloo, in Canada, has demonstrated that boredom is stressful. Unlike what would be intuitive, that bored people relax all the time, the study showed that physiological conditions we associate with high anxiety apply exactly to those who are bored. Boredom equates with physiological conditions of anxiety. Which, in turn, means that the bodies of bored people act as if they should take more than the usual amount of nutrients from the food they eat.

But who gets bored? As a sociologist, I maintained for years that only boring people get bored. I had the association right, but the causality wrong. Bored people become boring as a consequence. There is much more of significance to this study.

How do we become bored? The Waterloo study associated a lack of movement of the spine with unusual activity in the orbital prefrontal cortex of the brain, also known as the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). The OFC at least partly controls behaviour. It tells bored people that they need excitement.

So people seek thrills, indulge in addictive behaviours as they look for something different in their lives, they drive too fast and fly into rage too easily.

What causes this unpleasant connection of the spine and the OFC? Usually sitting in one position for too long. That could be sitting watching TV at home. It could be sitting at your desk at the office. It could be sitting at meetings (witness videos of politicians falling asleep in their seats in legislative assemblies).

It also can be children who are forced to sit quietly in their desks in their school classrooms, for long periods of time. Teachers have long been aware that kids who get distracted easily tend to make the most trouble in a classroom. Bored kids get distracted.

Now we have children who are well behaved, who sit quietly at their desks, getting bored. And fat. Simply because they can’t move around enough.

The Waterloo study showed that people who did the most repetitive work, such as on production lines in factories or data processing, were much more interested in their work if they could move around every few minutes than if they had to remain in place for long periods of time.

Our whole concept of boredom needs to change as a result of this study and its applications to schools, workplaces and home life.

Boredom produces conditions of high anxiety. Yes, it’s counter-intuitive. High anxiety creates body conditions whereby the digestive system takes more nutrients from food than is necessary. That results in weight gain.

Think about people you know who sit in one position for extended periods of time, no matter what the reason. Chances are their personalities are fairly boring. Chances are they are in the process of gaining weight, eventually to be classed as clinically obese, or at least overweight.

In an age when many jobs are more stressful than jobs of previous generations, we now have people who must stay in the same places for long periods of time. The reasons don’t matter. The body reacts to conditions that are not stimulating by becoming bored. Boredom means anxiety, which results eventually in weight gain.

I have no research to support this theory. The whole concept just recently presented itself to me over a short period of time. But if human history means anything, we may have the major cause of obesity at hand. Science supports each step of the reasoning.

The solution may be as simple as moving around every few minutes. Studies have already proven that this kind of activity increases production of employees.

Now we may have the clue that it will also prevent obesity.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems. Yes, obesity is a social problem. Yes, the book and Bill’s many online articles address them all, including increasing use of drugs and rising crime rates.
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