Fun Facts: Intriguing Possible Causes of Obesity

From my Healthy Living column in Moncton’s Times & Transcript.

Obesity is a topic I regularly feature in this column. Its frequent appearances here are justified because of the prevalence of obesity in Canada today. Twenty-three percent of Canadian adults are obese (notably, forty percent of adult Aboriginal Canadians are obese). The recent rise in obesity rates is attributed mainly to changes in lifestyle (more junk food and less physical activity), but there are some other little-known, fascinating contributing factors to obesity.

Bacteria in your gut
As we all know, the annoying little microbes that occasionally find their way to our intestines can wreak havoc and make us sick. Recently, studies have found evidence that deviations from the gut’s normal array of bacteria is associated with several different health problems, including obesity. It doesn’t seem to be a particular type of bacteria that causes obesity, but rather an imbalance in the amounts of bacteria normally present in the gut that leads to obesity. An imbalance of bacteria seems to cause increased appetite by producing signalling molecules that influence the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls satiety. This particular fascinating obesity tidbit wouldn’t have been possible without my consulting The Microbes Are Coming by Dr. Gregor Reid, CMAJ, August 9, 2011.
Your friend’s friend
Two professors at Harvard University, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, published a book called Connected about the effects our social networks have on our lives. One of the effects discussed extensively in Connected weight gain. A study Dr. Christakis had led using the participants of a heart disease study found that people were more likely to become obese after a friend or even a friend’s friend became obese. Why? The authors aren’t sure, but they suspect two principal mechanisms: people’s negative perceptions of weight gain when someone they associate closely with themselves gains weight or people are directly influenced by the behaviour of those in their network.
An example of how a friend might contribute to changing your perception of weight gain: your friend–the pretty one with good fashion sense– gains weight after a sports injury forces her to quit being physically active. She’s still as kind as she used to be and still better-looking than you. Stereotypes that you used to associate with obesity are broken down and you aren’t as desperate to work out regularly to maintain your weight for aesthetic reasons.
An example of how you might be directly influenced by a friend: if you and your best friend used to shoot hoops after school, but your friend decides to get a part-time desk job after school this year and gains weight as a consequence, it is likely that you also gained weight because you probably stopped shooting hoops when your friend did and if your friend influences you particularly strongly, you also may have found a part-time desk job after school.
Bisphenol A
Have you heard of BPA? This chemical is one of the chemicals that is most often used in manufacturing in the world. It can be found in food cans, baby bottles, and other food containers among other common household items. Unfortunately, because BPA has estrogenic properties, it is thought that it could effect the development of the organ systems of the fetus and of infants. Studies about the risks BPA holds for infants has led to Health Canada labelling BPA as a toxic substance. Health Canada considers that BPA is safe for the rest of the population at current levels of exposure, but an article published in the Canadian Medical Assoc. Journal in August 2011 points our that the health effects of BPA observed in animal studies are somewhat similar to general disease trends seen in recent years. One of the physiological effects associated with BPA is increased adipose tissue a.k.a. fat. Does BPA cause the same effect in humans? That, as far as I know, has yet to be determined.
*Important note: although it is interesting to hear about these possible contributing factors to obesity, it is important to realize that these causes are speculative. It would be danger to attribute health problems to causes that are only speculative. Please talk to a health professional before jumping to conclusions.*



Originally published in the Times & Transcript on December 10th, 2011.


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