The Enigma: What Causes Obesity?
Thanks to public media, many Americans are under the assumption that the obese third of the population have fallen into the depths of their own gluttony. The blame has been put on the accessibility of food and the resulting lack of exercise in this industrial luxurious economy. This correlation has become the icon of the dilemma in many Americans’ eyes because it provides a sense of assurance that obesity can be so simply explained. In order for any progress to truly be made in this battle against American obesity, an understanding must be made that obesity is the result of many different factors. Rather than just being the immediate consequences of lifestyle choices, a person’s body shape and weight are the complex results caused by contributors such as malnutrition, heredity, thyroid productivity, and human evolution.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, malnutrition is a huge factor of obesity in the United States. Typical Americans associate the availability of cheaply priced foods as the result of obesity simply because there is so much of it. However, there are a ton of complex issues at hand lurking behind this rouse. Not all Americans can afford the luxury of nutrient foods that have been deemed healthy and wholesome. Instead, due to the economical constraints placed upon them, they resort to the food that is available. “A newly appreciated paradox has been described that links poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition to obesity, or the state of overnutrition.” (Tanumihardjo) Malnutrition caused by “overnutrition” occurs because the food that is so available to Americans is very high in calories, yet deficient in essential body nutrients. Furthermore, the deprivation of essential diverse nutrients causes people to be hungry more often. This is the human body’s chemical reaction to being starved, although the outward appearance may falsely show that the person could benefit from eating less or working out. A long period of this deprived state could render a person unable to exercise due to a feeling of lethargy. This too is one of the body’s defense mechanisms against starvation so that it may retain energy for survival purposes. Since the body retains energy by creating fat cells, a person will gain weight from this condition. The inability to afford wholesome foods results in hunger and malnutrition. This is why a study of the American Dietetic Association has concluded that, “households characterized as food insecure also have the highest body mass index and prevalence of obesity.” (Tanumihardjo) This survival reaction has been imprinted in our genetic blueprint passed down over innumerous generations through the slow powerful process of evolution.
Humanity has adapted many species and individual survival methods that involve storing fat. Throughout the history of mankind, different populations have survived in the hottest of deserts to the sheerest chills of the subarctic climate. To do so, they had to develop adaptations on a cultural and genetic level. Women have particularly developed skills, genetically, to ensure the survivability of the species. Female buffering is the reason why in a similar environment, a sister of the same age as her brother will tend to be taller, have more fat, and consequently weigh more. This essential ability of the female anatomy is regarded as a nuisance today since it makes it so difficult for women to lose weight. In the event that a woman tries to diet and exercise her way to lose weight, she may encounter extreme difficulty due to the effects of female buffering, which works on the very same hormones that makes a human develop into a female. Estrogen has been proven to have fat-retaining properties, causing it to be stored generally around the hips and thigh area to form a pear shaped body. However, the amount of fat stored and locations of its deposits are genetically inherited.
Heredity is a more direct genetic role in the shaping of a person’s body. While it is true that family values and diets are often a heavy influence on those of a child, parental genetic makeup also plays a crucial role. “Twin and population studies have revealed that both body mass index (BMI) and waist/hip ratio (WHR) are heritable traits, with genetics accounting for 25–70% of the observed variability.” (Gesta) Different genes determine how a person will process energy. For this reason, two people following the same diet and exercise routine may find contrasting results in their bodily reactions. This is because our genes instruct the body how it should spend energy, where it should store energy, how many fat cells to store, and even how quickly the body should resort to using stored energy. Obesity can be passed down via genetic inheritance just like the many diseases that exist today like Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease. The genes causing someone to have more weight than what is deemed average may code for inadequate or insufficient regulation of bodily chemicals designed to maintain balance. A great example of such imbalance is type 1 diabetes, an inherited disease that can cause people to lose weight because their bodies cannot breakdown glucose. However, genetics play much more of a role in the shaping of the body, even without causing a diseased state. The complexities of the effects genes have on our weight are still elusive to scientists today, but progress is being made toward associating certain gene types with the production of adipose tissue.
The body’s metabolism, heavily affected by the production of thyroid, plays a crucial role in a person’s weight, fat, and energy. The importance of the thyroid gland and hormone become very apparent when people suffer from hypothyroidism, the term used to describe the condition when the body manufactures inadequate amounts of thyroid hormones. “Symptoms of hypothyroidism include lack of energy, depression, constipation, weight gain, hair loss, dry skin, dry coarse hair…” (PubMed Health) A low metabolism can account for a person feeling too tired to carry out normal tasks because food energy is not being burned at an efficient rate. Studies have shown that variations in the productivity of the thyroid gland are linked with the occurrence of obesity. A study conducted by the Endocrine Society concluded, “Thyroid function (also within the normal range) could be one of several factors acting in concert to determine body weight in a population. Even slightly elevated serum TSH levels are associated with an increase in the occurrence of obesity.” (Knudsen)
Obesity and the spectrum of BMI that we have in America are the results of many contributing factors that point out lifestyle choices cannot be the direct causes of such an onslaught. Indeed, many people are born predisposed to becoming obese in their lifetime. Although it may be uncomforting, we may never find out all of the chemical intricacies that play a role in the body’s production of excess fat. Knowing that obesity is not a choice, but a disease, the FDA should consider passing a safe drug to aid obese people who have been struggling with their weight and appetite for so long.
Gesta, Stephane, Matthias Blüher, Yuji Yamamoto, Andrew W. Norris, Janin Berndt, Susan Kralisch, Jeremie Boucher, Choy Lewis, and C. R. Kahn. “Evidence for a Role of Developmental Genes in the Origin of Obesity and Body Fat Distribution.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 9 Mar. 2006. Web. 12 Apr. 2012.
Knudsen, Nils, Peter Laurberg, Lone B. Rasmussen, Inge Inge Bülow, Hans Perrild, Lars Ovesen, and Torben Jørgensen. “Small Differences in Thyroid Function May Be Important for Body Mass Index and the Occurrence of Obesity in the Population.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. July 2005. Web. 12 Apr. 2012.
Tanumihardjo, Sherry A., Cheryl Anderson, Martha Kaufer-Horwitz, Lars Bode, Nancy J. Emenaker, Andrea M. Haqq, Jessie A. Satia, Heidi J. Silver, and Diane D. Stadler. “Poverty, Obesity, and Malnutrition: An International Perspective Recognizing the Paradox” Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Web.
“Thyroid.” PubMed Health. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 18 Dec. -0001. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0000689/>.