As report after report has detailed, Americans have been getting sicker and heavier over the last few decades.
By sicker, I don't mean getting more colds, I mean heart disease, diabetes, reproductive health problems and cancer.
By heavier, I mean even with respect to the fact that given a normal range of body types, very few people look like waifish teenage fashion models and that's perfectly fine. Really, it's fine. No, I remember when Type II diabetes was commonly referred to as adult onset diabetes, but you just don't hear that as often now that children are getting it and there's an epidemic of obesity in infants and under-10s.
While there are some lifestyle factors at work that people can address on their own, these major demographic changes have come on much too rapidly to be solely accounted for by biology and personal choices. More, putting the blame solely on individuals often seems to prevent our taking responsibility for collective action to fix the economic and environmental causes of all this bad health.
Though what if you knew that even some of the obesity epidemic was being caused by additives we're absorbing from food containers and consumer goods, from bad official nutritional guidelines, or from agricultural chemicals? What if you knew that the government standard for testing to see if synthetic compounds were safe, or were being consumed in safe amounts, came to believing the manufacturers' solemn word that no one will drop dead on contact? What if you knew that some people were profiting from creating an environment in which it's almost a miracle that anyone is healthy and fit? Would you think differently about how the problem should be solved?
Genes determine a lot about a person, but the chemical bath in your cells determines a lot about how and when those genes are expressed.
When I say 'a lot,' consider that every cell in your body (except sperm or eggs) has a full set of your DNA, but will only express a tiny range of those genes in its lifetime, thanks to various enzymes, hormones, and the blocking of unnecessary genes with simple hydrocarbon tags. That's good, because it would be a catastrophe for the cells in your liver to suddenly think they were skin cells.
Throughout your life, particularly from fetal development to adolescence, the hormones produced by your body's endocrine system will determine or influence things like whether you present female or male secondary sex characteristics, your level of alertness or anxiety, your rate of growth, your fertility, the absorption or release of calcium and phosphorus from your bones, your sugar and fat and sodium metabolism, your blood pressure, your inflammation response, etc., etc., etc., even suppress your immune system. In short, it's physiology's original BFD, with which you should not recklessly frak.
... Using lab mice, vom Saal has studied the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including bisphenol-A, ... In vom Saal's recent study, which he will present at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), he found that endocrine-disrupting chemicals cause mice to be born at very low birth weights and then gain abnormally large amounts of weight in a short period of time, more than doubling their body weight in just seven days. Vom Saal followed the mice as they got older and found that these mice were obese throughout their lives. He said studies of low-birth-weight children have shown a similar overcompensation after birth, resulting in lifelong obesity.
... More research must be done to determine which chemicals cause this effect. According to vom Saal, there are approximately 55,000 manmade chemicals in the world, and 1,000 of those might fall into the category of endocrine disrupting. These chemicals are found in common products, from plastic bottles and containers to pesticides and electronics. ...
Vom Saal explains that the bodies of the affected mice were pre-programmed to expect starvation and simply don't let go of excess calories, all evidence to the contrary that they could get more if they wanted to. Starvation being really bad for bodies, and all that, our endocrine systems, including fatty tissue, secrete hormones that tell us when we should go eat something so we won't keel over. Usually, this works pretty well, sometimes something breaks. Or gets broken.
Anyway, there are a lot of moving parts in an endocrine system, plenty to break.
Frakking with our fat metabolism
The American public has been told for decades that if they want to be healthy and thin, they need to lower their fat intake and get off their bums. Not true, didn't work.
As Michael Pollan noted when discussing 2001 lipid chemistry research, there's no correlation at all between coronary heart disease (CHD) and saturated fat intake, or between CHD and cholesterol consumption, nor any evidence that a low-fat diet is good for everyone. Except in the sense that all food and drink should be consumed in moderation, there's no reason to be alarmed by a liking for bacon. (Unless that bacon is preserved with nitrates. We'll get around to nitrates in a minute.) The only fats with a positive link to CHD are trans-fats, processed, hydrogenated fats that were sold to the public as healthful alternatives to the scary saturated fats that have been revealed not to be a health threat in the first place.
Trans fats, which are basically vegetable oils with a little extra hydrogen (and there was already hydrogen there, so it didn't seem like that big a deal,) may have killed as many as 30,000 Americans per year in its heyday because our physiology just isn't suited to it and doesn't seem to be able to digest it properly.
As the research Pollan quotes concluded, it's not so much the amount of fat in the diet, but the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids (more) to omega-6 fatty acids (less.) There's more to it, but it so happens that the diet people ate when we were hunter-gatherers and herders was pretty damn healthy for us, fat and all, even without much in the way of the seed grains that make up so much of our diet now.
Even eggs? No problem. What about the cholesterol in eggs, isn't it a particularly dangerous kind of fat? No. Cholesterol in the diet gets almost entirely broken down into simple fatty acids in the intestines, and the rest of the cholesterol in your body is made in your very own liver for hormone metabolism, among other things. Which is to say that dietary cholesterol isn't directly connected to bodily levels of cholesterol. Cholesterol a useful substance in the right proportions, we're well able to fully digest it safely, and it's nothing to be afraid of in moderation.
Ok, what about exercise and fat metabolism? Yeah, that's not necessarily much help. Exercise may be fun, it may be otherwise good for you, but there's no provable, direct link between the amount of exercise someone does and the amount of fat they carry in their adipose tissue. But wait, isn't the country overweight because we've all been sitting around too much? No, children are as active, and adults more active, than they were in the 1970s. We've all just been eating more.
Really, eating more junk food, which is to say sugar. It's really not the fat? No. As Dr. Lustig explains in the video below, when nutritionists told the public to eat less fat, people ate less fat, cutting consumption from 40% to 30% of dietary intake. So we exercise more and we eat less fat, but almost everyone's still getting bigger. WTF?
Sugar consumption has more to do with fat than fat consumption? Yes. In nature, sugar always comes with a lot of fiber, but now we often have it in quantity with bleached, refined, nutrition-stripped mush. Most humans can't safely tolerate prolonged exposure to high concentrations of sugar, weren't built for it.
If you're a compulsive label-reader like I am, you know that sugar is in damn near everything and I don't just mean obvious dessert foods. It's not a poison, as such, but at the levels it's put into the American diet, you could call it that.
What would happen if you put a ton of high-energy sugary foods in front of a bunch of people whose endocrine systems have been disrupted so they're more likely to think they're starving? Hmm, I wonder.
The obesity epidemic is almost certainly multi-causal, I won't argue otherwise. But a crisis of personal responsibility, not so much.
Frakking with our junk
I mentioned up there a ways that our endocrine systems also deal with reproduction. That's an understatement. Our gonads are part of our endocrine systems, so tampering with hormones often means directly interfering with reproductive fitness.
Here's biologist Sandra Steingraber talking about another serious, multi-causal problem likely exacerbated by our society's weird-ass chemical bath, early puberty in girls:
... All of the stressors that appear to contribute to early puberty in girls -- obesity, television viewing, sedentariness, family dysfunction, preterm birth, formula-feeding, chemical exposures -- are higher in poor communities and communities of color where poverty, racism, unemployment, and toxic substance exposures are high and access to nourishing food and safe places to exercise is low. In particular, U.S. black children are disproportionately exposed to physical environmental stressors, and it is also this group that reaches puberty earliest among U.S. girls.
... Chemicals in the environment may indirectly contribute to early puberty by shortening gestation time, lowering birth weight, and increasing risks for obesity and insulin disregulation -- all of which, in turn, may increase the risk for early puberty. The extent to which environmental chemicals are contributing to changes in human pubertal development remains largely unknown, but the underlying science is sound and the potential for such effects is real.
... Hormonally active agents are found in many other consumer products as well as in pesticides, packaging, and building materials. Hence, apart from accidental, one-time exposures, children are also exposed continuously to low-level endocrine disruptors in their diets, drinking water, and air supply ...
I attended a talk by Steingraber in 2007, and she said that the miscarriage rates in farming communities during spraying season could increase to 50%. She said that, whatever the audience's views on abortion, everyone could probably agree that it was wrong to terminate so many pregnancies without the mothers' consent, but that's exactly what happens.
The general population tends to be exposed to farm chemicals at much lower levels, but the effect shouldn't be a surprise: the whole point of pesticides is to decrease the reproductive fitness of the target species. You might think we'd be safe, but our biology has more in common with weeds and insects and fungi than you'd guess by looking at us.
I mean, maybe there aren't any bad human effects from exposure to the common weed-killer, atrazine, which has been shown to chemically castrate frogs. But maybe there are. According to the book, "Toxic Deception," by Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle, atrazine has been associated with higher cancer rates since the 1970s, particularly cancers of the breast, ovaries and uterus, which has been suspected to be related to its interference with hormone metabolism.
Yet atrazine is allowed to contaminate our food, our water, and the feed that's given to our livestock. But hey, I'm sure increased rates of breast cancer are entirely due to the fact that women don't take care of their health.
Atrazine is also one of the toxins suspected of being related to declining sperm counts, which aren't geographically uniform, but seem to be worse in regions with higher pesticide exposure concentrations.
Endocrine disruptors that mess with reproductive fitness don't even have to be of the exotic toxic chemical variety.
Genetically modified corn, which the US population has been eating, unlabeled, for over a decade, has been linked to lower birth rates in a long-term feeding trial on mice. Genetic modification basically takes genes that were already in food and mixes them randomly into the gene of some other crop. It sounds simple, it even sounds like it could be useful, in theory.
The biotech companies say they test the resulting frankenfoods for safety, but they tend to do slapdash, short-term, you-won't-drop-dead-on-contact kind of safety studies and their licensing agreements explicitly restrict independent studies. Also, biotech companies fund nearly all the university crop science programs, so good luck getting anti-biotech conclusions past your Monsanto-sponsored thesis advisor. Welcome to one of the perverse side effects of cutting government funding for higher education and letting the market take care of it.
That long-term feeding study on GM corn was conducted by the Austrian government. It came out many, many years after GM corn was approved as safe by US regulators, over the objections of agency scientists, and apparently without even very basic feeding trials of sufficient length to identify reproductive health effects.
Guess what else genetically modified crops do, though: increase pesticide application. Oh sure, it goes down at first, but then resistant weed and insect populations emerge and application rates can spike even higher than they were before the pest resistant, or herbicide tolerant, GM crops were introduced. Hello, atrazine and friends!
Though I can do that one better, because not only do you not have to synthesize exotic compounds or genetically engineer food to mess with human reproductive fitness, you can just expose us to too many free nitrates, which are a long way from weird:
... The list of health afflictions possibly linked to nitrate overexposure includes infant death, miscarriage, birth defects, diabetes, thyroid disease, and cancer. ...
Also, did you know that it's legal to sell mine tailings and recycled gypsum wallboard as "inert" ingredients in fertilizer? Well, it is, as Duff Wilson chronicles in the book, "Fateful Harvest." You can see how it would be much more cost effective to sell the stuff as a useful product than it would be to pay for proper disposal. Asbestos, lead, chromium, arsenic, uranium, nickel and cadmium are natural by any definition, but I don't want them spread in high concentrations on crop soils that might grow the food I eat.
Yes, people should try to eat what they want in moderation and stop when they feel full, cut out sweet drinks, even diet soda, enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables, avoid smoking, get out of the house, get upoff that chair, enjoy alcohol in moderation, get a reasonable amount of rest and drink enough water. It seems very likely that these things are generally helpful to good health and recovery from illness, or so I'm told, what with not being a doctor.
Just don't assume that when people are unwell or carrying more weight than they would like, that it's because they're too lazy to take care of themselves. They might diligently take very good care of themselves, and they might be sick anyway.
The fact that any of us are healthy at all anymore is more a testament to human resilience than an endorsement for the industries who are bathing us in toxic swill.