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Why Are People Getting Fatter?

The World Health Organization reported last year that more than one billion people worldwide are overweight (300 million of them are obese and 22 million are children under the age of five). No wonder health professionals are concerned. Consider the following troubling statistics from the American Obesity Association Conference held in September.

In China, 12 percent of the men and 16 percent of the women are obese; in Malaysia, 3 out of 10 men are obese and in the Philippines, it's 1 in 10.

In Mexico, more than half the population is overweight and 23 percent are obese. In Egypt, 35 percent are obese; in Saudi Arabia, 16 percent of the men and 24 percent of the women are overweight.

Even Africa, which is usually associated with famine and starvation, is not spared. Obesity has caught up with the urban areas, too.

It looks like getting fat is a contagious disease that is being spread by a virus or bacteria. Well, in a sense, it is a disease because being overweight and obese is associated with so many life-threatening conditions like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and certain cancers.

Health professionals have good reasons to be worried since they know it will take quite an effort to stop the escalating figures.

The reason for this obesity epidemic is not a simple one that can be traced to a single source. Here are several theories to explain why whole populations are gaining weight.

Urbanization
In rural areas, most of the livelihood opportunities involve being physically active. Rural folk eat mostly homegrown food.

There are no supermarkets or restaurants to buy from. Lifestyles change when the area becomes urbanized.

Factories and offices offer jobs that no longer require much physical movement. Groceries soon set up shop because the local people can now afford to buy their products. Fast food chains move into town. The urbanization effect on a rural lifestyle means increased incomes but it also means increased waistlines.

It is believed that many people have "thrifty" genes that cause them to store calories easily and burn calories at a slower rate.

The scientists who espouse this theory explain that these thrifty genes were helpful when people lived in an environment that involved doing hard physical labor and eating unprocessed food.

But the thrifty genes have become a health hazard because the world has changed and people now have access to highly processed calorie-rich foods and live a sedentary lifestyle.

The Pima Indians of Arizona and Mexico are often used as an example of this theory because they are genetically similar but live in different environments.

The Arizona Pima Indians live a typical American life and the result is 75 percent of them are obese by the time they are in their 20s.

Their Mexican cousins live in a world similar to their ancestors where the men average 40 hours a week of hard physical work and the women, 90 hours a week of backbreaking household chores. Their diet consist of tortillas, vegetables and little meat. Fat only makes 23 percent of their daily diet. Because of their lifestyle, they weigh 50 pounds less than their American relatives.

Fast food culture
Fast food is now available in malls, supermarkets, gas stations, airports and schools. Competing chains are located in regular intervals through every major city. This was not the situation 20 years ago. The fast food trend has been called the Americanization of the world's eating habits.

Fast food restaurants are necessary for a highly mobile society that needs cheap, clean and accessible food. Unfortunately, most of the food being served is high in fat, refined flour and sugar. A classic example is the combo of burger, fries and soft drink.

Addicting as heroin
Some scientists believe that the high sugar and fat contents of fast food and snack food may be as addicting as heroin. Right now, there is no proof of this in humans but it has been proven in rats.

A Princeton University study found that rats eating a diet composed of 25 percent sugar had withdrawal symptoms like chattering teeth and the "shakes," which are similar to symptoms experienced by people who stop taking nicotine or heroin.

Meanwhile, a University of Wisconsin study found that rats fed with sweet, salty and fatty food developed permanent brain changes similar to heroin addicts. The rats became so addicted that they ate six times more fat than they normally would.

I wonder what health officials are going to do if it can be proven in the future that humans can become addicted to food high in fat and sugar? It will surely be an explosive political and economic dilemma because an astronomic amount of money is at stake in the sale of fast food and junk food.

More restaurants are offering super-sized portions because it is popular with consumers who believe they are getting more value for their money since a supersized version of the regular-sized order can be had for just a slight increase in price.

If the supersized order is shared among friends or family members, money and calories are saved. However, many people end up finishing the whole thing by themselves.

In experiments conducted by consumer psychologist Brian Wansink, participants ate considerably more when they were given extra large portions.

People don't realize just how many more calories they are eating. A normal-sized order of a burger, fries and a 12-ounce softdrink has about 590 calories. A super-sized version of that same order has approximately 1,550 calories.

Media pressure
You can run but you cannot hide from food ads. They are everywhere. You see them on TV and you hear them on radio. They are in newspapers and magazines, and on billboards.

As obesity expert Theodore Vanitallie of Columbia University said in a United States News and World Report, "Man used to hunt for his food. Now food hunts man."

The food industry and their ad agencies are creating new markets for food products that are "wants" and not "needs" for our bodies.

Fruits and vegetables are things our bodies need to be healthy. Potato chips and doughnuts are things our tongues want but our bodies can do very well without.

In the US, the company that makes a popular snack called Twinkie has gone one step further to boost sales by offering a fried version. One nutritionist called it the height of decadence since a fried Twinkie has 160 percent more calories than the original version.

Food Pyramid Theory
The anti-carb diet gurus blame the US government's food pyramid for the increase in obesity. They say that the food pyramid's emphasis on eating more carbohydrates and less fat led people to believe that they could eat as many carbohydrates as they wanted because they are fat-free.

The creators of the food pyramid recommended eating whole grains, fruits, and vegetables as sources of carbohydrates. Unfortunately, the public did not read the fine print and interpreted this to mean unlimited servings of refined carbohydrates like white bread, bagels, pasta, etc.

Matters became worse when the food industry created thousands of non-fat and low-fat products that contained almost as many calories as the original versions due to the high sugar and refined flour content.

Dr. Barbara Rolls of Penn State proved in experiments that people will eat more when they are told that the food is low in fat because they think they are saving calories.

The cell phone, Internet, computer games, fax and other high-tech gadgets have changed our lives. If you were in college 20 years ago, you would have burned many calories going back and forth to the library to do research.

Today, all you have to do is sit at your computer and use a search engine website. You can literally let your fingers do the walking for you.

Lack of physical activity is one of the big reasons why people easily get fat.

Unfortunately, many people have no time to do formal exercise like going to a gym or even exercise at home because of their work. Their jobs don't require them to move much. Their surroundings are not conducive to even walk around because of pollution and security risks. When they get home, they are so tired all they want to do is flop down on the couch and watch TV.

Suggested solutions
Stopping the rise in obesity is a formidable task similar to the anti-smoking campaign, according to the US Surgeon General David Satcher. He says it is going to take a concerted effort among health professionals, educators and the food industry.

Suggested solutions are a higher tax on fast food and junk food, government subsidy to make fruits and vegetables cheaper, tighter controls on food ads aimed at children, banning fast food and junk food from schools, requiring restaurant menus to state how many calories their food contains, lower insurance rates for people who exercise, requiring companies to provide exercise opportunities for their employees, etc.

In short, it's going to take some drastic measures to stop the growing menace of obesity.

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