Obesity: Maybe We Share Some of the Blame

By Barbara Quinn
The Monterey Herald
Tuesday, November 21, 2006

When I was a kid, my mom would joke with us when she'd come home from the grocery store with certain items half-eaten.

"Would you look at this?" she'd say with a straight face as she unpacked the grocery bags. "Someone opened this package of cookies . . . and some are missing! I may have to go back to the store and complain to the manager."

We'd say something like, "That's terrible that they would sell you an opened bag of cookies!" And then we'd all smile.

I thought about that as I read an article titled, "Why are we obese? New causes considered" in a nutrition newsletter from the University of California at Davis.

The idea that we're too fat because we eat too much and exercise too little is based largely on "circumstantial evidence," according to a recent report in the International Journal of Obesity. Investigators from the University of Alabama point to at least 10 other possible reasons we are getting too big for our britches. Here are the top three:

· We don't get enough sleep. Studies on animals and humans have shown that too little sleep increases the appetite. And we are getting less sleep -- about seven hours a night for the average adult, compared with nine hours a few decades ago. Interestingly, this reduced amount of sleep coincides with the rising tide of obesity. Other studies have found that fewer hours of sleep at night are associated with being overweight.

· We have more air conditioning. As the temperature goes up, appetite goes down and we tend to burn more calories, say scientists (and people who live in the Bahamas). But when air conditioning keeps temperatures even, so the thinking goes, our bodies expend less energy (calories) to stay cool. In the South, researchers note that the number of homes with central air conditioning rose from 37 percent to 90 percent over the past 20 years . . . right along with skyrocketing rates of obesity.

· Our hormones have been disrupted. DDT, PCBs and other industrial chemicals can mess up our metabolism, scientists say. Maybe that's why we're too fat.

Just like my mom's missing-cookie story, these may be some of the reasons for our national roly-polyness. But let us also not forget that we, Mr. and Mrs. America and our children, suck down 300 more calories every day than we did 20 years ago, enough for each of us to gain an average of 30 pounds a year. Experts say there is "definitely a connection" between our fatness and our intake of too much food.

What can we do about it? Get enough sleep. Don't get too comfortable in an air-conditioned house. Stay away from toxic chemicals. And admit we ate the cookies.

Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California.

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