I try not to mix my personal life with this blog, but I’ve been looking for a girlfriend lately. Problem is, I live in a midwestern area and the options are…well let’s just say, discouraging. Specifically, the women I’ve come across in real life and on dating sites tend to be a bit on the heavy side. Hey, I may be a liberal, but that doesn’t mean I want to date everybody.
And I don’t want to make it sound like it’s just women, because men are getting fatter too. Everyone is, and the obesity epidemic has been getting quite a bit of press lately. But what hasn’t been getting as much attention as the rise itself is why it’s happening. Usually there’s some expert that will give some slightly educated guess like our sedentary lifestyle or the availability of fast food.
But does that explain it? Take a look at the graph to the right (from the CDC). As you can see, obesity was relatively flat until the late 1970s – then it suddenly shifted to a much higher rate of increase. What that suggests, of course, is that something happened in the 70s. In fact, the childhood obesity rate began it’s rise in the early 70s, and since children are more prone to fast weight changes, that may mark the beginning of what that “something” is.
Of course, if this were due to our sedentary lifestyle, there shouldn’t be a sudden shift in the 70s, because the transition to a sedentary lifestyle has been going on much, much, longer than that. Moreover, children should not have had obesity rates rise at the same rates as adults, since they would be less effected by changes in the workforce and use of automobiles (although they would remain effected by things like TV, which reduce exercise activity). Fast food eating, likewise, has been increasing as long as automobile use has been increasing – long before the 1970s.
But state-by-state, there’s a very odd trend: the rise in obesity has been far worse in red states in recent years. I’m not joking. Take a look at this animated gif on Wikipedia. At first, there is no noticeable difference between red and blue states. However, starting in the 90s, red states start to become noticeably worse. It doesn’t seem to the South because Alaska seems to have been affected too. Meanwhile, the most stable state is Hawaii, probably the most liberal other than DC. West Virginia is an interesting outlier as it is not much of a red state but seems to have done quite poorly.
Now I can’t help but make a downright silly connection here. What has been increasing since the 1970s and especially in red states? Reagan-era, small-government Republicanism. But that’s obviously not it. What else could explain it? One thing comes to mind: stricter environmental controls in blue states.
So following the admittedly somewhat dubious assumption that a regulated chemical is to blame, it would make sense that the culprit is a chemical that was regulated more heavily by blue states since at least the mid-90s, and has been increasingly prevalent in the environment starting suddenly in the 1970s.
When I try to go beyond this point and actually figure out what chemical that could be, I get lost in the massive array of chemicals that have entered our lives in the last few years. I’d imagine that drinking water – which can be subject to state regulation and where chemicals can build up – would be a potential culprit. However, trying to comb through the huge list of contaminants that might appear in drinking water is a hopeless cause. Of course, air pollutants could just as easily be a factor. If I was a chemist that knew about these chemicals offhand, I’d try it, but I’m not, so I won’t.
The simple fact is, since the end of World War II, we’ve started putting all sorts of shit into our environment, and there’s no way to keep them out of our bodies. I would be greatly surprised if there are no health effects as a result, and it makes sense that the obesity epidemic could be one such effect.
NOTE (3/5/12): It seems like the possibility of a chemical cause of obesity is not exactly news in the scientific world. I’ve found at least a few articles suggesting that toxin exposure, particularly “endocrine disruptors,” might be to blame. This article, for example, points out that prenatal chemical exposure in particular may be responsible, which would explain the fact that the obesity epidemic seemed to start with children as explained above. Also, as many pesticides contain endocrine disruptors, it may explain some of the red-state connection, due to the farming-based economies and lax environmental regulations. In fact, red states with non-farming economies in the Southwest don’t have nearly as much of an obesity problem. To wildly speculate even further, perhaps concentration toxins flowing down the Mississippi river may play a role, and might explain why the fattest state by a substantial margin is…Mississippi. See also this more recent article, which makes similar connections between endocrine disruptors and obesity. However, despite the media’s tendency to report on virtually any “intriguing” study with reckless abandon, mentions of this sort of thing seems limited to a minor papers and blogs. However, there seems to be a rising amount of attention to this topic in recent months. No thanks to me though, this article’s gotten like 5 hits.
ANOTHER NOTE (5/1/12): I recently stumbled across a very informative wikipedia article about Obesogens, which are basically what they sound like: chemicals that make you fat. Judging from the history it looks like it expanded heavily a couple of months after I wrote this post, so that probably explains why I didn’t find it earlier. It just reemphasizes what I said in the note above: when I wrote this post I thought it was just some crazy-sounding theory I had that chemicals are making us fat, but it turns out the scientific community has been researching this for a number of years. Unfortunately the media mostly continues to discuss obesity as if its a motivational crisis rather than an environmental one.