Obesity is a hot topic in the news lately. Theories about obesity's causes are being discussed every day on television and radio, in newspapers and magazines, and by people on the street. My local bookstore's window displays "Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World," "Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America's Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It" and Dr. Phil's "The Ultimate Weight Loss Solution."
Scientists at the University of California at San Francisco have just confirmed that the tendency to overeat high-calorie "comfort foods" when we are chronically stressed is biologically programmed. When we experience a stressful situation, hormones are released by our adrenal glands, making us feel anxious. If we experience chronic stress, our stress hormone levels remain consistently high.
This high level of stress hormones makes us crave high-calorie sugary and fatty foods. Overeating these types of foods ultimately causes weight gain and an increase in abdominal fat. This extra abdominal fat sends a signal to the brain that blunts the effect of these stress hormones and makes us feel better.
Fortunately, the UCSF researchers list other ways to relieve chronic stress: "exercise, yoga, meditation, sex and baths" among them. Recognizing the symptoms of chronic stress - such as cravings for "comfort food," headaches, backaches, fatigue, lower resistance to infection and high blood pressure - and making positive changes in your life is an ongoing challenge.
I tend to subscribe to the theory that physical inactivity is a major cause of stress and obesity. Our country is so car-centered that we have become a sedentary nation. New housing developments are built without sidewalks. Neighborhood markets and walkable downtowns are being squeezed out by Wal-Marts and huge shopping centers that are accessible only by car.
When we are in our cars, we tend to be in a hurry. We get impatient at other drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians who make us slow down. Our stress levels go up, stimulating our need to get to the store to buy potato chips and ice cream.
Americans travel by walking or biking much less frequently than Europeans. Here, the costs of cars, gas and parking are about half of what they are in Europe, and the automotive industry lobbies to keep it this way. It's no surprise that countries such as The Netherlands, Sweden and Germany have much lower rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, than the United States.
When cities and towns are planned to accommodate people on foot or bikes, people are more likely to get out of their cars. Just look at the success of the riverfront walkways in both Pendleton and Astoria. City planners know that if you give people a pleasant, safe place to walk or bike, they will come.
A friend of mine who was born and raised in Russia has a completely different idea about the causes of obesity. Boris' ancestors endured starvation prior to the Russian Revolution. He believes that obesity in America is the result of a conspiracy by the wealthy and powerful to maintain their positions.
Boris' theory is that fat people are complacent and not inclined toward voting, much less revolution. So, the powers that be in America are doing all they can to keep the American people sedated: free television, plentiful low-cost high-calorie fast food, plus plenty of consumer goods and celebrity-focused news to keep everyone blissfully ignorant of what is really going on in the nation.
What do you think?
Kathryn B. Brown is a family nurse practitioner with a master's degree in nursing from OHSU. Is there a health topic you would like to read about? Send your idea to firstname.lastname@example.org.