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Are We More Susceptible to Obesity Than Before?

CDC Obesity Map 2014Regular readers will be familiar with my wariness of epidemiological data on diet and activity – especially, when these are self-reported.

Nevertheless, for what it is worth, a publication by Ruth Brown and colleagues from York University, Toronto, published in Obesity Research and Clinical Practice, suggests that people today may be more susceptible to obesity than just a few decades ago.

The study looks at self-reported dietary from 36,377 U.S. adults from the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES) between 1971 and 2008 and physical activity frequency data from 14,419 adults between 1988 and 2006 (no activity data was available from earlier years).

Between 1971 and 2008, BMI, total caloric intake and carbohydrate intake increased 10-14%, and fat and protein intake decreased 5-9%.

Between 1988 and 2006, frequency of leisure time physical activity increased 47-120%.

However, for a given amount of caloric intake, macronutrient intake or leisure time physical activity, the predicted BMI was up to 2.3kg/m2 higher in 2006 that in 1988.

So unless there was some major systematic shift in what people were reporting (which seems somewhat unlikely) it is clear that factors other than diet and physical activity may be contributing to the increase in BMI over time – or in other words, it appears that people today, for the same caloric intake and physical activity, are more likely to have a higher BMI than people living a few decades ago.

There are of course several plausible biological explanations for these findings including epigenetics, obesogenic environmental toxins, alterations in gut microbiota to name a few.

If nothing else, these data support the notion that there is more to the obesity epidemic than just eating too much and not moving enough.

Edmonton, AB


  1. Thank you for highlighting the likely multi-root causes of a complex problem. It’s a good reminder that many of us will have to address multiple things. Whatever they are.

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  2. I don’t have access to the full text, so I am asking you: did they adjust for age (increase in average age in the population)?

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    • Also, are you AM Sharma, the second author? If so, why do you say “they” and not “we”?

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        • Own it, my friend!

          Research is hard, publishing is an accomplishement. You’re more than allowed to be proud!

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  3. Maybe people became more aware of their bad health habits and therefore self-reported data changed in the late 90s. Wouldn’t exclude that.

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  4. It seems pretty clear to me that the amount of Fructose (esp. HFCS) and Glucose in our diet is the main problem. Robert Lustig wrote about it some ten years ago and we still can’t fight back the epidemic, especially in developing countries. Too much sugar, not enough protein. The recommendations of the WHO are a joke.

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