Weighing the Facts

Why Are Millennials Carrying More Weight?

We all know someone living with it. In fact, it is probably safe to say 39% of the people reading this article are dealing with it in their own life. It’s more common than cancer, more common than just about any other condition. And it’s killing those who have it in ways they are probably not even aware of. Obesity. It is the number one factor leading to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and a myriad of other complications including certain types of cancers. While other national health crises, like opioid addiction, receive more media attention, obesity continues to rise and kill more people every year in the US. In fact, it’s one of the biggest contributors to healthcare costs in the US with $147 billion estimated per year. The most disturbing fact, however, is this condition is becoming one of the most common causes of illness and cancer in those born since 1981 – Millennials and Gen-Y.

Millennials / Gen-Y and Obesity

Recent studies in the UK are predicting Millennials and Gen-Y will be the most overweight generations in recorded history. The contributing factors appear, unsurprisingly, to be a less nutritious diet and a more sedentary lifestyle. This means an increased burden on our healthcare system as obesity leads not only to heart disease, but certain cancers (which are on the rise at earlier ages than ever before), stroke,  diabetes, and countless other conditions which may not be as life-threatening, but do require on-going healthcare such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, as well as back and joint problems which are the result of carrying so much weight.

Millennials and Gen-Y are screen generations. Not only does this make many of them more sedate, they are also subjected to constant advertising for fast food, Instagram photos of plates of food, and videos showing them how to create yummy treats. They are more tied into food culture than any other generation before them. Scroll randomly through Instagram and you are likely to see the meals of countless Millennials, many of them containing foods which contribute to obesity. Scroll through most social media and you are likely to see an equal number of advertisements for keto diets, paleo diets, and countless other lose-for-pay plans. They promise quick results, but the unfortunate truth is while many of these diets may work in the short-term, they are extreme and usually lead to not only gaining the weight back, but the addition of extra weight as well.

A logical solution for this type of person would seem to be something which uses technology. Dr. Oyungerel Byambasuren, of the faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine at Bond University in Australia says there are more than 320,000 fitness and health apps available in Google Play and the App Store. The problem is there is no proof they work, and they do require a long-term commitment from a generation which is used to constantly flipping to the newest thing when they get frustrated, or they lose interest. Wearable fitness devices don’t seem to fare much better when it comes to actually facilitating weight loss. In fact, a recent study by Eric Finkelstein, a professor at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, noted more than 90% of the participants of his study had abandoned use of the devices they were given within a year. “These trackers can encourage people to take more steps, but it still seems like these random extra steps aren’t enough to really improve your health,” Finkelstein said.

There has also been a movement to celebrate and accept the way you are and they way other people look. This is wonderful to teach tolerance and acceptance, and body acceptance is extremely important for mental health, but it has to come with the understanding that if you are overweight, you are sacrificing much of your physical health which is just as important.

Factors Leading to Obesity

Are there other factors besides just being the tech generation which is causing obesity among younger and younger adults? Is there one thing we can point to and say “THAT is the main culprit!”? Let’s think about all the factors which may contribute to anyone’s obesity:

  1. Genetics – Many times you will hear someone say obesity runs in their family, and yes, there could be a slight genetic factor to your body’s propensity toward carrying more weight; however, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, “genetic factors identified so far make only a small contribution to obesity risk-and that our genes are not our destiny: Many people who carry these so-called “obesity genes” do not become overweight, and healthy lifestyles can counteract these genetic effects.”
  2. Activity – the less you move, the more likely you are to be obese.
  3. Stress – It’s not a secret Millennials face challenges their parents could never have foreseen – crippling debt, as well as steady access to the problems of the world, has led many to claim they live in a constant state of stress. It’s a known fact those who are already overweight, or at the upper range of “normal” weight, seem to gain more weight when faced with higher chronic stress levels. Imaging has shown the brain’s natural reward system is activated when comfort foods, which are usually high in sugar and fat, are consumed – similar to an addiction response. They are called “comfort” foods for a reason.
  4. Personal choices – now this may sound like a no-brainer, but we really do control what we put into our bodies and to what extent we allow ourselves to be influenced by social factors, marketing, and advertising. That said, let’s take a look at the next factor, which sort of puts the pressure on how we make these decisions.
  5. Food Manufacturers – There are people within large food manufacturers whose sole job is to figure out ways to trick the body and mind into feeling and thinking that no matter how much you eat, you are not full. These foods, like chips, have been specifically created to be a low-cost, enticing, irresistible food which will meet our perceived needs more than our health needs so the brands they work for can make huge profits. They spend years developing not only the food itself but the best way to influence us to try it. And once we give in the first time and try that delicious, satisfying, salty, fatty, or sugary item, how can we resist having it again if it triggers our brain’s reward centers? How often do you get cravings for rice cakes? Or broccoli? What about mac n cheese? Or a milkshake?  It’s capitalism in its most base form and morals are not part of the equation. An article in the New York Times exposed the truth behind our snack addictions.
  6. Social media “influencers” with large numbers of followers are a great way to reach masses of people without spending a great deal of money. The ones who do it best are able to convince their followers the products in their pics are not there because they being paid to promote it, but because it’s just something in their lives. They may not even mention the product, simply have it in the background.

Obesity by the Numbers – Are You Obese?

No matter what your age, the strain on your heart when you carry extra weight can be measured very simply. Your BMI is a good baseline to predict your risk. While some have argued the BMI formula is flawed because it doesn’t distinguish between fat and muscle when determining your number based on height and weight, it is probably safe to say if you are looking into your risks for heart disease because you fear you may be obese, this is a moot point. So, by standard accepted definitions, a BMI below 25 is considered normal weight; BMI of 25 to 29.9, overweight; and BMI 30 or above, obese.

A study by the American College of Cardiology took a look at 950 older (not defined) individuals of varying weights and BMI’s, using non-invasive echocardiograms to detect any signs of changes to the subjects’ left ventricular structure and function. The results showed a 4% increase in risk for abnormal heart function for every point increase. This should not be surprising when you consider your heart has the all-important job of moving oxygenated blood to all your organs. The larger you are, the more blood your body has to pump. The more blood you have to pump the harder your heart has to work. So if you are obese at 30, even if you don’t gain any weight after that, your odds of on-going health problems grow exponentially as you get older.

How Much Do You Need to Lose?

The best news is many of the conditions which are caused by obesity can be greatly reduced or eliminated by simply making the commitment to get healthier by making better food choices and moving more. In fact, Dr. Samuel Klein at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis researched the benefits when 19 participants who were considered obese lose 5% and more of their weight. “Our findings demonstrate that you get the biggest bang for your buck with 5% weight loss,” Klein says. “If you weigh 200 pounds, you will be doing yourself a favor if you can lose 10 pounds and keep it off. You don’t have to lose 50 pounds to get important health benefits.” The younger you are when you make this commitment, the better your chances for a longer, healthier life.

Make the Choice

When you make the decision to lose weight, it is always a good idea to visit your physician and devise the best plan for the shape you are in. Start small and set attainable goals with realistic expectations. Remember – you can do this, and you are worth it!  

2 Responses to “Weighing the Facts”

February 12, 2019 at 8:43 am, Lisa S said:

Very thorough article. I thought millennials as a group seemed to fill that parameter but is interesting that studies are proving it true.

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February 13, 2019 at 8:25 am, Karen Lied, school nurse said:

In the same way that a legal case was made against tobacco marketers that knew the harmful effects of tobacco addiction and proceeded with aggressive marketing campaigns, a legal case could be applied to food designers and marketers that promote food that is known to be harmful.

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