Other Factors Affecting Body Weight

When it comes to managing weight, however, genes are not destiny. Genes simply create a person’s susceptibility to being overweight or underweight or average. This makes it easier for some people to stay at a healthy weight than it is for others. But the main cause of modern obesity lies in the collision between the body’s ancient means to survive in times of famine and the western abundance and lifestyle.

Modern food is tasty, convenient, moderately priced, and almost always available. That makes the experience of eating more akin to recreation than to survival for many people. Americans also spend more time than ever before
in sedentary pursuits—watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing video games, and driving. That adds up to greater caloric intake than output and weight gain, even among young children.

Urban density is another contributing factor. More and more people leave rural communities to live closer together in bigger buildings and larger suburbs and cities. They have fewer safe places to walk, play, and practice the activities that promote fitness.

Lastly, schools are cutting back on physical education programs. Only 6 to 8 percent of public schools provide what physical education advocates recommend as essential to healthy physical development—gym classes five times a week. And in places where school budgets are tight, physical education is often one of the first programs to be cut. That leaves many students living in cities and suburbs with few chances to exercise at all.

People also must deal with psychological and emotional factors linked with obesity. For some people, overeating has become an easy distraction from negative emotions such as boredom, sadness, loneliness, or anger. Recent studies show that eating foods high in fats and sugars calms nerves and relieves stress, if only for a short while. That may explain why so many people in stressful modern society seem almost compulsively driven to eat junk food. Eating also has profound psychological links to parental love. Nurturing parents are the first to feed us and to worry over us. So eating often carries memories of security and being cared for.

Food is also a form of self-medication for people suffering from the winter depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a condition linked to fewer hours of sunlight and longer hours of darkness in winter. People with SAD report that they are driven to eat and sleep to excess.

Lastly, sleep deprivation (anything less than seven to nine hours within each twenty-four-hour cycle) has been linked to increased cravings for candy, sweets, salty chips, and French fries. Apparently the desire to snack is driven by a sharp drop in leptin levels when people are chronically tired.

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