Researchers link obesity to dietary changes from decades ago
KNOXVILLE, Tenn., U.S.: The obesity epidemic in the U.S has reached a new level of severity. Supersized food portions and an inactive lifestyle are often blamed for the problem. However, researchers from the University of Tennessee Knoxville (UTK) have put forward a new contention, highlighting dietary changes that took place decades ago.
“While most public health studies focus on current behaviors and diets, we took a novel approach and looked at how the diets we consumed in our childhood affect obesity levels now that we are adults,” said Dr. Alex Bentley, head of UTK’s Department of Anthropology and lead author of the study.
One of the main focal points in the obesity debate has been the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks. This has been identified as a leading cause of obesity in children and adults; however, the researchers conducting this recent study said that the information available does not quite match this conclusion. According to the study, one problem with the theory is that sugar consumption in the U.S. began to decline in the late 1990s, and obesity rates continued to rise well into the 2010s.
“Since the 1970s, many available infant foods have been extremely high in sugar,” said Prof. Hillary Fouts, co-author of the study and cultural anthropologist in the UTK Department of Child and Family Studies. “Other independent studies in medicine and nutrition have suggested that sugar consumption during pregnancy can cause an increase in fat cells in children,” she continued. The researchers stated that this idea has not been explored and that they believe that the temporal delay between increased sugar consumption and rising obesity rates may have more of a connection.
Following this narrative, the researchers modeled the increase in U.S. adult obesity that has taken place since the 1990s as a legacy of the increased excess sugar consumption measured among children in the 1970s and 1980s. Testing the model on national obesity data collected between 2004 and 1990 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the team then compared those obesity rates with annual sugar consumption since 1970 using the median per capita rates issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Sugar increase in the diet before 2000 was from high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which after 1970 quickly become the main sweetener in soft drinks and a common ingredient in processed foods. According to the results, peak sugar consumption was in 1999, at which point, each person in the U.S. consumed on average around 27 kg of HFCS per year and more than 400 calories per day in total excess sugars. However, since 2000, sugar consumption has declined, and if 2016 turns out to be the peak in the obesity rate, that is one generation after the peak in excess sugar consumption. The researchers believe that this would be an interesting development.
The study, titled “U.S. obesity as delayed effect of excess sugar,” was published online on Sept. 17, 2019, in Economics and Human Biology, ahead of inclusion in an issue.