Most of us have at one point or another found ourselves wishing we were a bit slimmer. We’ve tried exercise and healthy eating, or maybe the buzziest fad diets—from Paleo to Atkins to South Beach to the Ice Cream Diet—and either the results aren’t what we hoped, or the effects are too short-lived.
The dangers of unhealthy eating habits and weight gain go far beyond vanity. The Canadian Diabetes Association reported that around 8.6% of Canadians are diabetic (with another million estimated to be living unknowingly with the disease) and the number is expected to rise to 10.8% by 2020. A report released last week added that Canada ranks poorly when it comes to diabetes and obesity compared to other countries.
The twist? It may not be our fault.
So what’s the problem? With North America’s growing and well-documented obesity epidemic, it seems that we can point an accusing finger at everything from emotional eating, to a sluggish thyroid, to quitting smoking.
In recent years, researchers have proclaimed the role that genetics plays in where and how much you store fat, and genes certainly can’t be discounted. Some of us have even breathed a sigh of relief that our pear-or-apple-shaped selves could be attributed to something so utterly out of our hands.
But the issue is far more complex than that, and you might be surprised by the amount of influence that society and even foods that are marketed towards helping you lose weight might have.
In 2011, two studies unearthed an unlikely culprit for expanding waistlines: diet soda. After following diet soda drinkers aged 65 to 74 for almost 10 years, researchers found that their waists grew a whopping 70% more than non-soda drinkers, and that those who drank two or more sodas a day were particularly at risk.
The other study, done on mice, found that after just 3 months, those who consumed aspartame had higher blood sugar levels than those who did not. The aspartame in diet sodas actually triggers appetite, and its sweeteners might dull your brain cells’ ability to feel full. Not to mention that, according to Huffington Post, another animal study found that sugar is more addictive than cocaine.
In 2012, additional research found that diet soda also messes with your metabolism by disrupting the gut flora, and not only confusing your body’s satiety signals, but also potentially contributing to inflammation throughout your body. Oh, and if this isn’t scary enough, BPA, which is found in cans and plastic bottles might also be contributing to your risk of obesity and diabetes (not to mention allegedly affecting your fertility).
So, something dubbed “diet” isn’t diet at all, but soda isn’t alone. Dieters, despite their best intentions, are extremely vulnerable to marketing buzzwords and packaging lies. A 2011 study found that dieters train themselves to avoid food they believe will be unhealthy for them, but a milkshake by any other name might just be a smoothie. Researchers presented dieters with the same product called either “candy chews” or “fruit chews,” and dieters predictably thought the candy chews were less healthy based on name alone.
Then there’s vegging out in front of the television after a long day. We all know that a sedentary lifestyle is bad for more than just your weight, but the correlation between hours of TV watched and weight gain isn’t as simple as previously thought: unless, that is, your favorite show involves cooking and baking. One study showed that people who watched cooking shows were “significantly” more likely to reach for unhealthy snacks, while another study done on undergraduates found that when watching animated programs that showed food on-screen, dieters not only ate more, but were much more likely to reach for snacks when food was shown on-screen.
Snacking isn’t the only lifestyle choice impacting your dress size, either. People who are sleep-deprived will eat more and are more likely to reach for junk food. They also exhibit poor impulse control—just what’s needed to turn down donuts at the office.
Even the modern conveniences we take for granted might be bad for you—namely your trusty thermostat. One very simple way to get your body working with you on your weight loss goals is to turn down the temperature in your home. This will activate “brown fat” in your body, which will burn calories as it heats you up.
If you’re having trouble losing weight, your friends might also be to blame. Amongst groups of overweight friends, you’d expect there to be a social norm, or a kind of herd mentality, but a study of 101 females and 812 of their friends and family members showed that obesity doesn’t spread within social groups because of shared opinions as previously thought. The researchers found that although most had similar BMIs, when asked questions about which other body types and other socially stigmatizing conditions they would prefer, most said they would prefer not to be obese and nearly 50% said they would rather lose five years of their life.
The real focus shouldn’t be on weight, but on establishing and maintaining healthy eating habits. A 2012 study showed that fixating on weight as a teenager (and really, what teenager doesn’t) makes people, and especially women, far more likely to become overweight as an adult because they develop unhealthy eating habits and experience greater psychosocial stress.
So, is it my fault I’m fat? Yes and no. Concern with body image has reached a troubling peak, but when we all as a society are focusing on are numbers on a scale or the fit of a skirt, we’re missing the point somewhat: that food is intended as an enjoyable form of fuel for our bodies. The wealth of fad diets and quick fixes (which might cause irreparable harm to your long-term metabolic potential) have created a culture where results are expected faster, despite not being physically sustainable. So slow down, go back to basics, and listen to your body when it comes to stress, sleep, and especially food.