3 More Reasons Why We’re Fatter Than We Were 30 Years Ago

Back on December 15, 2015, Naturally Savvy published the results of a study from York University in which the researchers made a startling discovery.

Analysis of dietary and exercise data from more than 50,000 individuals led them to report, in essence, that a thirty-something today who consumes 2,000 calories daily and spends two hours per week exercising is likely to be about 10 percent heavier than a thirty-something who lived in the 1980s who followed the same dietary and exercise habits. That is, we’re fatter than we were 30 years ago.

Their findings suggested that factors beyond calories consumed and exercise were responsible for this additional weight. Although the investigators did not conduct any research on these other possibilities, they did mention a few of them, including three discussed previously: use of prescription antidepressants, altered gut environment, and exposure to chemicals. Many readers responded to the story, saying there were other factors not mentioned in the article, and they are right. The topic of overweight and obesity is a complex one, and many factors are involved.

So, here are three more reasons why we’re fatter than we were 30 years ago, two of which were briefly mentioned by the authors of the study. Keep in mind that we are interested in features that have changed over the past few decades.


The relationship between stress and overweight/obesity has been the topic of numerous research studies, and what we’ve learned is this. When we are stressed, the body’s level of serotonin (a “feel good” hormone) drops, which can increase our cravings for carbohydrates (like cookies, chocolate, chips, ice cream…you get the picture).

Also read about how stress makes you fat

Another hormone—cortisol--is affected by stress, except this one can be overproduced when stress is chronic. Chronically high cortisol levels are associated with an accumulation of belly fat, which in turn releases more cortisol, setting off a vicious cycle. Chronic stress also triggers nerve cells to release neuropeptide Y, which can promote additional body fat.

Have stress levels increased over the past 30 years? Experts generally believe they have. For example, Carnegie Mellon University researchers evaluated data gathered from three surveys conducted in 1983, 2006, and 2009 involving more than 6,000 individuals and their level of stress. Overall, the results showed a 10 to 30 percent increase in stress across all demographic categories (gender, age, income, education, ethnicity, employment) over the 26-year period. 

Sleep and Light Exposure

Lack of sufficient sleep and obesity is an unhealthy combination, but one that researchers have documented again and again. In a study of nearly 14,000 adults, investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that adults who slept for 6 or fewer hours per night were more likely to be obese and carry excessive belly fat than those who slept 7 to 9 hours per night.

Read more about sleep deprivation and what to do about it

One factor affecting sleep that has changed over the past three decades is our exposure to light at night; specifically, our obsession with taking our tablets, laptops, cell phones, and iPads to bed with us. Exposure to light from electronic devices (especially close up) has been shown to be detrimental to our health, including sleep quality. These electronic devices emit light in a blue-and-white range, which can suppress the normal nighttime release of the hormone melatonin, thus delaying sleep.

Electromagnetic Fields

Our exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) have increased significantly over the past few decades, primarily because the number of devices with which we intimately interact has grown and now includes cell phones, cell towers, WiFi, wireless laptops, wireless routers, and other electronic devices. But how can EMFs contribute to overweight and obesity?

Read more about EMFs

Dr. Andrew Goldworthy, lecturer (emeritus) at Imperial College London, explained that EMFs can stimulate glandular activity, especially those of the endocrine system, which are involved with metabolism. He has stated that “it may be responsible, at least in part, for the current outbreak of obesity and the many other illnesses that stem from it.”

One example of the impact of EMFs on weight can be seen in a study from 2012, in which the authors found that people who lived for six years within 100 meters of a cell phone base station had a significant reduction in the release into the blood of certain hormones, with the greatest loss in the production of thyroid hormones. This can result in hypothyroidism, which is characterized by weight gain and fatigue.

The reasons why some people are overweight or obese are complex and likely highly individual. Some of those reasons seem to involve factors that have changed over the past few decades, which suggests we have more reason than ever to look beyond caloric intake and amount of exercise for why we are fatter than we were 30 years ago.

Part 2 of 2. Read part 1 here.

Alternative Daily. New research reinforces connection between stress and obesity
Carnegie Mellon University. Who’s stressed?
Eskander EF et al. How does long term exposure to base stations and mobile phones affect humane hormone profiles? Clinical Biochemistry 2012 Jan; 45(1-2) 157-61
Goldworthy Andrew. Effects of electromagnetic fields on glands and its relationship with diabetes
Scientific American. Bright screens could delay bedtime
Vahatalo LH et al. Neuropeptide Y in noradrenergic neurons induces obesity in transgenic mouse models. Neuropeptides 2015 Nov 24

By Deborah Mitchell| January 12, 2016
Categories:  Care

About the Author

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently she lives in Tucson, Arizona. Visit her at deborahmitchellbooks.com.

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