Americans are the most overweight people in the world. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is full of overly processed food containing non-food ingredients keeping us overfed but undernourished. Coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, I have always thought SAD was largely to blame for obesity. However SAD does not explain those people that do exercise, that do eat whole foods, that seem to do everything right but still carry around extra pounds. Could antibiotics be to blame?
Antibiotics have long been the wonder drug in America to the point that we have overused them and they now lack efficacy. As a child, any time I was sick, we came back from the doctor with antibiotics. I was also on antibiotics for acne much of my teen years. I don’t know any American that has never taken antibiotics.
This weekend, The New York Times ran an opinion piece called “The Fat Drug” by Pagan Kennedy. Looking at how poultry is fattened up with antibiotics when it is young, a very logical hypothesis is drawn that early antibiotic use in children could have the same effect. Kennedy writes:
IF you walk into a farm-supply store today, you’re likely to find a bag of antibiotic powder that claims to boost the growth of poultry and livestock. That’s because decades of agricultural research has shown that antibiotics seem to flip a switch in young animals’ bodies, helping them pack on pounds. Manufacturers brag about the miraculous effects of feeding antibiotics to chicks and nursing calves. Dusty agricultural journals attest to the ways in which the drugs can act like a kind of superfood to produce cheap meat.
But what if that meat is us? Recently, a group of medical investigators have begun to wonder whether antibiotics might cause the same growth promotion in humans. New evidence shows that America’s obesity epidemic may be connected to our high consumption of these drugs.
Kennedy further writes about studies that were conducted to test out this hypothesis that antibiotics could be used to grow bigger humans.
In the 1950s, a team of scientists fed a steady diet of antibiotics to schoolchildren in Guatemala for more than a year,while Charles H. Carter, a doctor in Florida, tried a similar regimen on mentally disabled kids. Could the children, like the farm animals, grow larger? Yes, they could.
Mr. Jukes summarized Dr. Carter’s research in a monograph on nutrition and antibiotics: “Carter carried out a prolonged investigation of a study of the effects of administering 75 mg of chlortetracycline” — the chemical name for Aureomycin — “twice daily to mentally defective children for periods of up to three years at the Florida Farm Colony. The children were mentally deficient spastic cases and were almost entirely helpless,” he wrote. “The average yearly gain in weight for the supplemented group was 6.5 lb while the control group averaged 1.9 lb in yearly weight gain.”
Researchers also tried this out in a study of Navy recruits. “Nutritional effects of antibiotics have been noted for some time” in farm animals, the authors of the 1954 study wrote. But “to date there have been few studies of the nutritional effects in humans, and what little evidence is available is largely concerned with young children. The present report seems of interest, therefore, because of the results obtained in a controlled observation of several hundred young American males.” The Navy men who took a dose of antibiotics every morning for seven weeks gained more weight, on average, than the control group.
It is not just in medicine that we are exposed to antibiotics, but they are heavily used in the raising of livestock, poultry, and dairy. Our greatest exposure is in medicine though.
We are bigger than we used to be. Could antibiotics be to blame?
In 2002 Americans were about an inch taller and 24 pounds heavier than they were in the 1960s, and more than a third are now classified as obese. Of course, diet and lifestyle are prime culprits. But some scientists wonder whether there could be other reasons for this staggering transformation of the American body. Antibiotics might be the X factor — or one of them.
Experiments have recently been conducted to see if they Standard American Diet coupled with antibiotic use could be causing the obesity and overweight status of most Americans.
To find out, Dr. Blaser and his colleagues have spent years studying the effects of antibiotics on the growth of baby mice. In one experiment, his lab raised mice on both high-calorie food and antibiotics. “As we all know, our children’s diets have gotten a lot richer in recent decades,” he writes in a book, “Missing Microbes,” due out in April. At the same time, American children often are prescribed antibiotics. What happens when chocolate doughnuts mix with penicillin?
The results of the study were dramatic, particularly in female mice: They gained about twice as much body fat as the control-group mice who ate the same food. “For the female mice, the antibiotic exposure was the switch that converted more of those extra calories in the diet to fat, while the males grew more in terms of both muscle and fat,” Dr. Blaser writes. “The observations are consistent with the idea that the modern high-calorie diet alone is insufficient to explain the obesity epidemic and that antibiotics could be contributing.”
I think antibiotic use in childhood should be limited. Of course, it is necessary at times, but I know my generation was definitely exposed to an abundance. This theory of the “fat drug” does help explain why even when we exercise and eat right, it is hard to shed pounds. It also helps explain why other countries do not have the same overweight epidemic as the US.
In my travels, I have always been amazed to see the rich diets of Europe not cause the same weight gain they would cause in the US. I believed this was the result of eating more whole foods that are freshly made, but maybe there is more to it.
As our bottoms have gotten bigger, our beauty ideals have shrunk and morphed with Photoshop to unrealistic proportions. It is very strange…
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net