Is Gaining Weight As You Age A Given?
You have to be living under a stone not to have heard the dramatic research findings that women who gain a skirt size every decade from their twenties are at a 33 percent increased risk of breast cancer in their menopause.
Why was this message so embraced by the media this year when doctors have known for years about the hazards associated with weight gain?
Perhaps it is the simplicity of the message or the easy-to-grasp numbers. Women recall their skirt size and are no doubt shocked by the stark figure of a 33 percent increased risk. It’s startling that something so commonplace as a shift in sizing could be so insidiously dangerous.
And it adds a whole new dimension to the struggle for weight control that affects the majority of Australian women now. Most of us who have engaged in the battle of the bulge has been motivated by many reasons, but I suspect that cancer risk has not been one of them.
But these research findings go further. They challenge the common belief that it is normal to gain weight while you age. Steadily gaining kilograms as we age is common, but it is not normal, and up until now, telling a patient that their weight should not change after reaching adulthood would be met by skepticism bordering on contempt.
So any research that helps to convey a clear health message is helpful, especially when it involves a sensitive matter like our weight. Most people feel a degree of shame relating to their weight problem.
When a doctor is seeing an overweight patient, even raising the issue of weight is fraught with problems. To set about listing the numerous health hazards associated with being overweight can sound like a reprimand. If it is perceived as just further abuse that the overweight person is often all too familiar with, then a negative response can only be expected.
And yet, we are all entitled to be informed about the hazards related to our behavior, just as with smoking, sunbathing, or sex.
But there is another reason that the medical profession has been reticent regarding some of the health risks relating to weight. When there has been no effective treatment that gets the weight off and, importantly, keeps it off, doctors can be reluctant to address an issue that will almost certainly frustrate both parties.
And any long term study has confirmed the pessimistic belief that diets don’t work. Of course, we all know exceptions to that rule, but at this stage, whether through community programs, school education, or individualized therapy, there is very little available that can achieve sustained weight loss, other than perhaps the rather drastic bariatric surgery.
But there is hope.
One of the best things that are happening is that research is improving our understanding of the reasons for weight gain. And it is high time that cruel and judgmental views of obesity are dropped as ignorant prejudice. Genetic research has revealed that there is a large gene related to weight gain. There is an almost linear response so that if you have five of these genes you will be significantly heavier than someone with none, and some unfortunate souls have many more of the 60 genes found so far that are associated with weight gain.
With the changes in our environment, (and exactly which changes everyone has their views), these genes get expressed. A helpful analogy is if there are two basins – a 10-liter basin and a 30-liter basin outside during a drought (leaner times), both remain fairly empty, but if it rains heavily (in times of plenty), the basin with the less capacity will never get fuller than 10 liters, whereas the one with the larger capacity fills its maximum, with three times more retained.
So, what to do? You may have noticed that the health authorities have abandoned the D-word (diet), and talk instead about healthy eating. Even if calorie control eludes us, there is a huge benefit to getting enough minerals and vitamins from fruits and vegetables.
Add to this some regular daily physical activity, no alcohol, and no cigarettes, and your health will greatly improve, whatever you weigh. Just try it for a month – why not?