Is it harder to lose weight today than it was 30 years ago?

image of slim female
Losing weight in 2020 [Photo Credit: Tumisu from Pixabay]

I recently found myself watching an episode of Highway to Heaven, a series originally released in the 1980’s. There were several things that stood out. The first was the fashions of the day, which I recall only too well, including “big hair”, leg warmers and over-sized tops with shoulder pads. Cellular phones were not commonplace and some of the “political correctness” was lagging behind today’s standards. However, what struck me most of all was just how thin everyone was.

Around the same time, I came across an article in The Atlantic by Olga Khasan referring to a study published in 2016 in the journal, Obesity Research & Clinical Practice, that asserted that “it’s harder for adults today to maintain the same weight as those 20 to 30 years ago did, even at the same levels of food intake and exercise”.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Obesity

These views appear to be supported by WHO which states that worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since the era of Highway to Heaven. They attribute this to an increase in the consumption of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and sugars and a decrease in physical activity.

Are there other factors which may affect obesity?

Is it really that simple? The above study referenced by Khasan suggests there may be other changes since the 1980s, beyond just diet and exercise, which are affecting the way our bodies burn energy and store fat including:

  • Increased exposure to more chemicals:  may be altering hormonal processes affecting the way our bodies put on and maintain weight. Examples include pesticides in vegetables and clothing, flame retardants, additives in food packaging and processed foods, and chemicals in cleaning products, toiletries and plastics.  
  • Dramatic rise in the use of prescription drugs:  including antidepressants, the use of which has dramatically increased since the 1980’s. Although prescribed for serious conditions, they may have unintended consequences which have been linked to weight gain. It is not clear whether this is by making a person hungrier causing them to eat more or by changing the way the body burns energy.
  • Changes in people’s microbiome:  which is composed of bacteria, bacteriophage, fungi, protozoa and viruses and lives on a human host, mostly in the GI tract. A healthy microbiome contains many species performing different functions that can assist us to digest food, produce certain vitamins, and regulate the immune system. It is also believed that some types of gut bacteria can assist us regulate appetite as well as cause us to be more prone to weight gain and obesity. More meat is being consumed compared with 30 years ago and, as many animal products are treated with hormones and antibiotics in order to promote growth, there is speculation that this may be affecting the gut. Similarly, there is also belief that the increased use of artificial sweeteners may be adversely affecting the microbiome. For more information on gut health, check out The Clever Guts.

Health Risks of Obesity?

Obesity can put us at risk for malnutrition as well as the following diseases:

  • cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke),
  • musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis), and
  • some cancers (including endometrial, breast, ovarian, prostate, liver, gallbladder, kidney, and colon).
image of female in workout gear  sitting down and tying shoe laces
Exercise for Health [Photo Credit: Wokandapix from Pixabay]

What can we do?

WHO believes that obesity is largely preventable and suggests that as a society, we:

  • reduce processed foods as they tend to be high in fat, sugar, salt and poor in micro nutrients,
  • increase consumption of fruit and vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts; and
  • engage in regular physical activity (60 minutes a day for children and 150 minutes spread through the week for adults).

Closing Thoughts

The traditional premise of dieting “eat less and exercise more” seems too simplistic to me and I believe there may be more factors in play. The more I delve into the subject, the more I gravitate towards the philosophy a number of researchers have claimed that “all calories are not equal”. The issue may not be the number of calories eaten and expended but rather the biochemical influences that certain foods have on the body’s fat-making and fat-storage processes that will influence weight gain.

It would be nice if losing weight was just a basic formula but for anyone, including myself, who has ever been on a diet, it seems it is far more complicated than simply balancing calories. Trying to lose weight can be frustrating especially when what worked at one time, no longer seems to work. However, sometimes even small changes can make a difference and I am convinced that two of the most important things we can do is to reduce the amount of processed foods consumed and eat a rainbow to maintain a diverse and healthy microbiome.

Attempting to live up to society’s ideals of weight is never easy but since the 1980’s, society’s attitude towards weight has changed too and it is far more accepting of different body types.  Being thin is not intended to be considered the ideal and does not necessarily equate to being healthy.  The bottom line is not our resulting body shapes from diet but rather our resulting health. The world is constantly evolving and in the end it probably does not matter whether we are thinner or fatter than our ancestors. What is important is that our diet enables us to enjoy good health and provides the energy and vitality we need to live our best life.

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For more information on whole foods, plant-based eating, check out the Resources

2 responses to “Is it harder to lose weight today than it was 30 years ago?”

  1. The most challenging of the WHO suggestions for me is reducing processed food.

    I used to cook a lot but these days time is so scarce. I have several personal projects and by the time I put in a full day of work (sometimes draining), go out for a run or ride, and then set aside some me time and us time, there’s not a lot left over for meal preparation. My partner is great and makes many good dinners, but I tend to rely heavily on things like veggie sausages for lunches and toast and peanut butter for breakfast.


  2. I know what you mean, reducing processed foods can be really challenging, especially when you are busy – after all processed foods are made to be “convenient” and to make meal preparation quicker and easier. I will often make bigger batches of things like soups or stews ahead of time and freeze them so I can have them later in the week for easy lunches. I also tend to gravitate towards whole-grain toast and nut butters for breakfasts too and when I feel the need for variety, I find overnights oats or granola can make for a quick, fuss-free breakfast.


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