It's widely known that carrying excess pounds increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other serious, even fatal, health conditions. Yet over the past few decades, American men have kept on getting fatter. Today, 71 percent of guys are either overweight or obese. Compare that to 1994, when 61 percent of men fell into this range — or to 1960, when just 49 percent of guys were overweight or obese.
Even more concerning, men's waistlines are expanding at a faster rate than their body-mass indexes are climbing. A study published in JAMA found that 43 percent of men today have a waist circumference of at least 40 inches, compared to just 37 percent in 1999. The problem with extra chub around the midsection is that it's mostly visceral fat, a deeper, more hazardous type of fat than the subcutaneous flab found elsewhere on your body. According to Dr. Lisa Neff, an endocrinologist at the Northwestern Comprehensive Center for Obesity, visceral fat secretes pro-inflammatory hormones that easily enter the bloodstream and reach vital organs, wreaking havoc on everything from insulin sensitivity to triglyceride levels. These negative effects, in turn, can increase your odds of diabetes and other diseases.
So why do guys keep gaining weight? Neff calls out the usual suspects like larger restaurant portions and wider availability of food leading to many more calories being consumed. Couple that with the huge decrease in physical activity, and the balance of calories in and out has shifted for the worse. But Neff says there are plenty of other factors. "Many medications, including depression and blood-pressure drugs, promote weight gain," she says. "Meanwhile, staying up late and working long hours can affect hunger, fullness, and metabolism, causing men to gain weight."
On top of all that, Neff says many younger men today were born to be fat. "There's now been a whole generation of mothers who were too overweight while pregnant," she explains. "It's fetal programming. Those babies are much more likely to become overweight or have obesity-related diseases than babies born to healthy-weight moms."
The next question is why fat guys stay fat, especially given the incessant messaging about the dangers of obesity and the benefits of nutritious food and exercise. Of course, some dudes don't do a damn thing to help their cause. But many overweight men do try to eat right and work out, yet they still struggle to shed pounds. Why? Neff says our slow-to-evolve brains are partially to blame.
"The brain's weight-regulation center, the hypothalamus, has a weight 'set point' that it tries to keep you within range of," Neff explains. "From an evolutionary perspective, its job is to protect you from starvation, which made sense thousands of years ago when famine was a real threat." If your weight dips below the set point, the hypothalamus sets in motion starvation responses, including a drop in metabolism, which can hinder further weight loss.
Your hypothalamus can really screw you if you pack on extra pounds and keep them on for a while. Neff says your brain will get used to your heavier weight as the new normal and make it the new set point to defend, instead of your previous healthy weight. Then, if you try to get back to your original weight, your hypothalamus will think you're starving.
This is why it's crucial to prevent weight gain in the first place. "It's so important to stay stable as much as you can," Neff says. "Don't just accept weight gain and say, 'Oh well, I'll just lose it after vacation.' There are ways to take off weight once it's on — healthier eating, physical activity — but the brain and body make it extremely tough."
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