Is the US Becoming More Obese Because of Medication?

Despite a blizzard of weight-loss programs, touting novel fat-reducing foods, and innovative exercise devices, the country is getting fatter and fatter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 4 in 10 U.S adults, according to their body mass index, can be classified as obese. Obesity is not evenly distributed among the states. The losers; i.e. the thinnest states, are Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and D.C. The gainer is West Virginia where almost 40% of adults are obese.

We have been becoming heavier for so many decades that we forget how thin we were as a country 80 or more years ago. It is only when viewing newsreels of the first half of the 20th century in which most adults look extremely thin that you realize what we now consider thin was considered normal weight back then.

The same old reasons are brought out yearly to explain why we, and indeed the rest of the world, is getting fatter: junk food, sugary drinks, dependence on motorized transport rather than our two feet, humongous restaurant portions, intestinal flora that make our bodies store fat, too much time on electronic devices, and too little time in the gym.

Might our growing obesity be related to the weight gain after smoking withdrawal? Weight gain is common among ex-smokers, and studies as reported by the National Bureau of Economic Research (Sharon Begley, “Gut Check”) suggest that it may be 11-12 pounds on average. But a close examination of who gains the most weight indicates that smokers with the lowest BMI are most likely to gain the most, and 11 or 12 pounds is not enough weight gain to make them obese.

Could medications used to treat mental disorders be another, mostly overlooked cause of national weight gain? That psychotropic drugs—the medications used to treat depression, anxiety, bipolar disorderschizophrenia and other mental diseases—cause weight gain is established. Sometimes the weight gain is only a few pounds, stops after a month or two, and is lost as soon as the treatment ends. But many drugs cause substantial weight gain because the patient experiences a relentless urge to eat. Moreover, to the chagrin, indeed horror of some patients, stopping the medications does not always cause weight loss even with dieting and exercise.

Data on the use of psychotropic drugs comes from a 2013 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey discussed in a Scientific American article by Sara Miller.  One in six Americans is taking a psychotropic drug, although not all are being prescribed for mental illness. There have also been many studies showing that depression itself is linked to future obesity. A common depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder, is diagnosed in part by the overeating and weight gain of patients during the increased darkness of winter. Often the depression of PMS and pre-menopause is accompanied by overeating and weight gain as well.

Yet in the list of causes for our increasing girth, reasons such as genes, inflammation, bad gut bacteria and bread are more likely to be found than the weight-gaining potential of depression and the drugs that treat it.

Where are the weight-loss programs specifically designed to help those whose overeating is caused by lack of sunlight, or hormones affecting appetite control centers in the brain, or drugs that hijack control over satiety? Where are the support services for those who are embarrassed to go to the gym because their medications have turned their formerly fit and slim body into a much heavier one?  Recently someone who has been struggling to lose the weight gained on her medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder told me that her dietician put her on a low- carbohydrate diet. “I was craving carbohydrates all the time,” she told me, “so the dietician figured the easiest way to take care of that problem was to remove them from my diet. She did not realize that my medication had caused the cravings even though I told her. And since I couldn’t stop my drugs, I just craved bread and pasta so much on her diet that I began to binge.”

 

This story is typical in that this patient was not seen as needing specialized weight-loss help because her weight gain was the result of a drug, and not related to emotional issuesor an inability to make healthy food choices. Moreover, the dietician’s advice to remove carbohydrates showed lack of knowledge on the effect of eating carbohydrates on serotonin synthesis. Serotonin levels drop when carbohydrates are not consumed and often lead to a worsening of the obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, or other mental disorders.

How long is it going to be before weight-loss professionals acknowledge that many of the obese in the United States are that way because of their medications? How long will it be before thought, labor, and money are put into programs to address their special needs?

Will 2018 bring about needed innovations in weight-loss therapy for these individuals, or will we just become fatter?

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