TIME

Your Great Grandmother’s Exposure to Pesticides Could Be Making You Obese

The effects of pesticides can span three generations, according to the latest research

Your health, or unhealthy state, may be traced back to the stuff your grandparents were exposed to, say researchers from Washington State University (WSU).

They found that exposure to the pesticide methoxychlor, for example, can contribute to diseases in descendants up to three generations later, suggesting that the environment conditions in which your great grandparents lived and worked could affect your risk of obesity, kidney and ovarian diseases.

The heightened susceptibility to these conditions is passed down through genetics, although not in the direct, inherited way. The pesticide probably affected how genes were turned on or off in people three generations ago, and some of these changes, which are normally erased when the reproductive cells — the egg and sperm — join together, somehow were not deleted completely and were passed on to the next generation. And these changes may be affecting weight and cells in the kidneys and ovaries.

“What you’re ancestors were exposed to could radically affect the kind of diseases you get,” says Michael Skinner, the study’s lead author and founder of WSU’s Center for Reproductive Biology.

Skinner has been studying the genetic effects of pesticides for 15 years. His lab has observed such so-called transgenerational epigenetic effects from other toxins such as DDT, plastics, pesticides, fungicides, dioxins, hydrocarbons and bisphenol-A or BPA.

But this was the first study to show that disease risk was transmitted primarily through females. (The study also found the legacy of mutations in the sperm epigenome of great-grandchild male rats.)

Methoxychlor—also known as Chemform, Methoxo, Metox or Moxie—was introduced in 1948 and was widely used in the 1960s as a less toxic substitute for DDT. The pesticide can behave like the hormone estrogen, disrupting reproductive organs. It was used on crops, ornamental plants, livestock and pets, but was banned from the U.S. in 2003 after regulators determined that it, too, was toxic for people. But a generation of individuals had already been exposed, and the effects of that exposure, says Skinner, is still being seen today.

While it is no longer used in the U.S., the pesticide is still sprayed in Mexico, South America and in other countries around the world. But even people who were born after the compound was banned in the U.S., and who have never traveled to areas where it is used, showed the same genetic changes found in people who have been exposed to the chemical.

That means that it may be possible to scan for and potentially predict people’s increased risk for certain diseases by searching for these genetic legacies. “We have the ability to identify the epigenetic marks in ourselves. Some of these marks are exposure-specific. So in the future, we may be able to do an analysis of what you were exposed to or what your ancestors were exposed to and predict what diseases you’re going to get,” says Skinner.

And that could lead to improved treatments for these diseases, based on their epigenetic roots. “Knowing the high statistical probability that you’re going to get this disease, we may be able to come up with therapeutic things in advance,” he says. And by treating them, we may also be helping our great-grandchildren to live without them too.

TIME Obesity

Most Overweight Kids Don’t Think They’re Overweight, a New Study Finds

New data from the CDC shows many kids and adolescents misperceive their weight status

About 81% of overweight boys and 71% of overweight girls believe they are about the right weight, according to recent data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Overall, the survey, which collected data on the weight of U.S. adolescents between the ages of 8 and 15 from 2005 to 2012, found that about 30% of children and adolescents perceive their weight status incorrectly. That’s estimated to equate to about 9.1 million young people.

While the majority of overweight kids incorrectly classified their weight status, general weight misperception in the study also meant that kids who were not obese could think that they were, or that they could incorrectly consider themselves underweight.

The data also shows that weight misperceptions tended to be slightly higher among boys than girls, and had a higher prevalence among non-Hispanic black and Mexican-American kids. Weight misperception was significantly lower among kids and adolescents in higher-income families compared with kids in lower-income families.

Sadly, these are the same populations whose parents are more likely to be overweight, Dr. Daniel Neides, medical director for the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, tells TIME. That suggests the possibility that overweight kids view their weight status as normal because that’s what they see in their own families. “As our country gets heavier, children don’t necessarily see it as abnormal,” he says. (Neides was not involved with the survey.)

The trouble is also that parents often don’t want to hear that their child is overweight. Prior research has shown that only about a quarter of parents of overweight kids say a doctor has told them that their kids were overweight. “People are very sensitive to weight and to growth charts, and [parents] will argue it hasn’t been updated in years,” says Neides. “We feel like young people are immortal and will be fine, and that population also doesn’t see the long-term implications.”

But overweight children is serious business. Kids are increasingly being diagnosed with diseases that usually only appear in adults, like Type 2 diabetes. A 2013 Harvard Medical School study also found a 27% increase in the proportion of children ages 8 to 17 with elevated blood pressure. “I am seeing people younger and younger coming into my office with osteoarthritis from weight,” says Neides. “We weren’t learning about kids with these problems when I was in medical school.”

The new data should serve as a warning to families and physicians that young people are confused about their weight status, and that if overweight kids continue to believe they’re the right weight, it could have detrimental effects on progress being made against the obesity epidemic.

TIME Education

School Administrators: Kids Like Healthy Lunches Just Fine

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Female student carrying tray in cafeteria Tetra Images—Getty Images/Brand X

According to a new survey published in the Childhood Obesity journal

As the battle rages on over whether or not to scrap healthier options in public school lunch, a new survey suggests students actually like the nutritional meals they’re being offered. Well, at least they like it enough to keep from complaining to school administrators about it.

Last school year, administrators reported students started off complaining about the healthier take on lunch, after the USDA introduced new standards in 2012 that called for a reduction in sugar, sodium and fat in meals and the addition of more whole grains, vegetables, and fruit in an effort to confront childhood obesity.

But most had come around by the spring, they reported in a new study backed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Now, around 70% of elementary school students “generally like the new lunch,” they said. Middle and high school administrators reported similar reactions, with 70% and 63% of students “generally” liking the new lunches, respectively.

Schools also report few drop-offs in school lunch participation with the advent of the new standards. About 64.6% of elementary schools said “about the same” number of students purchased school lunches last school year, compared to the year before.

“The updated meals standards are resulting in healthier meals for tens of millions of kids,” said Lindsey Turner, lead author of the first study, and co-investigator for Bridging the Gap, a research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which funded the study in a statement. “Our studies show that kids are okay with these changes, and that there have not been widespread challenges with kids not buying or eating the meals.”

Yet, according to the new survey to be published in an upcoming issue of the Childhood Obesity journal, high school students and students in rural schools have been more reluctant to accept the changes. About 25% of middle and high school administrators reported noticing “a little more” plate waste during the 2012-2013 school year, while 16% of middle schools and 20% of high schools reported noticing “much more” waste.

Administrators at rural schools also reported more plate waste and more complaints than their urban counterparts, which is troubling given the higher rates of obesity among youth in rural areas. But among poor urban youth, the researchers found higher rates of consumption and more meal purchases—suggesting those kids opting out of the school lunch program are those who can afford to eat elsewhere.

“It is possible that widespread implementation of national policy has been effective for improving the diets of socioeconomically disadvantaged children,” said the study’s authors, “but more research is needed to understand the effect of changes in the meal standards on children’s participation and dietary intake.”

There has been much debate over the Department of Agriculture’s updated school nutrition standards this year. In fact, Monday’s survey results stand in contrast to a recent USDA report that showed about 1 million fewer students chose to eat school meals every day during the 2012-2013 school year. The School Nutrition Association, a long time supporter of healthy options for kids, rolled back some of its support earlier this year due to the burden the standards place on already cash-strapped schools.

In May, House Republicans ok’d a spending bill that would allow schools to opt out of following the healthy school rules, which pump up the amount of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains served to kids at school while reducing fat, sugar, and sodium. But champions of the standards, including First Lady Michelle Obama, argue rolling back the standards would be a bad choice for kids.

In a statement Monday, the School Nutrition Association said the survey’s “perceptions about school meals do not reflect reality.”

“More kids aren’t buying lunches,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, tells TIME.

TIME Parenting

How Overparenting Makes Kids Overweight

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Digital Vision.—Getty Images

A study found that maternal overprotectiveness increased the odds of children being overweight.

Maybe if we stopped calling it The Obesity Epidemic and started calling it The Fear Epidemic we could finally make a dent in the widening waistlines of our country’s kids.

A study just published in the journal PLOS One is the first to prove a link between helicopter parenting and obesity: Between ages 10 to 11, the researchers found, maternal overprotectiveness “was associated with a 13 percent increase in the odds of children being overweight or obese.”

This link makes intuitive sense. The fear of predators is part of what’s making kids fat, by keeping them inside, sedentary, and near the fridge. After all, most of us grew up on cookies and milk every day after school – whole milk! – and no one was worried about the big O. That’s because we’d walk home, eat, then run outside to play some more.

But today, to keep our kids “safe,” we drive them back and forth to school. “Arrival” and “dismissal” have morphed into “drop-off” and “pick-up.” Kids are delivered like FedEx packages. About 1 in 10 use their legs to get to school.

This intense oversight happens not just in neighborhoods riddled by crime and drugs, where a tight leash makes sense, but in areas parents deliberately chose because they wanted to raise their kids someplace nice and safe.

And yet, when are the kids taking advantage of all that nice safety? After school they’re either off to a supervised activity or they’re back home, never to venture out again, in part because of massive homework loads, in part because of endless electronic options, but also in great part because they are not allowed to go outside on their own. Their parents, even if one of them is at home, are afraid they’ll get abducted.

While the overprotectiveness study concentrated only on moms (in Australia, no less), we have become an entire generation afraid for our kids. Predator panic is not a minor part of the culture. ABC appointed Elizabeth Smart its special correspondent for missing children. It seems America’s got four main categories of stories: news, weather, sports — and kidnapping.

No wonder parents are terrified! I heard from one mom who was actually outside with her kids, reading while they played on the lawn, when a woman walked by shouting, “Put down that book! Don’t you realize your children could be snatched at any time?”

That is the exact fear of our era: If we take our eyes off our kids, even for a second, we will never see them again. Another mom wrote to tell me that, despite a twinge of trepidation, she decided to let her six-year-old walk four houses down to his friend. This was in a gated community, during the day.

The boy came back from his playdate happy as a clam (who can walk). But when this mom told other friends about her son’s big adventure – or what passes for a big adventure in 21st century America – one of them said, “Oh my goodness! You just kill me! Anything could have happened.”

Anything? That’s true. But the odds of “anything” being terrible are tiny. The U.S. crime rate today is lower than any time since the advent of color TV. That means any parents who grew up in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s were playing outside when the crime rate was higher than it is today. Yes, higher! Nobody called their parents negligent for letting them stay out till the streetlights came on. That was just a normal – and incidentally fat-defying – childhood. Today the number of children age 9 to 13 playing outside, unsupervised, in any given week, is 6 percent.

That’s ridiculously close to zero.

“It doesn’t take much to see that this generates a vicious cycle. Captivity breeds inactivity,” says Joshua Gans, a professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto and author of Parentonomics. “If you fear letting your kids loose outside, that is when the risk of obesity expands.”

But we can’t just blame fearful parents for keeping the kids cooped up. The government, which should be encouraging outdoor play, is busy doing the opposite. A man in suburban Pittsburgh dropped off his kids, age 6 and 9, at the park while he ran some errands. This sight was so unusual – children playing on their own – that a passerby called 911. The police came and charged the dad with two counts of child endangerment. This happened recently in D.C., too. And again in South Carolina, just last week. In fact, I hear about an incident like that almost weekly now.

Why is it endangerment to let your kids have fun and burn calories, but it’s not endangerment to keep them inside where they run the risk of getting fat and diabetic?

If we are going to be obsessed by a fear for our kids, let’s at least choose the right one.

Because in a panic, it’s impossible to think straight. That’s why I keep getting letters from parents who have been harassed or even ticketed by the authorities for letting their kids play outside, sometimes right next to their house. One mom got a visit from Child Protective Services because her children were playing in the rain! It has become a radical act to let kids play beyond the living room. This results in weird things, like one of the original public service announcements for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign. It was almost guaranteed to make sure kids move less.

The spot shows a mom in her kitchen chopping healthy veggies (natch’), when her daughter leans over the banister and says, “Mom, can I have a dollar?” The mom sees her wallet right next to her on the counter but then gets a clever idea. “I think my purse is upstairs on the bed!” she tells the girl, who bolts up the stairs. When of course it isn’t there, the mom says to “Try the downstairs closet!” then the upstairs closet, etc., etc., with the girl running up and down until finally she spies the wallet in the kitchen. Then the ad reminds parents it’s our job to find ways to get kids moving.

No, it’s not! It has never been any parent’s job to come up with 365 days’ worth of clever ways to trick our kids into moving their limbs for an hour. It is simply our job to get our kids outside. In turn, it’s the government’s job not to criminalize, demonize or criticize parents who let their children play outside the way our parents did.

Until we all get over the idea that our kids need a security detail every time they leave the house, inside the house they’ll sit, getting older and wider. We are overprotecting them from incredibly unlikely crimes, while making them lots more likely to end up Santa-shaped.

If we are going to be obsessed by a fear for our kids, let’s at least choose the right one.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and founder of the book and blog Free-Range kids. Her show “World’s Worst Mom” airs on Discovery/TLC international. This piece originally appeared at The Weekly Wonk.

TIME Obesity

The Question of Healthy Obesity Continues

Is the obesity paradox real?

In a new review published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers looked at 36 studies and found that among people with coronary artery disease, those with a high BMI had the lowest cardiovascular mortality risk compared to people with a normal weight.

The researchers say it’s further evidence of an obesity paradox, where being overweight or obese actually protects people from heart-related death.

Now, there are a few things to point out before we accept headlines like “Yes, Healthy Obesity Exists.” For one, the study population already had heart disease, and being obese puts people at a greater risk for heart-related ailments like stroke and high blood pressure. Second, it’s possible that the reasons the obese people had better outcomes was because they are more likely to be prescribed heart medications like statins compared to the normal population. It’s also possible that there is some sort of protective benefit from body fat that makes obese people less likely to have the worst effects from heart disease.

But doctors are not quick to conclude that being obese can protect your health. After all, the new study was looking at people who were already sick. But many in the medical community will agree that there are other factors critical to health that have nothing to do with the number on the scale, and that ultimately, concentrating on a person’s lifestyle behaviors over their size is a good strategy.

Read more of our coverage on the obesity paradox here.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Nearly 60% Of People Use Nutrition Info on Menus

a fast food tray full of hamburgers
A CDC report shows nearly 6 out of 10 people use menu labels Sian Kennedy

New report suggests people are paying attention to menu labels

A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows 57% of U.S. adults over 18 use menu labeling information like calorie counts to make their orders.

The researchers looked at surveys from 17 states and found that women were more likely to use menu labels, and that labeling helps customers pick lower-calorie options. A 2010 federal law requires restaurants that have at least 20 locations to list calorie information on their menus (though regulations to implement the law have still not been finalized).

The new study is important, because it shows that Americans actually do care about menu labels, though perhaps only by a slight majority. Several earlier studies have shown the opposite. For instance, a 2012 study concluded calorie listings would have little impact on the obesity epidemic. Another 2013 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, examined the receipts of 1,100 McDonald’s diners. Some of the participants were given calorie information as well as education about how many calories are recommended for men and women and others were given no information. Both groups ate more than the recommended amount of calories, and there were no differences between the groups, suggesting people underestimate what they’re eating, even with calorie numbers.

All of which means that while it’s great consumers are looking at calorie counts, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are acting on the information.

There are a few criticisms of nutrition labeling in fast food restaurants. Two Johns Hopkins obesity experts wrote an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine last year arguing that without any context, people have no idea how many calories they should be eating, making the data essentially meaningless. Some researchers have suggested that health authorities use other measurements, like how much physical activity it would take to burn off a 550 calorie burger. Finally, a focus on calories, say some experts, misses the point, since a small Coke could have the same calories as a handful of almonds, though to say they are the same nutritionally would be absurd.

The researchers conclude that the data could help create more targeted health communication strategies that could help up awareness for menu labels and benefit Americans. With more education, diners may at least realize just how much junk is their fast food.

TIME Obesity

Siblings More Likely Than Parents to Influence Child Obesity

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Absodels/Getty Images

And the association is even stronger for siblings of the same gender

A new study released Tuesday reported children are more than twice as likely to be obese when they have an obese sibling compared to when they have an obese parent.

The study, which will be published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, showed the likelihood that a child is obese is even greater when they have a sibling of the same gender.

In one-child families, an obese parent meant more than double the risk that the child would be obese. In households with two children, this held true for the older child but not the younger sibling.

“Younger children look up to their big brother or sister for behavioral cues, often seeking their approval; and siblings may spend more time each other than with their parents, often eating and playing sports together,” study author Mark Pachucki said in a statement.

Pachuki, who is an instructor at the Mongan Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital, said he initially expected parental obesity would have a stronger association than sibling obesity due to parents’ important role in children’s eating habits, but he was wrong.

Researchers looked at almost 2,000 respondents to the Family Health Habits Survey.

TIME Obesity

Study: People With Extreme Obesity Die 14 Years Earlier Than Normal

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An obese woman is seen on May 8, 2007 in Washington, DC. Chris Jackson—Getty Images

100 extra pounds of weight can be as lethal as cigarettes

Adults who suffer from extreme obesity tend to suffer a range of ailments, from organ failure to cancer, that on average shave 14 years off of the normal lifespan, a new study has found.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute studied an international sample of 9,500 extremely obese adults, or those who weighed roughly 100 pounds more than their recommended body weight. Compared with healthy adults, the extremely obese population tended to suffer from higher rates of life-threatening illnesses, particularly heart disease, cancer and diabetes. On average the extremely obese lost 14 years of life, matching the loss of life suffered by smokers.

“While once a relatively uncommon condition, the prevalence of class III, or extreme, obesity is on the rise,” the study’s lead author, Cari Kitahara, said in a statement. “Prior to our study, little had been known about the risk of premature death associated with extreme obesity.”

TIME Exercise

It’s Lack of Exercise—Not Calories—That Make Us Fat, Study Says

Low section of woman exercising on treadmill
Low section of woman exercising on treadmill Maskot/Getty Images

One study says American diets have remained the same for the last 20 years

A new study published yesterday in the American Journal of Medicine reported over the last 20 years there has been a sharp drop in Americans’ physical exercise, and an increase in average body mass index (BMI), but that average caloric intake has remained the same.

The Stanford University researchers looked at NHANES data over the last 20 years, and found that the number of U.S. women who reported doing no physical activity went from 19.1% in 1994 to 51.7% in 2010. For men, the number increased from 11.4% in 1994 to 43.5% in 2010. During the same time frame, the average BMI of men and women also went up.

“At the population level, we found a significant association between the level of leisure-time physical activity, but not daily caloric intake, and the increases in both BMI and waist circumference,” said lead study author Dr. Uri Ladabaum, an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine in a statement.

The drop in physical activity is worrying, but it’s worth taking a closer look at the reseach. The dataset in this study did not show that Americans were consuming more calories over the 20 year period—but it should be noted that USDA data shows that Americans are consuming about 500 calories per day more than they did in the 1970 and 800 calories more than Americans in the 1950s.

It’s certainly true that Americans are more sedentary than they used to be, but when it comes down to it, calories are a major component when it comes to weight gain. And though the researchers report that calorie intake hardly changed, they did not look at the makeup of the participants’ diets. Therefore, they have no idea where people were getting their calories—home cooked meals, fast food, processed food?

It’s true that we’ve started relying too much on calories, and the simple advice of eat less exercise more isn’t always the answer. Well-respected researchers in the nutrition community argue what’s more important is avoiding the refined carbohydrates like white bread and sugary processed foods which have become staples in our diets. Instead, we should focus on better food quality, and of course, getting more physical activity.

The obesity epidemic is caused by many factors, and it’s solution will have to incorporate many different strategies. At this point, we know that, and pulling out one cause ultimately isn’t productive—or accurate.

What we should take away from this new study is that Americans are moving less and less—and that’s bad news.

TIME Obesity

Healthy-Obesity Gene Found—But Genes Aren’t Everything

DNA is not always destiny

Austrian researchers have discovered a possible genetic explanation for why about a quarter of obese people are “metabolically healthy”—meaning they don’t have the risk factors for type 2 diabetes.

In their mice study, published in the journal Cell, the researchers were able to determine that high levels of a molecule called HO-1 was linked to poor metabolic health and a higher risk for diabetes in people who are obese. If that molecule is blocked, as they suggest it might be in people who don’t have those risks, it could reverse those consequences. Though the researchers’ study is very specified to one molecule, it brings into question once again the larger debate about whether there really is such a thing as healthy obesity.

For the last couple of years, there’s been back and forth within the medical community on the topic. The scientific concept of healthy obesity stems from recent studies that show some overweight or obese people are just as healthy as normal-weight individuals since they have normal blood pressure, they are not diabetic and they good cholesterol levels. There has even been one study that found overweight individuals lived longer than healthy-weight people. On the other hand, researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto reviewed studies dating back to the 1950s and came to the conclusion that people cannot be both overweight and healthy. Another recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology looked at 14,828 metabolically healthy Korean adults came to the same conclusion.

“Obese individuals who are considered healthy because they don’t currently have heart-disease risk factors should not be assumed healthy by their doctors,” study author Dr. Yoosoo Chang in a statement.

But what is often overlooked in the debate is that while genes influence the body’s responses to various environments, they do not guarantee a person will be thin or overweight. “Most obesity…probably results from complex interactions among multiple genes and environmental factors that remain poorly understood,” states the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s explainer on obesity and genetics. And indeed, many things can play a part in whether a persons’ genes express themselves or not.

“In genetics, there are exceptions to almost every rule,” says Joy Larsen Haidle, the president-elect of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. “Studies have been done looking at identical twins with a predisposition to obesity. Not surprisingly, the twins who were physically active had less issues with body mass than the twins who were more sedentary.”

So yes, perhaps the HO-1 molecule has some implications but in the grand scheme of influence, it’s just a drop in the pond. What matters more is that efforts to lower the obesity rate in the U.S. take a comprehensive approach.

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