The study of obesity in American adults traditionally focuses on people, not food. And there is no lack of people to study.
For most of the past 100 years, the obesity rate for adults was stable at less than 15 percent; often assumed to be a genetic based. However, in the last three decades the obesity rate has steeply increased to 45 percent, much to the dismay of health professionals, and to many of us getting dressed in front of a mirror each morning.
During this same time period, food production in our country has radically changed. In 1930, it took 24 percent of all working adults to produce the food to stock our pantries. And today that figure is just 1.5 percent! This is possible only because farming has become agribusiness, where principles of efficiency and competition meet nature.
For crops, that involves abundant nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides and genetic selection of the hardest and fastest growing plant species. Factory farming of animals means high stock density; pigs and cows lined up like corn in the fields.
Ultimately the equation is simply maximizing pounds of sellable meat per 100 pounds of feed, and per acre. The animals don’t have room to walk around, which means like us, they gain weight faster.
A significant percentage of an animal’s food intake feeds the bacteria in the livestock’s gut, not the livestock. Putting antibiotics in the feed gets rid of much of this normal gut flora. The result: a 10 percent greater weight gain.
Growth hormone, an anabolic steroid, has been synthesized for many commercial farm animals. Unlike human growth hormone, for some reason cattle and swine growth hormone is cheaply produced.
Given by injection or implant, it dramatically increases muscle mass and speed of weight gain. This adds an additional 15 percent to the marketable muscle mass (steak) of the animal.
The process is not unlike automobile design and manufacturers in Detroit. If the maximum miles per gallon is the desired result, certain things can be done to achieve that. The car can be made much lighter, more streamlined or use a smaller engine. Tradeoffs are expected. The lighter the car the worse it will do in a crash; all other things being equal. It’s the classic double-edge sword effect.
In meat-producing areas like Chicago and Omaha, pressure exists to design meat that can be produced as inexpensively, quickly and safely as possible. Antibiotics and growth hormone serve that master.
This is done with appropriate concern, and the producers are acting in good faith.
Any drug given livestock has a published time necessary for that drug to wash out before slaughter. Meat is tested for these drugs and they are required to not be above a certain low level. The food production system in the United States has never been safer (the proof is that food borne illness – staphylococcal food poisoning, botulism, and bacterial contamination – are lower than ever).
But we may need to cast a wider net, perhaps, than simply poisoning by food when we’re talking about health. We may consider facts such as young girls are entering puberty at a much earlier age, which is believed to be from low level hormones in meat. And we should be concerned that weight loss programs by and large don’t work despite the millions spent by Americans who continue to grow fatter every day.
One has to wonder if our gut bacteria may be influenced by low level antibiotic contamination of meat. Are we spending all of our time trying to influence obesity-producing behaviors, when people might just be on a less intense version of our cattle fattening program?
It’s definitely something to ponder.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.