Obscure Purported Obesity Villains

Well over 100 substances, practices, and societal conditions have been blamed for contributing to the growth of childhood obesity. Most of the accusations are very difficult to substantiate, mainly because there are so many of them, pointing at dozens of other factors that may or may not actually have an effect.

How many of these things are not causes of obesity, but rather co-symptoms that exist along with obesity in some individuals? Morton Downey himself suggested possible reasons for confusion. Many of the separate causes could be gathered under one umbrella, like socio-economic inequality. How far down must humankind dig to get to the bottom of this?

Downey speculated on cultural, regional, ethnic, or local factors. Those factors are, of course, some of the stubbornest resisters of change. For instance, some people want to put an end to the overeating festival known as Thanksgiving. To simply insist that we give it up because it makes us fat would meet with massive resistance. But if enough people concluded that the holiday should be abandoned for moral reasons having to do with the legitimacy of the colonization of the continent, that would be a different matter.

The engines of change

In other words, sometimes, a new cultural factor outweighs the old cultural factor that previously held sway. The authorities in charge of our safety have to know what our ingrained beliefs are, in order to figure out how to change them on behalf of public health. Like it or not, the government is in the business of brainwashing people for their own good.

Childhood Obesity News has mentioned several of the more commonly held beliefs, as curated by Downey. His list (which was updated after the original 104 items) gave a reference for each theoretical cause, but that article has apparently become lost in cyberspace. So, research begins afresh.

One example

In the United States, not many people have heard of the betel nut, and even fewer are familiar with its Latin name, Areca catechu. However, thanks to the activities of some 600 million humans in the Asian-Pacific sector of the globe who habitually chew the betel nut, it is the world’s fourth most frequently used addictive substance. Aside from causing cancer of the mouth and esophagus, the betel nut is also found to cause hypertension, heart disease, kidney disease, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes.

A little bundle or parcel is made of the nut, some lime, and maybe some tobacco, wrapped in a betel leaf. Some people go through 10 of these a day. The practice is popular for the same reason as coca leaf chewing in South America. It keeps the hard-working users awake and alert, though they also find it relaxing. The habit results in horribly stained teeth and the frequent spitting of red saliva, which does seem to be culturally less acceptable than in the past.

But that is not all. According to one study’s findings,

Betel nut chewing was closely associated with BMI and it was proposed that the underlying cause was increased appetite of betel nut chewers… [Researchers] also proposed that obesity could be the possible intermediary by which betel nut chewing could increase cardiovascular disease…

Because betel nut consumption may increase the risk for obesity and its complications, it is important to assess the association between betel nut chewing and obesity in Asian countries.

Subsequent studies showed mixed results, because there are so many competing factors, among them smoking and alcohol consumption. A 2015 study carried out in the Mariana Islands (Guam and Saipan) looked at 300 betel nut chewers, slightly more than half of them male. The researchers differentiated between Class 1 hardcore users who took their betel straight, and Class 2 users who chewed it mixed with tobacco:

The findings suggest that Class 1 chewing pattern is associated with high central adiposity among males, but not among females in the Mariana Islands.

Because betel nut chewing is one of the very stubborn ingrained cultural factors about which Downey spoke, the struggle to convince people to give up this habit is real.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Betel Nut Chewing Is Strongly Associated With General and Central Obesity in Chinese Male Middle-aged Adults,” NIH.gov, 02/26/09
Source: “Pattern of Areca (betel) Nut Chewing and Obesity Measures in Guam and Saipan, Mariana Islands,” Academic.oup.com, 09/23/15
Image by Frank Starmer/CC BY-SA 2.0

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

FAQs and Media Requests: Click here…

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

Profiles: Kids Struggling with Obesity top bottom

The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

Food & Health Resources