The 12 Causes of Obesity (or the 12 Causes of Stress)

Note:  This is a repost from “The Meal Matters Most“. Its relevance to autism is that this list of foundational stresses started from my autism research and I then applied the same formula to obesity. The “House Analogy” gives a visual for how all the factors, besides calories, come together to create metabolic and stress issues. You can also read “Is Obesity a Disease? An analogy to Autism“.

Obesity and Metabolic syndrome are increasingly prominent in world discussions. As it should be, its worldwide costs are estimated at $2 trillion dollars yearly. And while we are making a modicum of progress in reversing this issue by getting kids and adults to exercise and eat healthier. We are not nearly making enough progress when it comes to understanding the whys and hows and the diversity of solutions that are needed.

We still want to see obesity as a problem of personal responsibility.  That the cause of obesity is that we eat too much and don’t exercise enough. And while that may be a large part of the solution, the real causes of obesity and metabolic syndrome, as we know from evidence, is a much more complicated story.

I’ve put together an analogy of obesity as the complex factors that go into building a house. This story tells us about how we are making stress more stressful. When we have more stress, our body does what it can to adapt.  Obesity is just one problem of stress-adaptation we haven’t quite gotten our heads wrapped around.

I hope this analogy helps make sense of this complicated balance.

The House Analogy for Obesity

Let’s look at calories like the men we hire to build a house. They are the energy, the force, that gets things done. It’s wasteful and problematic to hire too many men (eat too many calories). These men of course were hired by someone. Most often the homeowner, our conscious mind, is thought to make these decisions. However, our subconscious mind, our internal supervisors, ultimately push for most of those decisions. And we’d want them to. They have the insight and the much larger task of managing what calorie resources we need and what they will do for us.

In order to decide how many men to hire, the supervisors consider the collective information about the house we’re building, including tools, materials, the foundation , the blueprints, the neighborhood and even the climate.

The supervisors have to balance all of this information in order to coordinate and direct the project. It takes quite a lot of experience, history, knowledge, skill and preparation to build a sufficient house. And that would have been tough enough, but our supervisors must also show the flexibility and know-how to constantly improve and innovate.. We need our home to remain stable, while constantly able to evolve in an ever changing environment.


Let’s take a look at a visual representation of the factors involved in building a house. Much like building our bodies, all of these factors have been scientifically shown, if not properly managed, to contribute to obesity:


House–>Body. Elements of the Build.

  1. Men: Calories: Energy from Sugars (and sometimes fat)
  2. Tools: Antioxidants, (pro and anti)Inflammatory and Feedback balancers: Fruits, Veggies, Fiber, Herbs, Spices, Probiotics
  3. Raw Materials: Protein; Meat, Dairy, Legumes, Nuts, Fats (Fatty Acids), Sunlight and Community
  4. Supervisors: Hormones, neuroendocrine, immune system, structural systems and inflammatory pathways: Estrogen, Gerlin, Insulin, Leptin, Oxytocin, Sirtuins, Orexin, BDNF, mTOR pathways and microbiota (to name a few). Regulation of stress and energy allocation through these communication channels.
  5. Blueprints and Foundation: Genetics, Epigenetics and adaptation to environmental challenges and the microbiome

“Indeed, to some extent it has always been necessary and proper for man, in his thinking, to divide things up, if we tried to deal with the whole of reality at once, we would be swamped. However when this mode of thought is applied more broadly to man’s notion of himself and the whole world in which he lives, (i.e. in his world-view) then man ceases to regard the resultant divisions as merely useful or convenient and begins to see and experience himself and this world as actually constituted of separately existing fragments. What is needed is a relativistic theory, to give up altogether the notion that the world is constituted of basic objects or building blocks. Rather one has to view the world in terms of universal flux of events and processes.

– David Bohm, considered one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century

Calories would be like the Men, the energy, to build the house. Our hormones would be like the Supervisors giving instructions and guidance. The Tools are the levelers, balancers, screws, hammers and precision tools to put all the Materials to proper use. The Tools are the variety of phytochemicals we get with our fruits, vegetables, fiber, herbs and spices. The Raw Materials are what we get from meat, legumes, nuts, milk, fats and sunlight. Our Tools make sure our Materials are fully and properly utilized. Supervisors carefully follow our Blueprints, our genetic code from the thousands of years of experience and our epigenome, sort of like “scouts” trying to give us more immediate conditions and future projections.

The Supervisors must also have a constant understanding of our Foundation; the land the house is being built upon, like our microbiome. The Supervisors also survey the Climate to prepare for inclement weather and the Community for the services available if disasters should strike.

In order to build a house we need solid blueprints, exceptional supervisors, proper tools, plenty of raw materials and of course just the right amount of strong capable men to get the job done.

The number of men (aka calories) we need will shift depending on the other variables and stage of the build. However, if the blueprints, supervisors or feedback mechanisms aren’t on point, or if we’ve gotten false information from our surveyors, then the house itself, after being built, will need constant maintenance and will most likely start breaking down (stress disorders). It will cost us a lot of time and money. We can save money in the short-term and along the way of course by getting rid of our most obvious money drain, our labor costs (men/calories). This may make it appear that the money problem was solved and therefore the men were the cause, but the least amount of calories you have (men showing up to do a job) does not build the best house. You need all the men you can get in balance with the tools, materials, good supervisors and solid blueprints to build the most efficient, powerful and effective house you can construct.

“It’s all about simple math. Calories In Calorie Out”. — I can see how they’d think that.

Calories are the strongest single factor to control when a system is in a state of equilibrium; when all of the other factors are in order and accounted for. However, in states of non-equilibrium, when the balances of supervisors, tools and materials are off, calories are no longer the cause or the central factor to contend with. It’s only about the simple math* when we have nothing else interfering with the ideal numbers in and numbers out. So it is not just about simple math, but our goal would be to get the other factors under control so it could be about the simple math.

*For those physics-minded this simple math is called a manifold. In one dimension we use Euclidean geometry or a straight forward math. However when the dynamics shift and we need a larger worldview we use Non-Euclidean geometry, a math of complex system. So everything is always about math, but you must know which form of mathematics is relevant and when.

“Logic is a systematic way of coming to the wrong conclusion with confidence” ~Murphy’s Law

The real causes of these disorders is our thinking. When we take a linear approach, thinking if you find a problem you should get rid of it. However, looking at it in isolation and then take it out of an ecosystem, you run the potential of majorly screwing up the ecosystem. (Watch “How Wolves Change Rivers“)

How did we get so screwed up?

Why we got rid of Fat, Germs and Sunlight

Thoughtful leaders increasingly recognize that we are not only failing to solve the persistent problems we face, but are in fact causing them.” John Sterman, 2002 MIT speech “All Models are Wrong: Reflections on Becoming a Systems Scientist”

Fats are fattening, germs are bad, and the sun causes cancer. The logic of “if its bad get rid of it” may actually have caused more problems than it solved. Fats, Germs (our gut microbiome) and the Sun (nutrient hormones produced from sunlight) all make a difference in our immune systems, neuroprotection and stress regulation. These factors impact our energy regulation (fat storage), adaptive mechanisms and our behavior. Without these protectors the stress of everyday life and exposures become more stressful to us. Without resources our bodies are in heightened states of protectiveness. The body subsequently begins over-reacting to our environment with inflammation but also often wanting to hire more men thinking that may solve the problem–aka ‘comfort foods’. We essentially have lowered the bar in our ability to handle stress and our bodies end up trying to find ways to protect and compensate from these stressors. When this is unsuccessful the body ends up manifesting this stress as various disorders, protective strategies and trade-offs.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein


1. Calories

Marion Nestle describes our current calorie overload as a consequence of a “toxic food environment“. Readily available high-calorie low-nutrition food sources creates an easy platform for consistent calorie overload. Calories, like men in excess, need to be paid and put somewhere. In a way this fat storage is meant to be protective, but we can only handle so much before it is excessive and stressful to the system and creates an inability to manage the calories creating obesity and chronic disorders (excessive unmanaged stress).

2. Sugar

Sugars (carbohydrates) are a primary energy source, they are good. However, in order to get energy from carbs we have to pay a “tax” to make and breakdown them down. Too much sugar, especially in refined form, especially in forms reduced, cheapened and further isolated forms, like table sugar or High-Fructose Corn Syrup causes unmanaged stress. Sugar needs to be in balance, like the men, with the tools, materials and natural buffers.

3. Manufactured Fats

I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say that the trans-fats of the 1980’s were likely the greatest onerous disastrous mistake in history. Manufactured vegetable oil fats like Crisco (1911) and the greater use in the 1970s thru 1990s have potentially so many deleterious impacts and may have created a vortex hole of missing precursors and blocking mechanisms to our health and stress regulation. And when one generation goes through life with these kinds of exposures, as exampled by researchers at University of Georgia who discovered that mothers that ate trans-fats during breastfeeding had infants with higher levels of body fat. We are seeing these very essential fats, replaced by very fake fats, having long-term and unpredictable impacts tweaking the resilience and outcomes of our next generation’s stress regulation issues.

4. Getting rid of Animal Fats

On that same note, and it deserves its own number, is getting rid of natural fats we obtained from animals and the fats in the context with the products we made from them, such as butter and cheese. The saturated and natural trans-fats, and the multitude of other nutrients and combination of fatty acids buffered the stress on our systems. Omega-3 fats especially disappearing from grass-fed animals in the combination and balance we evolved with were part of how our bodies and brains built and protected themselves. Their absence causes us to experience greater levels of stress. These fats, like carbs, require the system to pay a “tax” for their use. So they need to be respected for their potential negative impacts. However they also should be exalted, for when in balance, moderation and in the proper context of tools, materials and supervisors are wonderful, if not essential to the betterment of our health and survival.

5. Germs: Or rather not having enough germs

Getting rid of germs because germs cause disease became the cornerstone of our medical science in the early 1900’s. What we’re seeing today is that even though antibiotics have their place and usefulness their over-use has consequences. Researcher Leonardo Trasande associate professor of Pediatrics, Environmental Medicine and Health Policy at NYUWagner shows us that early exposure in infants before 6 months with antibiotics can lead to increased body mass. Part of that reasoning may be because it can have some impact on our stress responses, but it also disrupts our friendly gut bacteria.

When it comes to germs being the bad guys, it can now be agreed that there are bacteria that made their homes in our guts and we co-evolved together, as friends. We officially have friendly germs! Our microbiome germs do tasks for us, like digesting foods, producing nutrients, metabolites and preventing malnutrition. They also keep our immune systems in check, process drugs and toxins and even fight diseases for us! Many of these friendly bacteria came from or are nurtured by the foods we ate. Fiber and sugars feed our bacterial friends, referred to as prebiotics. And cultured foods, all kinds of dairy, fruits, grains, vegetables and meats which were fermented and are medically referred to as foods with probiotics (beyond yogurt). These foods were decadent, delicious and irresistible umami-flavored gems that were fantastic and delicious ways to gain these little “helpers”. And we most likely evolved with or even because of them (another bump to our evolution after we figured out fire and cooking). The act of fermentation goes back at least 5-10,000 years during our behavioral modernity of our evolutionary history. We’d have reason to believe they could have been a partial catalyst for this evolutionary explosion as they assist in regulating our genetic expression, immune responses and may have contributed (freeing up energy, stress, etc) to our cognitive expansion. Without this germ diversity our environment causes us more stress and can disrupt our energy regulation, playing their part in the obesity epidemic.

6. Processed foods

Refinement and processing of grains and foods stripped down with added flavorings make our brains think that what we are eating tastes good. They do taste good; they imitated the flavor combinations that lead us to the most nutrient and calorie dense interactive combinations of once real and good-for-us-and-helped-evolve-us-foods that were our traditional meals. Michael Moss has written succinctly about corporate industry “food products” destroying our health as well as David Kessler in his description of how these foods “hijack” our brains. These fake and scientifically put together foods drive us to eat more. It arbitrarily soothes our brains into thinking we are getting the highest quality resource for calories when in actuality it is tricking our brains and creating more stress. This stress then drives us to find more extreme resources creating a cycle of addiction and vulnerability.

7. Pesticides and Pollutants

Evidence shows there is more to obesity than diet and exercise and pollutants are a perfect example of those complex interactions. Hormones are a way for our environment to signal and guide us to what is happening and what we need to prepare for. Therefore endocrine disruptors, like PAHs or BPAs in the environment that mimic those signals do more than interrupt reproduction as once thought, they have the potential to make stress more stressful. The endocrine disruptors impact stress (information about resource and challenges) which imparts alterations in signally in the brain and immune set-point development. Pollutants and pesticides in the absence of proper nutrition also have a greater impact and it’s vice versa. Researchers like Jessica Bowman at Duke University have shown that after the impact of a pollutant, the same high-fat diet will cause more harm in those exposed. Hormone disruption will also have diverse influences and susceptibility patterns because of the diversity in our populations. Unlike germ theory model where the same germ creates the same disease, hormone disruption depends on the system, state of system and timing of impact.

8. Social Stress

Let’s say this plainly. We cannot separate the body from the mind. The body/mind stress mechanisms while can be distinct all come together in the “hub” of sensory networks; stress and immune perception. The mind is a sensing system for the body and vice versa. These are connected because it protects us, but the brain and subsequent stress/immune responses and organ systems are “expensive”, so this communication is a means to allocate resources. It’s a full body coordination, where to focus our time and energy and which system gets neglected. The mind, our psychology, can create the very same impacts to our immune system as physical or microbial threats. When it comes to obesity we know from studies that chronic social stress can assist in creating obesity as we know that having social support can move fat from storage areas to burning areas reducing risk of obesity. There are hormones within the heart , or the sympathetic nervous system, impacted by social stress leading to heart problems and obesity. Many of these factors interact, enhance, diminish, or otherwise confound each other, the psychology will cross-over to the physical and vice versa via the multitudes of “cross-talk” among the body’s organs, stress perceiving and resource allocation hubs. Lack of quality nutrition, early life impacts that lower our immune set-points, or individual variances in those set-points for information and cognitive processing can set the stage to make stress more stressful. How protected or threatened we feel matters deeply on a physical level and how physically threatened we are manifests cognitively, it’s a bidirectional and intimately intertwined communication.

9. Epigenetic Programming

We use to believe that something that happens to us immediately and when you take the problem away, the problem goes away. But the human body is much smarter than we ever imagined. Information about the environment from early life exposures and even previous generations of our parents and grandparents can create problems in many indirect ways called epigenetic programming. Dietary exposures and manipulations as one develops and stress mechanisms can be altered to adjust to a “hostile” environment to modify stress reactivity. Part of this is to seek and store more resources leading to obesity.

10. Sleep Disturbances

A two-way street, the more stressed we are the more it disrupts our circadian cycles, the less we sleep the more we are stressed… and eat.

11. Limited Sunlight

There are two ways to look at the sun causing cancer. First is that the sun is bad for us and we should avoid and block it out. The second way would be that the sun has become more stressful and that stress is what is creating the cancer outcomes from exposure. Nutrition choices, immune activation, emotional stress levels and the increased vulnerability of our ‘stress-sensing’ skin may all play a part in these increasing cancer rates. So was blocking out the sun the answer? It might be that getting better nutrition, stress protective and stress recovery may be equally important.

There are two aspects of sunlight that we know of that contribute to health. The production of nitric oxide is discussed by researchers at the University of Edinberg helping prevent stress that leads to overall health risks. Making the benefits of sunlight far outweighing the risks for cancer. Vitamin D, melatonin and other factors synthesized by our bodies upon sun exposure, are also known to have a two-way relationship in obesity. It is suggested as a cushion for inflammation. Vitamin D from the sun is a hormone that has a foundation in our development, immune functionality and integrated systems such as skin integrity and our microbiota. We were built with the sun as a resource, it would only make sense we would make use of it and need it.

12. Our Approaches and Thought-Processes

Reductionistic singular linear thinking takes us to the assumption that we can blame an outside thing instead of the sensing interactions of the system. We end up getting rid of a thing that causes us stress instead of working with the system to be more resilient to stress. And those “things” creating stress may have been essentially useful to us.

Stress mechanisms are chaos patterns. Initial conditions, variable influences and variable outcomes. It is what is called Systems Thinking. The system is more important to the outcome than the thing. Stress is information about the environment. Different people have different needs and processing potential, so they have different sensitivities, vulnerabilities and different mechanisms as trade-offs and compensation patterns. Something to be discussed in detail later, but for now this, in scientific terms, is moving from a linear perspective, in which people are “strong or weak” to a nonlinear perspective of more complicated gene-environment interactions of diversity of stress management trade-offs.

Lowering calories alone will not solve obesity

Firing men appeared to solve problems because it gives us immediate cash (and cash can solve a lot of problems). But generally it’s only a short-term solution. It’s inadequate to just blame men when clearly we must look at all the factors that take place building a complex coordination of events like the ecosystems of our bodies and the degradation into disease states like obesity. More than calories clearly matter and real foods and a different scientific conceptualization is in order.

Obesity and metabolic distress is a $2 trillion dollar problem with very few answers.  It seems reasonable that it’s time to change our perspective and ask different questions: What causes stress? How do we better understand stress and adaptations? What are stress dynamics and expectations based on the rules of physics and facts of physiology?

Its time to stop arguing and find some common ground.

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