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Everything's getting chubbier and it might not be anyone's fault

August 12, 2013

When the heat is on, there is a natural tendency to try to deflect attention away from ourselves.

So that could be the explanation for the scholarly work titled, “Canaries in the coal mine: a cross species analysis of the plurality of obesity epidemics,” which was highlighted this week in Alex Tabarrok’s Marginal Revolution blog.

The gist of the paper is that, yes, we humans might be growing increasingly obese, but so are various members of the animal kingdom.

The study looked at 20,000 animals representing eight species that come in contact with the modern human world. The result showed that “In all populations, the estimated coefficient for the trend of body weight over time was positive.”

This is language we scientists understand to mean “everything’s getting chubbier.”

Misery loves company, so I suppose this is good news.

“Yeah, I’m obese, but so is my dog.”

Oh, OK.

It’s probably just as good an excuse as “I’m big-boned,” or “I retain water.”

We’re fat, but hey, who isn’t?

The paper, which looked at animal populations over the past half century, found that mammals are getting fatter across the board.

Some of this stands to reason — dogs and cats are fatter, but there’s not a lot of mystery there. If you doubt that, try putting a bowl of high-calorie food in front of your spouse 24/7 and require no greater exertion than the occasional walk outside, and see what happens.

We all love our pets, and when we love them, we tend to feed them more. For evidence, look at the pet food aisle, where you will see people standing for 20 minutes at a time trying to decide whether Spot would prefer Slow Cooked Yankee Pot Roast or Basted Steakhouse Prime Rib.

Two things: One, unless it’s a prime rib out of Mr. Ed, there probably isn’t a whole lot of steak in that can, and two, your dog DOES NOT CARE. He digs up and eats eggshells out of the compost heap; he is not all of a sudden turning into Phyllis Richmond.

Anyway, dogs and cats are bound to be fat because they’re long on treats and short on gym memberships.

The more interesting investigation centers on species such as monkeys and rodents. And yes, believe it or not, the study concludes that there is an obesity epidemic among wild Norway rats. Over the past 50 years, rats trapped in city neighborhoods have porked up at a rate of 6 percent a decade.

So if the last rat you saw was gasping for breath and clutching its chest, that would be why.

The simple explanation is that rats live off our garbage, and as we have become wealthier and fatter over the past half century, the amount and quality has gone up. Something you just don’t stop to think about, but there you go.

But even this doesn’t explain obesity that’s been documented in pasture-raised horses, or monkeys or anything else that doesn’t subsist on our half-eaten double cheeseburgers.

And it doesn’t explain why laboratory mice — which have been fed basically the same diet for decades — are getting fatter, too.

The possible answer is intriguing, and potentially liberating.

We are not getting fat just because restaurants serve meals on plates the size of a patio table or because we move around about as much as the average fence post.

There might literally be something in the air — environmental toxins or viruses — that is disrupting our normal hormonal processes that are responsible for keeping off the weight.

How great would that be?

Americans have many differences, but we are unified in our quest for proof that our shortcomings are not our fault. And what if we could get thin, not by exercising or dieting, but by wearing a dust mask?

And if that happens, once again we will have man’s best (fat) friend to thank.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at timr@herald-mail.com.

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