According to Cancer Research UK, more than 7 in 10 millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) will be obese by the time they reach middle age, making them one of the heaviest generations in history.
“This isn’t a surprise if you globally look at obesity rates and when the prevalence really started to increase,” Dr. Rekha B. Kumar, medical director of the American Board of Obesity Medicine and assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, told Healthline. “The average body weight in the 1960s compared to what it was in the 80s, to what it is now, shows a significant rise in the prevalence of obesity in the 80s, when the millennial generation started to be born.”
The stats tell a story, but what could be fueling the trend in millennials? There are several contributing factors.
During the 1980s, Kumar says processed foods started to pack the grocery aisles.
“That was the age when we didn’t really know how bad added sugars were and when the public craze was about eating low fat, higher carb, added sugar foods,” Kumar said.
She explained that many processed foods during the 80s had a high glycemic index, meaning they increased blood sugar and stimulated the hormone insulin, which is implicated in rising obesity rates.
“When someone eats a high carbohydrate meal versus a high protein or high fat meal, their blood sugar can rise. For example, if you eat cereal for breakfast, you’ll have a higher rise in blood sugar than if you eat eggs for breakfast.”
The rise in blood sugar occurs because insulin is produced to process the sugar.
“When you have elevated insulin levels for prolonged periods, as someone who eats a lot of processed carbohydrates or any carbohydrates would, that is a precursor to developing obesity,” explained Kumar.
Natalie Sexton, holistic health coach and namesake of Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company, understands the impact processed foods has on obesity, but she says millennials are more educated about food, nutrition, and food transparency than generations before.
She believes processed foods are desirable because of the fast-paced lifestyle millennials were born into.
“I think millennials drive brands like mine to make better food because they want better food for themselves. But they’re not willing to have the patience to grocery shop, cook at home, and prepare their own meals so that they’re cleaner. They want to purchase foods that are already made or that they can get quickly,” Sexton told Healthline.
She says this has to do with the millennial mentality of instant gratification.
“There’s so much at the tips of our fingers that it can be overwhelming,” Sexton said.
“We can get from point A to point B so quickly and work around the clock and have access to a constant flow of information, so with all that access people sleep less than they did 50 years ago, which has an implication on body weight regulation,” Kumar said.
And access to more food in itself may perpetuate emotional eating, she adds.
“Historically, there has always been people that have a tendency to do emotional eating or binge eating or stress eating. It is somewhat related to how people are programmed in the brain. There are certain pleasure pathways that are triggered by eating food,” Kumar said. “But when food is more readily available, and more processed than it was in the past, you’re more likely to gain weight if you emotionally eat today then if you were emotional eating 60 years ago.”
Both Kumar and Sexton say devices and screens play a part in obesity among millennials. They also think screens contribute to The New England Journal of Medicine’s report that more than half of today’s children will be obese by the time they’re 35 years old.
“Older millennials were raised when technology wasn’t hugely prevalent in the beginning of their lives. They had to go outside and play in the yard. They didn’t have access to iPads and iPods. They got access to more technology in their late teens and certainly many allowed that to overwhelm them, but they still had an understanding of a time when going outside and being active was promoted,” Sexton said.
As an older millennial with a 2-year-old daughter, Sexton sees firsthand how easy it is to pacify children with a device.
“We don’t want to put up with their temper tantrums or them inconveniencing our meal, so we throw the iPad in their face. From a young age they are given things that make them sit there, be silent, watch a screen and really encourage being sedentary,” Sexton said.
As far as social media goes, Kumar doesn’t believe seeing food on Instagram and other outlets is to blame for obesity.
“Looking at food on these is really the same as when we looked at food in magazines or on TV cooking shows in the 80s and 90s. Millennials will go to Instagram to see where and what they want to eat and I don’t think it’s making people obese or making them binge or emotional eat. It’s just the way we get information that’s changed,” said Kumar.
However, Sexton says social media may have a deeper impact on people’s eating habits.
“I don’t think social media is the main driver to obesity. I do think it perpetuates the experience of trying to compare yourself with other people on a regular basis and that can ultimately have an emotional impact on human beings,” she said.
Kumar is hopeful that we can turn the obesity epidemic around with public health initiatives, such as improving school lunches, designing cities with biking and walking paths to encourage activity, and providing more communities with access to affordable healthy foods.
“To some degree, I think the millennials have suffered from things that they didn’t have control over. The good news is things are changing. It’s just going to probably take a full generation to benefit from those changes,” Kumar said.
However, steps that make change now include the following:
Eat more veggies
When preparing meals, Kumar says fill half your plate with vegetables.
“The way millennials grew up was that half their plate was filled with rice or pasta,” she said. “Make sure half your plate is green at every meal.”
Know how food is made
Reading labels is the first step to understanding food, but Sexton says take the extra step to really understand what the ingredients listed mean and how the food is made.
“Ingredients is just one step. Try to understand the brand that you buy and understand how they’re processing their food because that determines the nutritional value of your food,” Sexton said.
Get your heart rate up
Start with attainable goals for exercise. Kumar says getting your heart rate up twice a week can help combat weight.
“That can be walking or jogging or lifting weights. It doesn’t have to be so intense or for a long period of time,” she said.
Limit screen time
Limiting screen time sounds easier than it is, but both experts believe it’s possible.
“For millennials and older, most of our screen time is deeply woven into our lives. We use technology and our screens to do a lot of our regular activities — work, get information, communicate with people,” Kumar said. “But we can put healthy limits on screen use in the same way people in the 80s put limits on watching television.”
Sexton encourages more extreme measures.
“We need to start a movement on healthy technology habits, especially as an example for kids, because right now technology runs us, we don’t run technology,” she said.
Start by putting your (and your children’s) devices away at mealtime, she adds.
“Resist throwing the iPad in front of your kid to pacify her at a restaurant. Know that that text message or email or notification can wait,” said Sexton. “Be more present in your relationships. Get away from being behind screens. Go outside. Obesity is way bigger than just food. Think about the emotional impact that technology has on your mental and your physical well-being.”