MATT BRASS

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Nagged by the rags: The daunting task of buying clothes made in the U.S.A.

“Are you serious?” my husband asked over the commotion of the evening supper table. “We don’t buy foreign-made clothes anymore? When did that happen?”

The answer: April 24 at Rana Plaza.

For me, the collapse of the clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, was less an epiphany and more of a last straw. Over the past few years, a nagging little voice had been questioning the ethics of my wardrobe. The rubble and corpses of Rana Plaza demanded I do something about it.

 
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Startup's GeoAir recipe calls for Drones, pest DNA and AgBiz savvy

WHEN it comes to pest control, most farmers still do it the old-fashioned way -- scouting the fields on foot to see if plants show signs of blight or infestation.

But perhaps not much longer, if entrepreneur Alex Adams has anything to do with it.

The 25-year-old Bristol native is developing a product called GeoAir. It combines drone technology with DNA air-sample testing that can detect bacteria and fungi before they strike crops, allowing farmers to treat their fields before plant damage begins.

 
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Vibrant life: rewriting the rules of weight loss

Kristin McCool grew up in a “meat and potatoes” family that leaned toward the heavy side.

“Mom and dad always struggled with weight,” says the mother of two young boys. “I would say 70 percent of my family was overweight in some way.”

It’s a past that continues to dog McCool as she works to maintain a healthy lifestyle herself—getting regular exercise and sticking to a doable diet focused on meal planning and healthy portions.Some days are harder than others.

Like the time she struggled with weight following two miscarriages and marriage struggles. Or when she was living in a matchbox of a house with her husband, the boys and all their stuff while juggling the day-to-day challenges of home construction. Or in the hormone-ridden, sleep-deprived months after her babies were born.

While McCool believes such circumstances make it difficult to maintain a good diet and regular exercise regimen, science is showing that a whole host of factors can be at play as we work to maintain a healthy weight—which, in turn, affects our risk for chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disorders and diabetes.

With more than one-third of Americans now considered obese—that is with a body mass index, or ratio of height to weight, at 30 or higher—millions know they need to lose weight, and many are trying. But it’s important to understand that the problem is more complicated that simply calories in, calories out. Numerous factors, from environmental to microbial, play a role in why we gain weight to begin with and, subsequently, how hard it is to shed. And the last 50 years has delivered a surprising set of new triggers for obesity.

Here are some of the key factors research is starting to sleuth out—and tips on how to tackle the role they may be playing in your weight loss program.

Sleep

There’s no question—too little sleep can result in too much weight. The trend toward less sleep has tracked closely with the increase in overweight across the country, and research results are now parsing out why that’s the case.

We’ve all felt it—the urge to binge on calorie-laden junk food after one too many short-nighters. At a metabolic level, sleep plays a major role in the body’s neuroendocrine system. Failing to achieve the recommended seven-plus hours of shut-eye tampers with the delicate hormonal balance, resulting in decreased glucose tolerance, lessened insulin sensitivity, increased levels of ghrelin—the hormone that makes us feel hungry—and decreased levels of leptin—the hormone that makes us feel satisfied. All this creates confusion in our perceived and actual need for nutrition along with the way our bodies utilize it, quickly packing on the pounds.

A number of studies have also shown that working the night shift can be detrimental to maintaining healthy weight. One recent review of more than 60 research studies in the Obesity Review revealed a correlation between working night and early morning shifts and weight gain along with other health problems. Other studies have indicated potential similar detrimental effects from sleep loss due to modern lighting, electronics access and noise pollution.

“To date, approximately 50 epidemiological studies done in different geographical regions have examined the association between sleep and obesity in adults and children,” stated a 2013 National Institutes of Health titled “Sleep and obesity.” “The majority found a significant association between short sleep (generally <6 hours per night) and increased obesity risk.”

Sleeping it off—If you’re starting, or stuck, in a weight loss plan, examine your sleeping habits.

  • Get 7-8 hours of good sleep each night

  • Reduce or eliminate caffeine intake, which can impact quality sleep

  • Reconsider a low- or no-carb diet, which can leave you feeling nervous and unable to relax. Without the release of insulin to manage sugar in the bloodstream, the body has difficulty coming up with serotonin needed to induce slumber

  • Eliminate use of electronic devices prior to bedtime

  • Consider a quiet time of meditation or reading from—gasp!—a book before head hits pillow.

Stress

It’s called “comfort food” for a reason. Many of us turn to eating as a way to soothe the stresses of life, whether it be a death, divorce, illness or high demands at work—a practice that can easily tip the scales in the wrong direction. That response is related to what happens inside our bodies during such times of duress, i.e. fight or flight. Even though we may not literally be running from a robber or grappling with a bear, our body doesn’t know the difference and sends propitious amounts of the stress hormone, cortisol, into our blood. This, in turn, drives appetite as our physiology prepares for the worst.

But just making sure you munch on carrots instead of Twinkies—like who in the world downs a comfort salad?—may not prevent packing on pounds. As a result of the cortisol coursing through our veins, our body fails to produce as much testosterone, which decreases muscle mass and reduces daily calories burned. One interesting study published in 2016 followed survivors forced to live in temporary housing after the Great East Japan earthquake of 2011 and compared their health to those who were permanently settled. Within 18 months, the temporary dwellers had gained significantly more weight than their non-transient counterparts, both for men and women.

“Analysis after adjustment for lifestyle, psychosocial factors and cardiovascular risk factors found that people living in temporary housing in the tsunami-stricken area had a significant increase in body weight,” the authors concluded.

Stress relief—Obviously, in most cases, we can’t control the stress that’s happening to and around us, but there are a few steps we can take to help alleviate it.

  • Exercise produces endorphins that counteract stress hormones and help keep the fight or flight reaction at bay. “Exercise is my first and foremost go-to for keeping down stress,” says McCool. “I just get overwhelmed really easily, but if I get exercise at least every other day I feel I can keep focused and calm.” An important secondary benefit: It also helps maintain that vulnerable muscle mass mentioned earlier. 

  • Get outdoors. Numerous studies show a decrease in psychological and emotional problems following exposure to nature. Set aside a 15-minute break each day to take a walk at the park, sit under a tree or simply stand still in the sunshine.

  • Consider counseling if you are dealing with a major life change or long-term stressful circumstances. Sometimes engaging an expert, objective third party is the best way to discover the stress-free formula that’s right for you.  

Microbes

All stomachs are not created equal. The way our bodies digest food determines how efficiently and well the nutrients are used, and science is unearthing new understanding about the way the microbial life inside our gut can impact a range of health issues. Obesity is one of them.

Gut bacteria, as it turns out, can be affected by a number factors—from whether or not a baby is born via caesarean section (apparently we scoop up important microbes on the trip through the birth canal) to the amount of processed foods that make up the daily diet. Use of antibiotics has also been shown to play a role in negatively altering gut health, with one study finding that young mice given low doses of antibiotics pack on more pounds than their untreated counterparts. Obesity itself can impact the health of the gut, creating a kind of chain reaction related to overweight and other health issues.

Gut reaction—Although there’s still lots to learn about these interactions, there are a couple of easy steps to take to make sure your gut is as healthy as possible.

  • Take antibiotics only when absolutely necessary. Use natural methods such as rest and hydrotherapy to treat illness instead.

  • Adopt a clean diet, eliminating processed foods—which includes most “diet” products. Focus on fresh foods, fruits and vegetables and plenty of variety.

  • Breastfeed your baby. Breast milk provides infants with a healthy set of microbes to start them out on the right path.

Environmental pollutants

Toxic chemicals, found increasingly in earth and sea and sky, present a unique challenge to weight loss. In addition to causing a range of health problems for humans and habitat damage for the rest of the planet, what’s referred to as persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, are showing up as culprits in the rise in obesity and adult-onset diabetes. Studies have shown that these pollutants, such as polycholorinated biphenyls, pesticides and dioxins, contribute to obesity, upper body weight gain (setting up higher risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart failure) and can predispose children to obesity later in life.

Reducing your risk—While there is only so much control one can have over exposure to the chemicals that invade our daily lives, there are some steps to take that can help decrease your environmental exposure.

  • Eat organic where possible and practical to avoid intake of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. Apples, berries, peaches, tomatoes, grapes, squash, cucumbers, green beans, spinach and lettuce top the list of organic produce to invest in.

  • Cut back on consumption of meat, dairy and fish, where pollutants are found in higher concentrations. If eating meat, avoid farmed fish, such as salmon, which contains higher levels than wild-caught.

  • Again, reject processed foods, especially those high in carbs, which can contain a chemical known as acrylamide—byproduct of the high temperature cooking process.

Being young

A study released by York University last year contained startling news: Today’s 40-year-olds have to eat less and exercise more than the same generation of 40 years ago to prevent weight gain. As my kids like to say, “No fair!” And, at least for now, nobody knows why. But the finding could point to why so many people have difficulty maintaining a successful weight loss program, even when they’re doing all the right things.

“Weight management is actually much more complex than just ‘energy in’ versus ‘energy out’,” said Jennifer Kuk, professor in York University’s School of Kinesiology and Health Science in a release about the study. “That’s similar to saying your investment account balance is simply your deposits subtracting your withdrawals and not accounting for all the other things that affect your balance like stock market fluctuations, bank fees or currency exchange rates.”

“Ultimately,” Kuk said, “maintaining a healthy body weight is now more challenging than ever.”