Oh my God. It’s bad enough that every time you turn around there’s another food you can’t eat because it makes you fat, but now the scientists have really outdone themselves. Having declared 100% of all foods fattening and unfit for consumption, they have moved on to natural phenomena. Newest research finding? Being exposed to light at night can cause obesity.
Really, I am not making this up. In a study undertaken jointly by Ohio State University and the University of Haifa, Israel (but which should have been sponsored by Dracula, Prince of Darkness), researchers have found that persistent exposure to light at night may cause weight gain – even without changing physical activity or eating more food. So now you don’t even have to eat more or lay dormant on the couch like a wet washcloth to gain weight…all you have to do is recline in front of your slightly too bright digital alarm clock and you will expand like the deficit.
In related research, scientists have discovered that if you gouge your eyes out you will stay skinny, but no one will notice since everyone has gouged their eyes out.
In the light and obesity study, researchers found that mice exposed to a relatively dim light at night over eight weeks had a body mass gain that was about 50 percent more than other mice that lived in a standard light-dark cycle. According to an article about the study in the Jerusalem Post, mice were housed in one of three conditions: 24 hours of constant light, a standard light-dark cycle (16 hours of light at 150 lux, eight hours of dark), or 16 hours of daylight and eight hours of dim light (about five lux of light). Wikipedia, my go-to resource for all things illumination, says that the average family living room is lit at 50 lux, so 5 lux is as dim as Paris Hilton at the math Olympics.
“Although there were no differences in activity levels or daily consumption of food, the mice that lived with light at night were getting fatter than the others,” Ohio State University doctoral student and lead author Laura Fonken said.
Do you hear that? It is the sound of neurotic moms everywhere throwing out their baby’s night-lights. Cry all you want kid, at least you’ll fit into size 5 jeans when you grow up.
In truth, it wasn’t the light itself that caused the rotund little rodents to pop their buttons. Rather, it was the impact light had on eating patterns. “Something about light at night was making the mice in our study want to eat at the wrong times to properly metabolize their food,” said one of the researchers. Mice who were exposed to the same “bad” lighting patterns but who had food access restricted to their normal eating times didn’t expand in quite the same manner.
So the issue here, it seems, is that light makes you want to eat at weird times and eating at weird times makes you gain weight. In other words, if you hang out in the light at night and are overtaken by the munchies, tomorrow you are going to block out the Sun.
For so many of us who live in a world where we work at odd hours and live among numerous illuminated objects, it is very difficult to escape light in its entirety. As I squint around the room where I am supposed to be sleeping in the dark, I can see a lit alarm clock, the light from the TV “on” button, even some light from outside street lamps. Not sure if I’ve tallied up 5 lux here, but I am feeling a strong urge to put an automatic locking timer on the refrigerator.
It is well documented that obesity is highly correlated with other chronic conditions, among which depression is a major co-morbidity. So what do those people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) do now? SAD is a depressive disorder that afflicts approximately 6% of the U.S. population. It afflicts people in the winter when sunlight is scarce, more frequently affecting those in New Hampshire than Hawaii. One of SAD’s key features? It makes people want to overeat, among other things. The treatment for SAD? Light therapy: big old blasts of light on the order of 2,500 lux for 2 hours, or 10,000 lux for 30 minutes at a time for weeks at a time. These poor people are doomed—schizophrenic vampires damned to roam the earth in extra large sizes when exposed to dark or light.
What really bothers me about all this is that the next study we read will no doubt prove definitively that exposure to dark causes bloating, exposure to dusk leads to extreme chunkiness, and oh by the way, watching the dawn of a new day makes you plump like a Ballpark Frank. Reminds me of that old Steve Martin routine that ends with “but never at dusk!”
Truth of the matter is that despite every study on obesity, the bottom line is always the same: a healthy body is built by moderation and a lifelong commitment to eat right, exercise, and get adequate sleep. There is not a lot of rocket science to this, although the rules are not easy for most people to follow even when we know them by heart.
With all of the effort and funding that goes into these research studies, I wonder if that money could not be better spent on childhood education programs that find fun ways to teach kids to adopt a lifestyle of healthy eating and exercise from the get-go (and not to be afraid of the dark). If creating engaged healthcare consumers is the key to changing the trajectory of chronic illness, as many believe, it would be far more effective over the long term to build them from scratch starting in pre-school rather than using our resources to teach old consumers new tricks.
Besides, as any fat mouse can tell you, teaching people to see the light may not always be in their best interest.