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Do Antibiotics Make Us Fat?

Antibiotics and obesity. Whether it’s possible that antibiotics plump up humans the same way they do animals, livestock. Plus, we check in on the third anniversary of Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Disaster.


Microbiologist Tatiana Travis reads a panel to check on a bacterium's resistance to an antibiotic in an antimicrobial resistance and characterization lab within the Infectious Disease Laboratory at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP)

Microbiologist Tatiana Travis reads a panel to check on a bacterium’s resistance to an antibiotic in an antimicrobial resistance and characterization lab within the Infectious Disease Laboratory at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP)

American farmers commonly feed their livestock grain laced with antibiotics because it makes bigger animals.  Heavier.  Fatter.  So what about the antibiotics we humans take – for the ear ache, the strep throat, the sinus infection.  Could those make us heavier?  Fatter?  No one argues that diet and exercise – or lack of it – come first.  But could antibiotics be a scale-tipping X-factor in American obesity?  This hour On Point:  we’re looking at antibiotics and obesity.  Plus, we’ll go to Japan to check in on the Fukushima nuclear power plant, three years after its tsunami disaster.

– Tom Ashbrook


Pagan Kennedy, columnist for the New York Times and contributor to The New York Times Magazine. (@PaganKennedy)

Dr. Ilseung Cho, assistant professor of medicine and associate program director for the Division of Gastroenterology at the New York University School of Medicine.

Dr. James Levine, professor of medicine at Arizona State University, expert in obesity research. Co-director of the Mayo Clinic / A.S.U. Obesity Solutions Initiative.

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times: The Fat Drug – “In the last decade, however, scrutiny of antibiotics has increased. Overuse of the drugs has led to the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria — salmonella in factory farms and staph infections in hospitals. Researchers have also begun to suspect that it may shed light on the obesity epidemic.”

Mother Jones: Can Antibiotics Make You Fat? –”Are we being exposed to tiny levels of antibiotics through residues in the meat we eat—and are they altering our gut flora? It turns out that the Food and Drug Administration maintains tolerance limits for antibiotic residue levels, above which meat isn’t supposed to be released to the public.”

Nature: Antibiotics in early life alter the murine colonic microbiome and adiposity – “Antibiotics administered in low doses have been widely used as growth promoters in the agricultural industry since the 1950s, yet the mechanisms for this effect are unclear. Because antimicrobial agents of different classes and varying activity are effective across several vertebrate species, we proposed that such subtherapeutic administration alters the population structure of the gut microbiome as well as its metabolic capabilities.”

Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, Three Years Later

Antoni Slodkowski, politics and general news correspondent at Reuters. (@slodek)

Edwin Lyman, senior scientist of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Co-author of “Fukushima: The Story of A Nuclear Disaster.”

Reuters: The children of Japan’s Fukushima battle an invisible enemy — “Though the strict safety limits for outdoor activity set after multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011 have now been eased, parental worries and ingrained habit mean many children still stay inside. And the impact, three years on, is now starting to show, with children experiencing falling strength, lack of coordination – some cannot even ride a bicycle – and emotional issues like shorter tempers, officials and educators say.

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  • Yar

    Fukushima is only part of the earthquake disaster. Please emphasize just how big this quake and tsunami was. In 1812 the new Madrid fault in Illinois had a earthquake that knocked down cabins in Cincinnati and rang church bells in Boston. The Japan quake was 100 times larger than the New Madrid quake. Before we judge Japan’s response, ask what a 9.0 quake in the US would look like. We are not prepared! We will have a large quake sometime, it isn’t if it’s when.

    • AnneDH

      Not only a 9.0 quake, but located at a large nuclear facility. I agree, we Americans love to live with wool over our eyes.

      • Yar

        Every nuclear plant in the US has used fuel in “temporary storage”.

  • Shag_Wevera

    Careful, you might brush up against the realization that we cannot sustain the current food paradigm without these antibiotics!

  • AC

    we are far more sedentary than we were a short centry ago. evolution hasn’t caught up……i guess, eat less period.

  • J__o__h__n

    What is the likelihood that a vegan is going to comment that we shouldn’t eat meat at all rather than trying to address problems with meat production?

  • Jay

    Monsanto Protection Act Signed By Obama, GMO Bill “Written By Monsanto” Signed Into Law


    • Yar

      Is Round up an antibiotic? “In the same way that many antibiotics gum up enzyme production to kill bacteria, glyphosate gums up enzymes in plants to kill them. Glyphosate kills plants like antibiotics kill bacteria.”


  • Scott B

    They use them to make chickens bigger, why wouldn’t that apply to humans as a side effect of their overuse in medicine, and that our food (such as chickens) are full of them?

    • Carrie

      They just grow faster, sometimes w less food, but end up same size eventually.

  • creaker

    The real danger is misusing antibiotics – improper dosing/usage just creates a breeding ground to create bacteria resistant to these antibiotics.

  • J__o__h__n

    “Evangelicist” from a NY Times writer?

  • John_Hamilton

    There are alternatives. Farmers markets, food coops, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), organic grass fed beef, organic vegetarian diet, growing your own food, and avoiding restaurants that offer “conventional” food.

    What the use of antibiotics in agriculture is an example of is the massification of our food system. In a mass industrial system there is an automatic tendency to concentrate activities and methods to produce maximum output at the least cost. The focus is not on the well-being of consumers, but of the profits of producers. The more mass the system, the more concentration follows. We are lucky in this system that we still have choice, and free speech.

  • Yar

    In beehives with high level of fungicides the level of fungus is actual higher. Fermenting of pollen is disrupted by fungicides.

  • malkneil

    I didn’t think the antibiotics directly affected the weight-gain of the animal. It was my understanding that they simply kept the animal from getting sick, often in spite of the poor conditions they’re kept in.

    • Carrie

      Actually the research is very clear on this, odd as it may seem. No disease need be present and even works when only bacteria around are the “good” ones.

  • Carrie

    I am a researcher in this field, developing animal feed supplements that do the same as growth-promoting antibiotics, without the drugs. This “works” across species because it reduces gut inflammation that is caused by even “good” bacteria, freeing up metabolic resources that would otherwise be wasted on on over active gut immune response.

    When drawing analogies to humans it is KEY to note that growth-promoting antibiotics in animals promote GROWTH, not obesity. These are being used interchangeably. GPAs do not make animals fat-that’s undesirable in animals as well as people. They are mostly used in growing animals to put on lean muscle mass. In adults they often result in production gains in other areas like milk or egg production, not obesity.

    So although I agree there’s a problem overuseing antibiotics in both people and animals, and gut bacteria play a major role in metabolism, the analogy between GPAs and human obesity is mis founded.

  • Yar

    When power plants are shut down, who pays for orphaned assets? This is an issue for coal plants in the US and Nuclear plants in Japan. The people are who foots the bill.

    • WorriedfortheCountry

      In the US the decommissioning is built into the price of the power during the life of the plant. So yes, the people foot the bill — it is baked into the price.

  • Matt

    I was stunned to hear Tom accept so readily the notion that parents who are prescribed antibiotics for their children by a doctor should NEVER question it, ALWAYS take the drugs and unthinkingly accept whatever the doctor suggests. Are we still living in the 1950′s? This is a staggeringly naive position to take, particularly when we KNOW that pediatricians overprescribe antibiotics, by their own admission, by massive amounts, and have been for decades. You should NEVER simply accept what your doctor says, ALWAYS question their treatment plans, do your own homework, be willing to seek a second opinion, or a third. Medicine is a deeply flawed field and doctors are human beings with their own flaws. Assuming otherwise is just pure fantasy.

    • TJPhoto40

      I agree with Matt on this, and challenge the notion presented by Dr. Levine and then echoed by Tom that one should always accept the advice of a doctor regarding use of antibiotics. I do think most conscientious doctors these days recognize that antibiotics have been used routinely and to excess, and that this has led to a crisis with drug-resistant bacteria. But many doctors have for years felt pressured to do something when presented with a medical situation in children where parents want to take action in some way. So parents play a role in this as well.

      Today, I think the majority of doctors are wiser in their application of antibiotics, but it remains an issue that parents and adult patients should question their doctors about before starting such an antibiotic course.

    • Crozet_barista

      SO right! Many doctors are acting based on their own prejudice and learned misconceptions (med schools are not infallible by a long shot and always outdated in their course materials). Also physicians are often pushed by big pharma to prescribe their products. So a healthy dose of skepticism on the side of the patient and parent is a must.

    • Imondekhai Ohilebo Godwin

      From a microbiology point of view, I would say antibiotics should be prescribed after the minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC) or antibiotics sensitivity have been done. When prescribed after this, refusing to complete required dose might lead to antibiotics resistance.

  • Government_Banking_Serf

    A core gut microbiome in obese and lean twins:


    Gut micro biome and neurodisorders:


  • TJPhoto40

    I think this is a very interesting topic that calls for continued research, and I feel sure that antibiotics have at least played a role in not just obesity but other health issues where the intestinal bacteria have been compromised in some way. But let’s try to focus on the major cause of obesity, which is improper diet–namely, excess intake of simple carbohydrates.

    Gary Taubes has written persuasively on this topic, as in his book Why We Get Fat, though his own personal food choices are pretty atrocious because of reliance on meat in many forms. The woman who called in to say she remains obese despite making what she considers all the right choices regarding diet is probably missing the simple sugars in her diet. But there are clearly numerous personal issues such as hormonal changes that influence this as well, even if many of them are at least somewhat driven by diet. I’m just pointing out that the one factor many people still miss when choosing to eat right is the consumption of sugar in any form. (See Dr. Lustig’s findings and comments on the fact that all sugars are essentially the same–fructose, sucrose and so on.) So even our beloved fruit becomes a bit of a villain when we make concentrated fruit smoothies and that kind of thing.

    So, back to the essential point, eating a diet of unprocessed foods and especially a range of vegetables is the key to achieving a proper weight as well as overall health. The micronutrients in such food are also crucial. (See Dr. Joel Fuhrman on this topic.) I’m all for exercise, too, but as Gary Taubes points out there’s little evidence that exercise leads to weight loss; it may help to maintain a proper weight but not to actually lose weight.

  • Sy2502

    No human being in his right mind takes as many antibiotics over his lifetime as a farm animal. Let’s compare apples to apples here.

    • Gtls Luis Marquez

      Well, we get chlorine and chloramine all day long from the water treatment plants and they affect our guts… so is not just antibiotics as medicine… the problem could be from different sources..

      • Sy2502

        The article is specifically about antibiotics.

        • Gtls Luis Marquez

          Well, chlorine and chloramine are antibiotics, that is why are used in the water treatment plants… you said that we don’t use that much antibiotics and I said… think again… not only with the water, the meat, poultry.. etc.. we consume a lot of antibiotics… just that…

          • Sy2502

            Chlorine does kill bacteria but isn’t what we’d call an antibiotic. If you get an infection and go to the doctor he won’t prescribe you chlorine, will he?

          • Imondekhai Ohilebo Godwin

            Chlorine is a disinfectant not antibiotics

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