This fascinating article in Harvard Magazine summarizes some of the latest research on obesity and inactivity-one of the most important health trends of the decade in Cascadia. (Check if you’re too heavy on the calculator here.)
Some snippets to convince you to read it:
Two-thirds of American adults are overweight, and half of these are obese. . . [and] up to 80 percent of American adults should weigh less than they do. [Note: Obesity rates are slightly lower in the Northwest states and substantially lower in BC.]
The best single behavioral predictor of obesity in children and adults is the amount of television viewing.
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Never in human experience has food been available in the staggering profusion seen in North America today. We are awash in edibles shipped in from around the planet; seasonality has largely disappeared. Food obtrudes itself constantly, seductively, into our lives-on sidewalks, in airplanes, at gas stations and movie theaters. Caloric intake is directly related to gross national product per capita.
We no longer live like hunter-gatherers, but we still have hunter-gatherer genes. Humans evolved in a state of ceaseless physical activity; they ate seasonally, since there was no other choice; and frequently there was nothing to eat at all. To get through hard winters and famines, the human body evolved a brilliant mechanism of storing energy in fat cells. The problem, for most of humanity’s time on Earth, has been a scarcity of calories, not a surfeit. Our fat-storage mechanism worked beautifully until 50 to 100 years ago.
[Harvard professor of pediatrics] David Ludwig questions farm subsidies of “billions to the lowest-quality foods”-for example, grains like corn (“for corn sweeteners and animal feed to make Big Macs”) and wheat (“refined carbohydrates.”) Meanwhile, the government does not subsidize far healthier items like fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. “It’s a perverse situation,” he says. “The foods that are the worst for us have an artificially low price, and the best foods cost more.”
Subsidies to wasteful consumption that’s bad for our bodies, bank accounts, and planet, matched with obstacles to efficient, healthful alternatives—it sounds a lot like the Northwest’s land use patterns, energy policies, tax policies, auto insurance rules, and so on and so on.
The hopeful news is that solving any of these systemic problems helps to solve the others: better energy policies, for example, mean more compact communities mean more walking means less obesity means longer lives. A vicious circle, if inverted, can become a virtuous one.