Americans, like most people in the industrialized world, are getting heavier. That much is clear.
But the reasons why our waistlines are expanding so fast are still a bit murky.
Sure, there is a simple explanation: we eat too much, and don’t get enough exercise. But that explanation doesn’t really get at the heart of the matter. It’s not as if we all sat down one day and decided to loaf around and eat bon bons and potato chips. Culturally, thin is still in; and most of us who are packing on a few extra pounds would prefer to take it off, if we could.
A more plausible explanation is that, in a host of subtle ways, our physical and cultural environments have gradually changed, transforming sloth and gluttony from deadly sins into convenient choices.
Of course, some researchers posit that we worry too much about diet and exercise, and not enough on other, often overlooked causes of weight gain. A recent article in the International Journal of Obesity, for example, cites a variety of unheralded factors that collectively contribute to growing waistlines, ranging from declining rates of smoking (nicotine is an appetite suppressant), to too little sleep (staying awake stimulates the appetite), to new medications (some antidepressants are linked with weight gain), to climate-controlled environments that require our bodies to expend less energy on heating and cooling.
Still, there’s plenty of evidence that cheaper food has made it much easier to overeat. American agriculture has seen a startling increase in productivity over the last several decades. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, per-capita calorie availability grew from 3,200 calories per day in 1980 (about where it had been for a generation) to 3,900 calories per day today. That means that we eat (or waste) about 700 extra food calories per day than we did in 1980.
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Looking at this graph, it’s easy to believe that the rising production of food (and the consequent fall in the price of a calorie) must have been a big factor in the rise in obesity; American’s weight rose roughly in tandem with food overproduction.
But then there’s a dilemma: do we really want calories to get more expensive? My budget could probably handle it if food got more expensive, but certainly not everyone’s could.
Then again, much of the reason that food is so cheap is that many foods—particularly grains, like corn and wheat—are so heavily subsidized. End the subsidies, and perhaps we’d produce a little less corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice; the cost of an empty calorie would rise; and high-calorie eating would take a bigger bite out of our wallets. And if we were really clever, the money we saved on farm subsidies could be put back into nutrition programs, such as school meals and food stamps (which also benefit farmers by stimulating demand). Net result—food’s a little more expensive, people eat a little more healthfully, and lower income folks can still afford a healthy diet.
A fellow can dream, can’t he?
I have no, NO, sympathy for those that find themselves overweight. There are just too many things to do in North America to keep your weight off, and in most cases, they don’t cost a thing. Exercise, and lots of it, keeps the weight off, and with some restraint in your eating habits, backing away from that open fridge door, smaller servings at home and in restaurants will all help you keep a slim figure. I have travelled over a large part of the world, and nowhere except the States and to some extent Canada, do you find the fatties that we have here. Australia is catching up fast, despite their mostly British heritage, where people are still relatively slim. Why? I expect its because of their imitation of American fast food buying habits. The Big M is the fastest growing food outlet in Oz. In Canada, since the 60’s, when the only fat people you saw had genetic problems, there as well it has been the fast food outlets that have made the difference. A suggestion? In England, lunch is the biggest meal of the day with smaller portions for the evening meal, so that the stomach has time to digest and make use of the food before sleep time. Incidentally, in men, where the fat tends to go to “pot”, in women it ends up in unsightly clumps all over the body which does nothing for the male sex drive. Maybe it’s a good thing.
Obviously posted by someone with kind genes. Much like myself! I can eat as much of whatever I want (although I skip the fast food mostly) and it doesn’t show. My girlfriend is the same. We do exersise regularly, but I can assure you that if we had different genetics, things would be different.Take my friend for example. He eats very reasonable amounts, always eats healthy food, and is very active. He’s out hiking/camping every weekend for the entire weekend, in the winter it’s snowshoeing and cross-country. During the week he’s playing squash and working out. And yet, he still is a bit overweight. I’m going to have to go with genes on this one…