Recently I wrote about a study that looked across a few decades of data about housing and health. And we have written morethanonce about the relationship between the environment, location, health and price as it relates to food. Certainly there are systems issues that conspire against us when we try to make the right decision about food—including the tactics and practices of our food industry.

Blaming the food industry might be an easy thing to do. But a combination of policies that improve what we eat and encourage alternative transportation is the recipe we need to follow.

Dr. Boyd Swinburn comes down on the side of blaming the industry. A recent study he presented at the 2009 European Congress on Obesity suggests that an absence of physical activity isn’t the primary cause of the “obesity epidemic” in America—but the food industry’s tactics to get us to eat, eat, eat.

 “The food industry has done such a great job of marketing their products, making the food so tasty that it’s almost irresistible, pricing their products just right, and placing them everywhere, that it is very hard for the average person to resist temptation. Food is virtually everywhere, probably even in churches and funeral parlors.”

Hmmm. Churches and funeral parlors? Well I can’t say I disagree with Swinburn’s point about eating too much. It is true. Eating is about energy. After all the term “calorie” is a measure of the energy embodied in food. Counting calories also give us a sense of how much exercise we have to do to ‘burn off’ that donut. The more we eat the more difficult it can be to offset our food consumption with exercise.  And some of us—myself included—live to eat while others eat to live.

As a matter of fact, we just had a discussion at Sightline’s regular staff meeting about the fact that lately a lot of baked goods have been appearing in the office. We didn’t go so far as to declare a moratorium on baking sweets and sharing them with one another, but everyone agreed that the mere presence of Eric Hess’ fantastic banana bread is enough to make us ingest some extra “energy.”

And we have been eating more. Check out this chart that shows that as Americans our calorie intake has increased by over 500 calories per day over the last 30 years. That equates to almost one extra Hostess apple pie every day.

.Calories Chart

In the most basic terms, calories are a measure of energy and it is good to reduce our caloric intake in general to the amounts we really need to maintain life and health—not extra weight. Much of the food we eat at any given meal—or snack—is loaded with enough calories, or energy, to feed a small village. And Swinburn argues that our “physical-activity levels haven’t really changed all that much.”

But here is another fact. Our commutes are longer. According to the US Census Americans spend more than 100 hours commuting to work each year mostly in cars. And while it’s true that we are eating more calories we also have been spending a lot more time in our cars—sitting.

So it’s both. We need to start eating less and better but burning more calories is important as well. The latest information is that Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in the United States and the Northwest are down and transit ridership is up. That is a positive trend no matter how you slice it. It could mean that along with reducing our impacts on climate change by sitting in our cars less, we’ll also be a lot healthier and physically active (walking to the bus). It will be interesting to see whether falling VMT will be reflected in lower obesity rates.