I’m a people watcher, when I get an opportunity.
I like to wonder about what other people are doing, their motivations, their “story” that day.
Lately, I don’t need statistics to tell me that the nation has an obesity problem. I can see it with my own eyes.
Sometimes I try to estimate the percentage of people in a room who are very obese, a little obese, just a bit overweight or trim and fit (or just a “healthy weight”). I wonder who exercises, who is blessed with an easy metabolism, who eats too much alone late at night.
The percentages are bothersome.
But even more so is the number of truly overweight children, including young, young children who are carrying far more than babyfat on their 3- or 4-year-old waists. It makes me want to cry thinking of the life in the healthcare system that these children are destined for if nothing changes.
And I do wonder “why?” How does it happen that someone who should be making adults roll their eyes, shake their heads and say, “Phew, where do they GET so much energy? They’re making me tired just watching them!” is carrying so much extra weight?
America is Fat. Period.
Want to know the numbers, in case you haven’t been noticing? In 2009-2010, 34.6 percent of boys and 32.6 percent of girls were overweight or obese with fully 17% of today’s kids falling in the obese category – tripling since 1980.
Most currently, the CDC lists adult obesity at over 1/3, or 35.7%, of the U.S. population, with even the healthiest states having at least 1/5 of the population rating as “obese.”
What is Going On?
When you consider portion sizes, fast food, junk food, marketing, open-all-night restaurants and our “eat all the time” mentality that begins with children in nursery at church, schools, and sporting events, in some ways, it’s no wonder we’re having an obesity problem.
Since last spring, I’ve been coming across various articles touching on the subject and just letting them all mix together and brew with my thoughts. The trend is simply frightening…
Food, Junk Food, All the Time
I just about stood up at my computer and applauded Yoni Freedhof for this article, “Why is Everyone Always Giving my Kids Junk Food?” He attacks the truly American notion that food – junk food – should be standard at every gathering longer than 19 minutes attended by any child between the ages of 6 months and 18 years (my words, not his).
“It’s never just ‘one,'” Freedhof counters the defenders of junk food at kids’ events, estimating that those “just one” opportunities may easily result in an extra 14 pounds of sugar per year, per child. That’s SEVEN TIMES as much as an adult would consume in an entire year 200 years ago. It’s also an extra 25,000 calories, if I did my math right:
120 teaspoons in a pound of sugar x 14 pounds = 1680 teaspoons of sugar x 15 calories per teaspoon = 25,200 extra calories
When folks say, “But it’s just ONE,” it really gets me going. Maybe I want to give a fun treat to my kids, too, instead of them being “just oned” to death every time they’re out of my sight! Maybe “just one” just doesn’t add up.
I’m thinking of taking this math to our school’s parent-teacher group and recommending a “no sugary treat” birthday policy, since more math perpetuates the problem:
25 kids in a class = 25 birthdays + 3-5 holiday parties + a “good job” treat once a week from the teacher = 60-70 built-in sugary treats in a school year.
That’s 20% of the days of the year, and my kids are allowed one dessert a day. If I don’t make them count those “occasional” treats as their “dessert,” that’s a 20% increase in their sugar intake, just like that.
And I know, many of you are saying, “Katie, you shouldn’t even allow that ‘just one’ every day!” And you may be right, but thus far, we do. I try to make healthier homemade desserts, sometimes serve fruit for dessert, and I DO count outside-the-house treats as the “one” for the day – when I know about them.
So thank you, Yoni Freedhof, for this:
People other than their parents giving children junk food shouldn’t be considered “normal,” and until that attitude changes, I guess I’ll just have to keep pointing out how crazy our new normal has become.
I’m happy to stand in the gap on this one and be “not normal” when that “normal” is so crazy!
Is it Wheat’s Fault?
Dr. William Davis thinks so. The author of Wheat Belly writes on his blog all about the changes in wheat over the past 40 or so years and how it’s adding pounds to people, even when they’re not overeating wheat.
Gliadin, in high amounts in modern wheat, interferes with the “satiety” response that tells you you’re full:
People who consume gliadin consume 400 calories more per day; people who remove gliadin reduce calorie intake by 400 calories per day. (source)
In this frightening exploration “What if?” Dr. Davis wonders if the wheat mess was intentional, a product of Big Food and drug manufacturers, giddy with the possibility – that is reality now – of people with diabetes spending $1500 per month to manage their disease.
Is it Preservatives and Additives?
Food reporter Melanie Warner thinks so. She blames processed food companies (and the foods they create) for taking real nutrition out of food and injecting synthetic vitamins and minerals back in – made of things like sheep grease and plastic – and calling it “healthy.”
Her book Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Foods Took Over the American Meal is the subject of this great interview where she talks about the processed foods she has purchased that last years beyond their expiration date – probably longer than the obese people eating them.
Is it Food Marketing?
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research Program thinks so. Their research on how food marketing both attacks and affects children under 17, as well as the easy access this population has to junk food, is a cause for alarm and a call for national change.
They claim that unhealthy food is marketed at a much higher rate that healthy food to children and adolescents – and of course that it’s working.
Is it Cheap Food?
Derek Thompson thinks so. Although it’s clear to me and my real food budget that food prices are definitely rising, the amount people spend on food is not. Compared to other countries and other eras, Americans now spend a smaller percentage of their income on food then ever.
What that really means is not that food prices are going down, but that convenience food is cheap in comparison to real food, and especially that people are making more money overall – but not spending it on food.
Statistics also show that almost HALF of many Americans’ food budgets is spent on food prepared outside the home, compared to less than 10% in 1900. And we all know how healthy and appropriate restaurant food is…
Thompson is wrong that food is actually getting cheaper – and he may be wrong that the poor are eating less food – but in my perspective his statistics point to a lack of priority on food and also an availability of cheap processed foods – high in carbs, sodium, and fillers – that allows even the poor to overeat and become obese.
Is it Soda?
Probably. Studies show that drinking your extra calories can be worse than just consuming them in other ways, and one can of soda has more sugar than an average woman is recommended to consume in an entire day. Diet sodas don’t help either – people who drink diet gain weight as much, if not more quickly, than other soda drinkers.
Is it Salt, Sugar and Fat and the Almighty Dollar?
You bet Michael Moss thinks so. His book, Salt Sugar Fat, is a must read. I only got through the “sugar” section before taking it back to the library, but I’ll be getting it out again (or buying it, which is a rare thing for me).
I was introduced to Michael Moss in this tome of an article at the NY Times: “The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food.” Be careful, even if it’s late at night, you’ll probably read the whole thing, and it will take a whole hour, and then you’ll be compelled to put his book on your wish list at the library or Amazon. It’s that compelling – and terrifying.
A fascinating quote from the book:
“The obesity trend is an epidemic, …and there is no question its roots are directly tied to the expansion of fast food, junk food, and soft drink consumption. Whether you can identify any one of those things is probably a fair question. Soft drink guys prospect on that all the time. But you can look at the obesity rates, and you can look at per capita consumption of sugary soft drinks and overlay those on a map, and I promise you: They correlate about .99999 percent.” Jeffrey Dunn, former Coca Cola executive, interviewed by Michael Moss
I can hardly even begin to break down everything that Moss covers in the book, but it suffices to say that Big Food companies know that their products aren’t good for Americans, but they still continue to think of ways to mass produce, package, extend, cheapen and market their wares to the American people (and beyond) – with devastating health consequences.
More, more, more is the mantra of Big Food – more salt, more sugar, more fat, at least to the perfect “bliss point” at which it is most pleasurable to the most people; more products, more line extensions (flavor varieties of the same product); more grocery store space; more sales. More American people eating too much food and not the right kind. More junk. And More Profit.
As I read, I could have looked up in shock every few pages, sharing a nugget of horror I didn’t know about food marketing or fascinating fact about human physiology – for example, children are actually wired to enjoy more sweetness than adults, as much as double. Sugar dulls pain, which is why hospitals even use sugar water for infant heel pokes (a procedure we opted out of). African Americans also enjoy both sweet and salt more than Caucasians, a fact food processing companies are quick to exploit in their marketing. Following suit, rates of diabetes soar in black populations.
You can get a really good idea of what the book will be like by reading the NY Times article, which is taken a lot from the opening section of the book. Every eater in America should read it, in my humble opinion.
Is It Just Too Darn Much Food?
The average size of a soda 50 years ago was about 7 ounces, if I’m remembering correctly from Salt Sugar Fat. When is the last time you saw a 7-oz. soda? Or a teacup sized portion of pasta in a restaurant, which is a normal European size according to Dr. Andrew Weil in his cookbook, True Food.
A recent ABC News piece explored the reasons why even as the rate of physical activity increases (Yay, exercise!), the rate of obesity also continues to be on the rise:
Clearly, increasing physical activity alone is having a small impact on our nation’s obesity levels, said Dr. Lou Aronne, director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
“There are several other factors to consider,” he said. “One of the main ones being the availability of too much food.”
In addition to diet, Aronne noted several other potential contributing factors — everything from lack of sleep to the effects of certain medications on weight gain. Even changes in the microorganisms in our intestines may play a part, he said.
“At an individual level, the energy balance is what is important and that boils down to increasing physical activity and reducing overall food intake.”
So really…it’s kind of everything. Anything. Something that has gone wrong.
So What is the Reason for the Obesity Epidemic?
We can stop looking for that magic bullet shot at health from the grassy knoll. There is no one problem that has caused obesity.
YES, obesity is the fault of fast food.
YES, obesity is soda’s fault.
YES, obesity is a result of the sedentary lifestyle, and therefore
YES, computers can take some of the blame for the obesity epidemic.
YES, obesity is food processing companies’ fault, and
YES, obesity is the FDA’s fault for allowing so many additives and craziness in our “food.”
YES, television and the commercials that come with that form of entertainment play a role in obesity.
YES, obesity is the individual’s fault when they don’t have enough control to stop eating, and
YES, obesity is also advanced by chemicals like artificial sweeteners and MSG that interfere with our natural ability to feel satiated and stop eating.
YES, sugar causes obesity, wheat causes obesity, convenience foods cause obesity, and our general laziness in accepting “quicker and better” and “I have more money than time” causes obesity.
YES, you betcha burgeoning portions, both in restaurants and at home, have contributed to the obesity epidemic.
YES, obesity is my fault, for all the times I purchased sugar and fast food and supported the industry with my dollar.
Like it or not, obesity IS. It’s too late for prevention. It’s too late to point fingers.
It’s time for a solution.
I don’t really believe that “calories in minus calories expended in activity” is the simple solution as that last ABC News quote seems to end with, but less food and more exercise are two vital pieces to the puzzle.
The right kind of food and the right kind of moving, now we’re getting somewhere.
More from Kitchen Stewardship on the subject:
- What are Healthy Fats?
- 5 Keys to Weight Loss with Real Food
- Two Paradigms of Healthy Eating
- Our Success Story with Cutting Triglycerides 75%
- School Lunch Disasters
- Why we Don’t Bother with Juice
- Have Fun Exercising
- A No-Sugar Halloween Classroom Party
- Healthy Valentine’s Day Party at School
- What to do About All that Candy?
Sometimes all the information out there on real food just ignites me to ask even more questions… or scream… or write. More often than not, it’s a combination of the three. I’ve shared my thoughts on a whole variety of topics here. Pour a glass of water kefir and enjoy my inner thoughts.
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post to Amazon from which I will earn some commission if you make a purchase. See my full disclosure statement here.