How Obesity Became an Epidemic

Obesity has been on the rise since about 1980 and is now at epidemic proportions; how and why did obesity start.

Obesity didn’t happen overnight. Obesity has been on the rise since about 1980 and is now at epidemic proportions. How and why did obesity start; we didn’t suddenly become a country of overly hungry people eating everything in sight.

You don’t have much time and you are hungry. So you go and get a fast food meal, day after day. Obesity can start just like that. The same for the pre-packaged processed foods. And those fats and calories add up quickly. But when you are hungry and don’t have much time, you just want to eat. Obesity is eating too much of the wrong foods.

Has Fast Food Brainwashed Our Stomachs?

A lot of us grew up being told to finish everything that was on our plates, which isn’t bad depending just what and how much is on your plate. In the 1970's two new products were hastily approved for use in the United States. These two new products would make cheaper food costs for the fast-food industry and that was a savior for them in the recession of the 1970's. These two new products were high corn fructose syrup (HFCS) and palm oil. The high corn fructose syrup reduced the amount of sugar that had to go into soft drinks, sweet foods and about everything else. Americans consume approximately 60 pounds of HFCS per year. The palm oil was cheaper and took the place of soybean oil. Palm oil has more saturated fat than hog lard, one opponent testified at the Agriculture Committee hearings [1]. And he was right, hog lard has 38 percent saturated fat and palm oil has 45 percent saturated fat. Ironically, this is about the time obesity started its fast climb.

These cheaper ingredients allowed fast-food places to start selling cheaper and larger drinks and meals, eventually to the point of the super-size meals. A serving of McDonalds french fries in 1960 had 200 calories, 320 calories in the mid 1970's, 450 calories in the mid 1990's jumping to 610 calories in 2003. A normal McDonalds meal that used to be 540 calories is now 1550 calories [1]. What was once a normal 12-ounce bottle of coke has now become the Big Gulp 64 ounce pop. A normal sandwich has become the foot long sub sandwich, or longer.

As the serving sizes increased, so did the amount of calories, sodium and saturated fat. As this increased, slowly over time we became used to these sizes--and we order, we sit and we eat and drink all of it, everything on our plates or in the bags. We have just become used to the bigger-sized meals as being normal. Our stomachs became brainwashed.

More Food

As a people, we certainly haven’t become hungrier, have we? Yet we sit down to feasts that 100 years ago would be as they say, “fit for a king”, every day at lunch, dinner and snacks. The USDA study found that most of the increased calories have come from snacking. Since 1984 the average weight of American men has increased from 168 to 180 pounds. In this same time period the average weight of women increased from 142 to 152 pounds. A survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that between 1978 and 1996, the consumption of calories increased by 268 calories for men and 143 calories for women per year. The food supply in the United States has also increased. In 1978 the food supply was 3,200 calories per person [2]. By 1999 this had risen to 3,900 calories per person. We haven’t become more sedentary, really, since 1980 in our jobs--not by the percentage increase that obesity has climbed. The obesity rate in children is climbing faster; the USDA wrote that children today don’t work any more or less than they did in 1980. Yet the report fails to take into account the amount of time children today spend in front of computer games. Some say computer games burn calories--but certainly not more than playing outside whether it is kick the can or a game of football.

The Ease of Eating Causes Obesity

The study’s conclusion was that the climbing rate of obesity and fast-food or pre-packaged processed foods are tied together. It isn’t only fast-food where you drive up to a window, order, and park and eat. It is also the processed foods that you can just pop into the microwave or oven. No preparation or cooking really. Processed foods have almost as much and sometimes as  much fat, calories and sodium as fast food does.

Obesity Spreads With Fast Food

As fast-food restaurants have spread around the globe, so has obesity. In Beijing, China, the obesity rate of Chinese boys ages 10-12 is greater than 10%. In Thailand, the obesity rate among children has risen from 12% to 15.6% in just two years. Where fast food goes, obesity has risen.

Conclusion

Not all studies agree on a single cause as to why obesity has become such a problem. Most answers are the availability of so much cheap food and bigger serving sizes. Studies do cite the lack of time or just plain laziness to actually cook home meals anymore, so order a pizza, pop in some processed pre-packaged meal into the microwave or go to the fast-food place. I’m as guilty as the next person; if I don’t feel like cooking, I might call and order a pizza. There are major disagreements as to whether high corn fructose sugar causes changes in the body compared to sugar, causing obesity. What is  agreed on is the fact that meals are not cooked at home as much. When you cook your own meals you are leaving out much of the unhealthy fats, calories and additives that are found in the processed foods. Diet pills won't fix the obesity problem, each person has to change it one day at a time.

© 2009 Sam Montana

Sources and Related Articles

CC photo by Roland on Flickr

[1] Fat Land by Greg Critser

[2] USDA study on obesity

Fast food calorie and nutrition calculator

Fast Food and Obesity

The Link Between Low Income and Obesity

Guide to Healthy Foods and Nutrition

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