Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

Can We Beat Obesity?

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Americans keep right on gaining.  Data shows us that since the late 1970’s, men are now on average seventeen pounds heavier and women on average nineteen pounds heavier.

The proportion of overweight children, age six to eleven, has more than doubled, while the proportion of overweight adolescents, age twelve to nineteen, has more than tripled.  As a result, hospitals have had to purchase wheelchairs and operating tables to accommodate the obese, and revolving doors have had to be widened from previous ten feet wide to twelve feet across. Casket companies now make available triple-width caskets with reinforced hinges to handle up to 1100 pounds.

Something big must have changed in America to cause so many people to gain so much weight so quickly.  That is the mystery behind the so-called “obesity epidemic”.  But let’s go back to some basics of the distant past, and then work up to more contemporary issues fueling the rising obesity rates.

The Basics: Evolution

As our brains became larger and larger and our guts smaller and smaller than our hominid ancestors, we needed to adjust our energy intake to one of more calorie dense foods – i.e. higher in calories and easier to digest. This worked for a long time when food was harder to obtain and people had to work very hard whether as hunter-gatherers or as early agrarians to find enough food for survival.

Now we live in a world of food – it’s available almost everywhere we go.  “We evolved on the savannahs of Africa and we now live in Candyland, Power and Schulkin write in their book, “The Evolution of Obesity”.  But what changed in the past few decades?


In “The Fattening of America”, Laurie Zuckerman attributes rising obesity to the lowering of food prices since the 1980’s and fattening foods became a bargain while healthier foods became more expensive.   Between 1983 and 2005, the real cost of fats and oils declined by 16% and the real cost of soft drinks dropped by more than 20%.  Crops were subsidized by the government, making it cheaper to buy ingredients such as corn and oils for processed foods.

Making foods more fun

At the same time, food producers began to combine or re-engineer foods with lots of fat, sugar and salt to create more “fun foods” usually in the form of snacks.  These foods led to overeating these tastier food products and possible food addiction.   David A. Kessler, in “The End of Overeating” says: “Conditioned hypereating works the same way as other ‘stimulus response’ disorders in which reward is involved, such as compulsive gambling and substance abuse”. Carbo-lipid combos make foods all too easy to ingest excess calories. What if you ate a cup of oil?  Gross right?  But if you fry some sugar and flour in that oil, you eat those donuts, don’t you?

If you eat a cup of plain white rice, how much will you eat?  Probably not that much in terms of calories.  But how many calories will you ingest if you fry that rice in butter?  The American food supply is abundant with these fat-carbohydrate combinations.  Think pizza, fries, burgers, cake, ice cream, etc. And you can drink those calories very easily.

Portion Distortion
People have no idea how much they want to eat or how much they have consumed.  They rely on external cues, like portion sizes, to tell  them when to stop. Consider one experiment by Brain Wansink, Ph.D., author of “Mindless Eating”.  He rigged up bowls that could be refilled, via a hidden tube.  When he served soup out of the trick bowls, people, he writes, “ate and ate and ate”.  On average, they consumed seventy-three percent more than those who were served from regular bowls.  “Give them a lot and they eat a lot”, he writes.


Supersizing is the principle behind the fast food establishments.  A small McDonald’s soda today is sixteen ounces (150 calories) and a large soda is thirty-two ounces (300 calories).  In the past a small soda was only 8 ounces. Anyone who has lived in the 60s knows that food portions have changed. Before Obesity (B.O.), there weren’t Big Gulps. B.O., *all* portion sizes were much smaller. B.O., there weren’t “super sizes,” etc. B.O., there weren’t nearly as many options for sedentary pursuits as there are today.  A typical standard bakery size for a muffin used to be 1.5 ounces.  Today it is grown to become a 6.5-ounce size.Yesterday at the movies, no one flinched when the big bucket of popcorn or the large size of the small coke ordered by a patron appeared.

What to Do?

Nutrition education can be a powerful tool if incorporated early enough.  Having kids participate in food growing, and preparation can be effective, i.e. “hands on” activities, not just sitting in a classroom listening to a dry nutrition lecture.

Sadly, I can attest to the sorry state of nutrition education. I have taught college students about nutrition but usually had to teach them the basics of health education as well because they just don’t get it anywhere else. Health, gym, and consumer science (what used to be called “Home economics”) classes are all being cut, and most of them weren’t addressing these issues very well anyway, especially nutrition.   The point is that our children are up against a very smart, very creatively manipulative, and very well financed processed food industry, and unless they learn how to be savvy consumers, they will be duped by it. So the problem will continue.

What will it take?  A coordinated effort among the scientific community, federal agencies, the food, beverage and restaurant industries and probably most important, consumer demand for change may eventually stop the current U.S. trend toward greater body weight


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One thought on “Can We Beat Obesity?

  1. Great, simple-to-understand post – these are all direct contributors to our bigness problem. There is no way to eat like an American and not get fat – and all this is why. Keep spreading the nutrition education, one person at a time we can make a change!


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