Americans Are Heavier Than Ever — But Not for the Reasons You Think
Hint: it’s not about willpower, calories, or exercise
In the 1960s and 1970s, people smoked, drank a LOT of cocktails, and ate some really dodgy fat-filled foods averaging 2,600 calories per day. But almost no one was obese. Today, 65% of adults and 15% of children and adolescents are critically overweight, despite consuming roughly 400 calories fewer per day in a culture awash in health food and a gym on every corner.
Obesity related health disorders cost up to $190 billion a year in the U.S., and cause up to 2.8 million deaths, and yet there seems to be no downward trend in our future — and we are right to ask why. How has it come to this?
A staggering number of essays, research studies, and op-eds flood media platforms daily addressing the topic, and most of them fault things like fast food consumption, lack of exercise, and a general absence of willpower. We eat out too much, our portions are too big, our beverages are too sugary, reports Vox. Greg Crister, in his book Fat Land, puts it down to physiological mechanism: Americans eat more calories than they burn. Men’s Health magazine instead puts the emphasis on the eater: “The real enemy is within.” We must “reengineer” our homes and routines so we resist temptation, the article goes on to explain (never mind the adjacent advert promising “The Diet Pills That Actually Work”). Hmmm.
The claims that we are eating more food, and fattier, more sugar-laced food, isn’t without grounds. Portion sizes have been increasing for decades, and by 2011, NPR reported that the average American ate a literal ton of food in a year. That’s 2,000 pounds, by the way, the equivalent of a baby humpback whale — or a 1979 Volkswagen Beetle.
Social scientists have blamed the increase on restaurant eating, where the appearance of quantity might outweigh quality, or something called “completion compulsion,” or the feeling that we must eat everything in a particular “unit” of food — even if that unit is an entire pizza. But portion size is not the whole story, not when you compare caloric intake from “then” and “now.” We may be eating more, but not so much more that it alone explains the explosion of weight gain.