The day may come when Big Food will be held as accountable for the obesity epidemic as Big Tobacco was for the nation’s smoking habit. The latest scientific research reveals that giving up toxic foods might be nearly as difficult as overcoming an addiction when the drug is always at hand.
Don’t expect the government, the food industry or the schools to come to the rescue. But knowledge is power, and now the full scope of what it means for over half the U.S. population to be overweight is being addressed in a series of documentaries. HBO last month aired “The Weight of the Nation,” presented by the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and Kaiser Permanente. The project, accompanied by a book written by John Hoffman and Judith A. Salerno and other related materials such as a website and presentation kit, capped two years of research for which some of the nation’s leading experts on fields ranging from heart disease to evolutionary biology were consulted.
In The Weight of the Nation, published by St. Martin’s Press, the authors charge that the obesity problem “has been magnified by the actions of industry, agriculture and government.” These influences have “a huge impact on the little decisions we make about what we reach for when we’re hungry.”
The book provides a cogent overview of the causes and horrible consequences of the obesity crisis, the ways in which the public is manipulated by the food industry, and the difficulty in losing weight. Those who have lost weight by dieting tend to regain it within five years, and there’s a surprising reason why. The campaign is a call to action; the book instructs individuals on how to lose the pounds and regain their self-esteem (the fashion industry, with its waif-like ideal, is not off the hook for contributing to the public misery).
Weight of the Nation casts a cold light on the delusional marketing ploys that assure us what we’re eating and how much we’re eating isn’t that bad and in fact makes us feel good. Collaborationist marketing is ubiquitous, from cheery colors and free toys that ingrain in children a life-long association of bad food with pleasure to “multigrain” foods which do not mean whole grain and are likely to be as refined as white bread. These manipulations have contributed to the fully preventable health crisis which only continues to accelerate. More than two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. If current trends continue, experts predict that three-quarters of the American population will be overweight six years from now.
It’s become a widely quoted statistic that this will be the first generation in history slated to have a shorter life span than the generation before, thanks to the guzzling of sugar-sweetened beverages (a quarter of all teens drink four sodas a day, equivalent to an extra meal), a sedentary lifestyle (more than 80 percent are driven to school, compared to 42 percent who walked or biked to school in 1969), and too many French fries (94 percent of American schools fail to meet federal standards for fat and saturated fat in school lunches). Only four percent of elementary schools, eight percent of middle schools and two percent of high schools provide daily physical education.
Unfortunately, that’s only part of the bad news. Obesity-related ailments account for nearly $150 billion in annual healthcare costs. A study by Duke University found that obesity costs America more than $73 billion a year in lost productivity. The costs of the extra health risks associated with obesity is a factor in companies seeking to move jobs overseas. With approximately 1,200 enlisted members having to leave the military annually because of their weight, the problem even affects national security. “It’s everyone’s problem, and everyone needs to be part of the solution,” write the authors.
Large is the new norm
Overeating is a huge problem. Americans are consuming 31 percent more calories than they did 40 years ago. Kids now snack on average three times a day, compared with a snack a day in 1980. Large portions have become the norm. While in the 1960s the average dinner plate was nine inches in diameter, today it is a whole foot. The super-sized combos at fast-food restaurants, loaded with calories, are cheaper that smaller amounts of food a la carte, therefore appealing as a better value. A third of the calories consumed by Americans derive from eating out, a habit tied with weight gain. Large is the new norm. Clothing sizes have adjusted as people get heavier, creating the delusion that you’re still a size 10 when in fact you’re probably more like a 14.
In the last 20 years, the percentage of adults eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables a day dropped from 42 percent to 26 percent. More than two-thirds of the calories we consume come from corn, wheat, soy and rice, crops that got federal support, better to edge out garden vegetables in the marketplace. These crops are the basis for America’s supply of affordable food, which also are used as feed for animals. Meat consumption has increased in the last half-century by 50 pounds per year on average.
A handful of large multinational food corporations control most of the food supply. They are protected by powerful lobbies. Their profit margins are highest on processed foods, which are loaded with extra sugars and fats.
The patenting of high-fructose corn syrup, 20 percent cheaper than sugar, in the late 1970s led to much more soda consumption. The World Health Organization recommends that no more than one calories of every 10 should derive from sugar — 200 calories on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. The average teen consumes 480 calories a day from added sugars, according to one study.
The average American adult is sedentary more than eight hours a day. Kids spend 70 percent of their time in school, plus six hours at least, on average, in front of the TV or computer. Sitting too much has horrible health consequences — ost sedentary people are almost 50 percent more likely to die at a young age than those who are not, according to a 2009 study. Only three percent of adults meet the minimum recommendation for physical activity.
Given the rarity of obesity in so-called primitive cultures, Weight of the Nation notes that it is entirely preventable. The book ends with simple steps that enable one to lose weight once and for all. It takes discipline. It takes commitment. As a kind of wartime effort, in which the victory is nothing less than preserving one’s health and life, it requires seeing through the lies of the enemy.