America’s Obesity Problem: Is the Food Industry to Blame?

junk food on a wooden table

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Hardly a day goes by where we aren’t reminded about America’s expanding obesity rate. Though many like to blame the media for exaggerating stories, it’s hard to refute numbers about our ever-expanding waistlines. The most recent data suggest things are worse than ever. According to the latest publication of The State of Obesity: Policies for a Healthier America, 68.6% of adults are overweight and 34.9% are obese. The report also explained an average American is more than 24 pounds heavier today compared to 1960.

Clearly, something happened because an epidemic of such grand proportions is no coincidence. Taking a closer look at Americans in the 1960s, far fewer had struggles with their weight. Even in the 1970s, the rates of people who were overweight or obese remained relatively steady. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Americans started having troubles. A report from the Surgeon General’s office revealed the obesity rate was just 13.4% in 1980, but reached 34.3% by 2008. Interestingly, 1980 was also the first time the government published the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The guidelines were designed to help Americans make smarter food choices, likely in reaction to the high risk of death by heart disease, which peaked in 1968. This first installment focused on cutting fat, cholesterol, and sugar while making sure to incorporate enough carbohydrates. Though this report has been updated every five years since its installment, it hasn’t done anything to keep our pant sizes from increasing. Eating habits have definitely changed, but not for the better.

For starters, most people really don’t cook anymore. A 2013 study published in Nutrition Journal reported adults in the U.S. spend drastically less time cooking their own meals and consume far more food prepared outside the home than they did in the 1960s. While prepared foods can include salads or other nutrient-dense items, most people aren’t reaching for such healthy eats when they’re in a hurry. Often, we go for processed foods filled with refined grains and sugars. In fact, one 2014 study highlighted America’s drastic increase in sugar intake, which includes corn syrup and other sweeteners.

Oddly, many processed foods we don’t think of as being sweet are still pumped full of sugar. Take pasta sauce, for example. One popular brand lists sugar as the fourth ingredient, leading to a whopping 10 grams of the sweet stuff per serving. You might find yourself wondering why on earth food companies would start incorporating sugar into such foods, and it all has to do with creating something you find irresistible that makes you want to come back for more.

hand reaching for a doughnut with sprinkles and frosting from a variety box

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It’s called the bliss point. In a video from The New York Times, food scientist and market researcher Howard Moskovitz described the term as “that sensory profile where you like food the most.” Much of his research has dealt with sweet flavor profiles, but the concept applies to any type of food. The idea is you vary the amounts of different ingredients until you achieve the most desirable flavor.

Though Moskovitz denied such flavor optimization leads to addiction, some research suggests otherwise, particularly when it comes to sweet foods. One 2013 study reported sugar may actually be more addictive than drugs. The study illustrated, given the choice, rodents preferred the high from sugar over that of cocaine.

If these foods truly are addictive, it can easily lead to overconsumption. Many sweet snacks come in pre-portioned pouches limited to 100 to 150 calories, but no one’s going to stop you if you reach for another bag after polishing off the first. Furthermore, eating too much of even the healthiest foods is going to lead to weight gain. Almonds are a healthy snack, but if you find a flavored variety to taste so enticing that it leads you to eat an entire cup, your waistline is going to suffer.

It’s frustrating, to say the least. And once again, the government has updated recommendations for what types of foods we should and shouldn’t eat. The latest report now says we should shift from solid fats to oils, increase produce consumption, aim to make at least 50% of the grains we consume whole, and drastically reduce sugar. Additionally, the report said male teens and adults are eating too much protein.

Even if these suggestions are on point, it’s foolish to think food companies will rush to make healthy changes. A better bet? Dusting off your kitchen equipment and figuring out how to do a bit more than boil water.

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