It is no secret that the average American weighs more than he or she did in decades past, or that the average American weighs more than his or her counterpart in almost any other country in the world. According to a 2012 study published in the BMC Public Health medical journal, Americans are the third-heaviest people in the world, falling only behind the Pacific island nations of Tonga and Micronesia. Gallup reported at the end of May that two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, and this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quantified just how sizable American weight gain has been. At last count, the average American woman tips the scale at 166.2 pounds, or roughly the average weight of an American man in the early 1960s. Men have gained too, although slightly less, jumping from 166.3 pounds in the 1960s, the average American man has put on almost 30 pounds — hitting an average of 195.5. If you put five in one room, that would add up to almost a half a ton.
While it is true that men in America have also gained about an inch in height over the same period, which accounts for some of the weight gain, that upward growth doesn’t entirely balance out their growing girths. Ballooning weights are the real story, and there are three contributing factors.
1. Americans eat less healthy food
It is impossible to discuss nutrition, health, and food choices in America while ignoring the role income plays. Researchers have looked carefully at the differences in eating habits between richer and poorer Americans as well as between Americans of different ethnic groups. And while both income and other socioeconomic factors do play a huge role in health outcomes, a RAND Corporation study suggests that the problem is not that healthy food is too expensive, but that unhealthy, processed food is too convenient. “If we want to solve the obesity problem, we have to figure out what has changed for everybody,” Roland Sturm, a senior economist at the RAND Corporation and a professor of policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, told NBC News last year. “And the thing that pops out is our food environment. That’s where the action is. And it’s not just that food is now cheap relative to income it’s also that it’s so much more convenient.”
The obvious villain here is fast food, and the convenience of fast food is obvious from the numbers; since 1970, the number of fast food restaurants in the United States has doubled, while the population has grown around 54% in the same time period. And of course, fast-food chains have not sat back on their heels and let this advantage go to waste, as this clip from the Daily Show makes clear:
Looking deeper, Americans consume more meat and fewer eggs, and less milk and more cheese than they did in the 1950s, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Profiling Food Consumption in America. Plus, the consumption of added fats has increased by two-thirds, and consumption of added sugars has risen 39%. At the same time, the amount of fruits and vegetables eaten by Americans only increased by 20% since the 1950s. And more importantly, the fruits and vegetables added to the menu typically do not replace unhealthier items, but supplement them.
2. Americans eat more food
Empirical research shows both that the human body has poor controls against overeating foods and that processed foods, laden with sodium and fat, have a tendency of making humans even more hungry. The U.S.D.A. has found that “some of the observed increase in caloric intake may be associated with the increase in eating out.” That is not only because people tend to eat higher-calorie foods, but they also eat more, and this tendency appears to be increasing, according to research conducted by the U.S.D.A.
“Americans at the beginning of the 21st century are consuming more food and several hundred more calories per person per day than did their counterparts in the late 1950s (when per capita calorie consumption was at the lowest level in the last century), or even in the 1970s,” notes the U.S.D.A.’s Profiling Food Consumption in America. Combine this with the fact that Americans tend to eat less nutritious food, and consumption patterns look quite concerning.
Part of the reason Americans are eating more, and particularly eating more unhealthy food, is because food portions in restaurants have doubled or even tripled. No one eats out all the time, but growing meal sizes in restaurants influence eating habits at home.
3. American’s aren’t moving around as much
Throughout the 20th century and the early years of the 21st, technology has dramatically changed how Americans earn a living. Whereas a sizable chunk of Americans were once farm workers, the main source of employment in the United States is found in the so-called white-collar industries, most often behind a desk.
As computers have become more ubiquitous in everyday life, everyday life has become more stationary. And the United States can attribute the obesity epidemic to the rise of “electronic entertainment, increased reliance on cars and a shift away from physical jobs to more desk-bound ones,” noted NBC. “Although Americans aren’t spending more time at work and have more leisure time today, they do spend more of that time sedentary,” according to RAND researchers. Or, as the U.S.D.A. phrased the problem, “Americans’ activity levels have not kept pace with their increase in calorie consumption.”
More from Health & Fitness Cheat Sheet:
- 5 Proven Ways to Lower Your Cholesterol
- The 10 Most Fit and Active Cities in America
- 5 Easy Ab Exercises for a Sculpted Six Pack
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