Super-Sized America…How Did We Get Here?

As I write this, I’m sitting in my local Panera. In the little dining area where I sit typing, there are 11 other people, men and women of all ages, enjoying their meals. I’ve quickly and discretely assessed each one, and with a fair amount of confidence, I would conclude that all but one, a teenage boy, are clinically over-weight or obese.  Including me in the count, that’s only about 17% of this small sample population at a healthy weight. I am not sharing this information with a judgmental tone. Just stating fact. We are fat. This is truth. This is our new reality.

When I say “we,” I am speaking in the general sense:  Americans. People. The Human Race. I wish I could say the statistics only reflected adults, but the sad truth is that more and more children (about 1 in 6) are starting off their young, full-of-potential lives saddled with morbid obesity. Factor in over-weight (a separate category), and the percentages rise even more. Sadly, these diagnoses don’t occur in isolation. Excess weight carries with it a host of other medical complications, to include heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, some cancers, gallbladder disease and gallstones, osteoarthritis, gout, and breathing problems such as sleep apnea and asthma. This is both depressing and heart-breaking, especially when you consider children, who don’t fully understand how they got this way, and likely have little meaningful support and few effective resources to change their destinies. CHILDREN. This keeps me up at night.

But it hasn’t always been this way. Looking at this graph we can see something awful happened around 1980. What in the world was it? I had one friend blame it on Ronald Reagan, but no. Dutch is not to blame here. Let me share a few reasons why we’ve become a society that is overweight yet undernourished. This list is by no means exhaustive, but certainly gives us a lot to think about.

1 – The Rise of Fast Food. McDonald’s was hitting stride by the mid-1950s and Burger King was not far behind. In our quest for cheap and easy, we sacrificed quality. By 1980, a whole generation was experiencing the after-effects of mass-produced, chemical-laden fast food. It’s only gotten worse in the last 40 years.

2 – A Dysfunctional Food Pyramid. In the 1960s, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) first stepped in to show Americans how to eat healthy and avoid disease. By 1980, you and I were learning in school that we should strive for 6-11 servings of “healthy whole grains” each day, avoid fats, and indulge moderately in sugary treats. What many of us didn’t understand, and still don’t understand, is that the USDA is comprised of very powerful and influential representatives of the agricultural industry. While the food pyramid they recommend certainly supports their bottom line, it did not and DOES NOT support optimal human health. Just look around and you will see the fall-out.

3 – Flawed Advice. Based on this food pyramid, we were told by medical and fitness experts that carbohydrates are our most important macronutrient. Carbs are King! “Be sure to eat regular carbohydrate-dense snacks and meals every few hours so you don’t experience a sugar crash and put lean muscle tissue at risk!” Garbage. There’s no other (G-rated) word for that kind of advice. Added to that was the notion that we could earn it and burn it. Eat whatever you want, as long as you work yourself silly exercising it off. So we super-size our portions and mindlessly snack with the intention of working it off on our next run or workout. Is this really working for us?

4 – Declining Sleep Habits. I had a friend who used to say, “Aw, whatever! I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” I have always loved sleep and rarely skimp on hours unless it’s forced upon me. But I never realized just how essential good sleep is for health. It’s paramount. A podcast I just listened to stated that there’s no part of the body that doesn’t suffer when we are sleep-deprived. And for most of us, sleep-deprived is considered to be anything less than 8 hours. (I’ll take 9 or 10 if I can get it!)

5 – Screen Time. Staring at a screen means we are sitting still. It also means we aren’t sleeping well or regulating our appetite hormones effectively due to biochemical reactions to blue light.

6 – Sedentary Lives. All of these factors are so intertwined! We sit for our commute, at school, at the office, on our couches in front of the TV. The human body is designed to MOVE, and we find every reason to SIT STILL.

7 – Increasingly Stressful Lives. Most notably is financial stress, resulting from our attempts to keep up with the Joneses. But fill in the blank with your stressor of choice. Whatever it is, whatever they are, those stressors wreak havoc on your entire body. Stress affects the way your body utilizes the food you eat, encouraging calories to be stored as fat rather than burned.

8 – Sugar Is In EVERYTHING! No explanation needed.

What have I neglected to mention? I’m sure there is more. While this graph paints a really bleak picture, I am clinging to the hope that we can change our prognosis. How? With a complete and total paradigm shift. I’m starting with me and my family, rebuilding our understanding of health piece by piece. There is a way, and it’s honestly quite simple. Simple, but not easy. Are you in?