Why are so many people so fat?
Unfortunately, the answer is simple. They eat too much for their level of activity.
What can we do about it?
Straightforward, but definitely NOT easy.
In this essay Ill offer a bit of perspective on why so many of us are obese and what each of us can do to manage our own situation.
Obesity is one of the few things individuals can control. By that I mean their own individual body fat issues. However, to do that it is important to know what forces are working against you.
The era since 1990 is the first in human history when a significant minority (or even a majority) of people were obese. Prior to that, obesity was rare. Before the 20th century it was almost unheard of.
In 1940 when President Roosevelt instituted the military draft in anticipation of World War II, the physical requirements for men being taken into the US military were: be at least 5 feet tall, weigh at least 100 pounds and have half your natural teeth.
Astonishingly, HALF the men considered for induction could not pass those minimal standards. Coming out of the Great Depression such conditions as malnutrition, bad dental health and stunted growth were common.
If you look at pictures of crowds of people from the 50-year period 1930-1980 you see very few people who are even a bit overweight. There are a few, but the norm was slim to skinny.
From about 1980 onward, we began to get fatter and fatter.
There are some inconvenient reasons for this. If we are going to be fit and healthy, it is critical to understand how these forces shape our options.
We are hardwired to eat more than we need.
When I was a young scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the early 1970s staff members in the Biological Sciences Division were studying primate behavior as part of health physics. One of the most pertinent findings was that all the higher animals have appetites that keep them constantly hunting for food.
Humans evolved in conditions where food was extremely scarce. Millions of years ago survival depended on constantly searching for food. The same applies to all the higher animals such as monkeys, lions, bears, etc.
If the appetite did not spur us to look for food, the chances of starving or becoming debilitated and not surviving were very real.
As humans we have the same appetite today as we did 10 million years ago. Even though food is readily available all the time, we as humans are the same genetic package that had to hunt and scavenge around the savannahs.
Our appetite setting is to avoid starvation in the wilds. Our real circumstance is over abundance.
In short, feeling hungry is absolutely NO indicator of what we actually need. But we are hard wired to be hungry even when we do not need food.
The Era of Abundance
As a middle-income class developed in the US the quality and quantity of food began to change. Before 1965 the norm for eating was locally produced meat and vegetables. During the 1950s the supermarket began to gradually expand the array of product choices. This trend of more products and greater choice accelerated dramatically in the 1970s.
For example, in the 1950s the only chips available were potato chips. Late in that decade a team at Frito Lay developed a new offering made of ground corn. Fritos were soon followed by a dizzying array of chip options that had never existed before.
In the 1960s almost no one drank wine. By 1970 the wine industry was growing rapidly as wine became a middle-class drink of choice. By 2010 even gas stations were offering a huge and dazzling variety of wine.
This explosion of choices and products took place in every type of food and cuisine.
This abundance was completely unprecedented in human history. Until the 1970s cheap and abundant food had rarely been universally available. In many places mass starvation had been common.
Humans confronted this sudden abundance with the genetic make up suitable for surviving in the wilds. Overeating was the result.
Problem 1: Engineered Food
The food business followed the same pattern other industries had used to expand their sales. They studied the consumers preferences and desires. With that information, they went about creating edible products that were extremely appealing.
These are all the foods available that are packaged or preserved. They range from chips to entrees.
Engineered foods exist as commodities to be sold. The engineering is done to increase consumption. The more the better. This is the same as selling clothing, cars, shoes, etc.
Engineered food is a product that is designed to appeal to a consumer on many dimensions from taste to visual aesthetics to psychological comfort. The engineered product is built to be irresistible.
The principal ingredients used to enhance engineered foods are salt, fat and sugar. This is done so they taste better and are more appealing! This encourages consumers to eat more and more.
The idea here is to sell as much as food as possible. If people overeat, that is their problem.
Problem 2: An abundance of great food at low prices
Abundance is not usually called a problem. In the case of trying to control our eating it becomes a problem because there is so much great food available almost everywhere that what used to be a rare treat is now commonplace.
If we are trying to limit our intake, it does not help to have an avalanche of high-quality great tasting food available almost everywhere (in the US). The choices we have now would be unbelievable to people who lived a mere 50 years ago.
Waaaaaaaaay too many choices for good food.
Humans are in a situation today where their genetics are at odds with their society. They have an appetite designed for a primitive in the wilds, and an easily accessible supply of inexpensive high-quality food that is the greatest bounty in human history.
Nothing can change the fact that human appetite is dysfunctional when food is abundant. The appetite prompts people constantly to seek something to eat. Over time this leads to obesity and all the health problems that go with it.
The only good news is that each person is the one who controls what food goes in their mouth. They have the power to limit what they eat. However, exercising that power is extremely difficult when a person is surrounded by food that was designed and built to be irresistible.
If you want to stay fit and healthy there are more food choices available today than ever before. However, we must exercise a huge amount of restraint if we want to keep from getting fat.