Why are people fat? People are fat because they take in more calories than they need for their particular activity level and metabolism. There's more to eating than just calories, but as a professor of mine used to say, for a gross oversimplification, at least it's correct on the basic facts.
Americans are getting fatter. Much, much fatter. The Center for Disease Control has a color-coded time series of maps of the U.S. showing the percentage of people in the state who have a Body Mass Index (BMI) over 30, which is the official cut-off point for obesity, for the years 1985 to 2008. I present a few snapshots of the bad news here.
1988: Here we are 20 years ago. There are a lot of states that don't even bother to report this data back then. Are they embarrassed? More likely, they aren't convinced it's a serious problem.
The fattest states around have between 10% and 14% of their citizens reported as obese, and that list includes California. There are a bunch of states where the obesity rate is under 10%, including very populous states like Texas and New York. Even if we just consider this data from the states that reported, it's hard mathematically to get a national rate we can state with confidence. The maximum probably couldn't be higher than 12%, and it might even be 10% or less, depending on how skinny the skinniest states are.
1994: This is the first year when every state reported the numbers to the CDC, though it might be that Rhode Island didn't report. The story has changed significantly. Now, "the skinny states" have between 10% to 14% obesity rates, and the fat states are between 15% to 19%. In the six years since the last map was drawn, nearly every state got noticeably fatter, most especially Texas, which went from one of the skinniest to one of the fattest. States like California and Florida stayed relatively stable in the 10% to 14% range, but no state got significantly skinnier in that six year span.
2008: Jump ahead 14 years, and everything has gone to hell. Colorado stands alone as the skinniest state in the union, having an obesity rate between 15% and 19%. Back in 1994, that was the rate for the fattest states. A huge swath of the center of the country is now between 25% to 29% and some Southern states and West Virginia are over 30%. The CDC gives the percentages for each state to the nearest tenth of a percent on their website, and using a weighted average, we can say with some confidence that 26.1% of Americans are currently obese.
What the hell happened in 20 years? Being fat is certainly a matter of personal responsibility. The food industry would like you to believe that personal responsibility is the beginning and end of the story. For a gross over-simplification, it is at least correct on the basic facts. Let's look at the two main parts of the problem, not enough exercise and too many calories, and see if we can spot what made the huge difference of doubling the obesity rate in the span of just twenty years.
Too little exercise: What's the big difference between 1988 to 2008?
Are Americans working too hard? Not that much harder than they were working in 1988.
Is it TV? In 1988, TV had already been wasting people's time for at least three decades. Cable TV may have made it a little more effective of a time waster, but it can't account for the huge change.
Videogames? This is a more likely culprit. Videogames in 1988 were still pretty much aimed at kids, now a lot more adults play them than back in the day. The technological improvement from the Nintendo to the modern systems is much greater that the technological change in television over the same span.
The Internet? Bingo. In 1988, the Internet is still DARPAnet for all intents and purposes. Today it is a time vampire that rivals TV and videogames combined.
(By the way, gentle reader, you are not currently wasting time. You are reading my informative and entertaining blog. Obviously, anyone can see the difference.)
Too much food: Why are we taking in too many calories? Why is it so much worse in the space of 20 years?
There are several trends in the American lifestyle that can account for this. There are a lot more families that rely on two paychecks, and there are a lot more people like me who live alone. Without someone staying at home, finding the time to cook meals from scratch is getting harder and harder, and the American food industry has come to the rescue, in the form of fast food and microwaveable food and convenient snacks that don't have to be cooked at all. In terms of vital nutrients, these convenient foods are generally lacking. In terms of calories per dollar, they are an incredible bargain.
A lot of this bargain is because of government policies of subsidizing certain sectors of the food industry, most especially corn. This excess of corn becomes feed for animals who don't normally eat corn, like cattle and even fish raised in factory farm conditions, and these animals become fatter, partly from diet and partly from lack of exercise, not unlike teh Americans that will eventually eat them. Corn is also turned into high fructose syrup, which is added to the vast majority of convenient foods.
Humans are biologically hard-wired to like the tastes of fat, sugar and salt. In nature, these were not the easiest foods to get. In the modern world, it's a snap to get any of these, sometimes all three in a convenient package that give you a lot of calories for your shopping dollar. For one specific example, I was looking to see if there was a somewhat healthy food that could give you as many calories for the same cost as a Snickers bar. Because of a particular bargain at Trader Joe's, the 19 cent bananas, four bananas is very close to the same calories per dollar as a Snickers bar.
Of course, eating four bananas at a single sitting is an act of gluttony, while eating a single Snickers bar is a tasty treat, because Snickers Really Satisfies™. Though, if it satisfies, why are they packaging a new gigantic size Snickers bar often available near the checkout stand? Shouldn't more of something that "satisfies" be technically too much?
(Going in the opposite direction, Mars puts the little Snickers and Milky Way bars that you give out at Halloween into bags and calls then "fun sized". As my friend Jodi once said picking up one of the tiny little things, "Where's the fun in that?")
In terms of the cost of food stuffs, the American food industry is delivering a bargain, and if time is money, they are giving us great savings there as well. But if we add in the hidden costs of what the American diet is doing to the health of the nation, it becomes clear that what they are doing is not out of the goodness of their hearts, and all these bargains really aren't any favor at all.