North Americans are possibly the world’s best-nourished people — and our diet is killing us.
By some estimates, more than a third of adults are overweight or outright obese. In 1970, 4.2 percent of children under age 12 were obese; by 2000, the proportion was 15.3 percent. Today, experts estimate that between 20 and 25 percent of young people ages 20 and under are toting excess pounds. The typical American adult came out of the 1980s eight pounds heavier than he or she went in.
It’s the result of a choice we make — or, at least, a collection of habits we’ve not been willing to break. Americans consume 130 pounds of sugar each year. The American Heart Association recommends a limit of 9.5 teaspoons a day, but the typical American adult gets 22 — and American children average 32. A 2014 study by the Environmental Working Group found that children’s cereals average 34 percent sugar by weight (more than twice as much as in ice cream) and one — Lieber’s Cocoa Frosted Flakes — topped the list with 88 percent sugar.
Too many statistics to swallow at once? Wait, there’s more.
Americans also eat 1.5 billion pounds of fried, industrially grown beef at McDonald’s each year. The company sells enough french fries to provide 16 pounds to every American, enough soda to provide them with a gallon a week.
Those foods make our taste buds happy but not the rest of our bodies. Heart disease remains America’s premiere chronic illness, with arteriosclerosis the chief contributing factor — layers of cholesterol and other dietary debris lining the artery walls until they’re clogged. Result: heart attacks and strokes. The rate of diet-caused type 2 diabetes in Americans under age 20 rose 31 percent from 2001 through 2009. Diets high in fat have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and, according to some studies, our dietary indulgences are responsible for as much as 40 percent of all cancers.
People love salt, which we now know is a cause of high blood pressure that can damage kidneys and lead to strokes and heart failure. Instances of osteoporosis increase in older women as absorbable calcium disappears from their diets. In recent years, medical science has christened a new condition: “metabolic syndrome”, with symptoms including belly fat, clogged arteries, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. Metabolic syndrome wasn’t an identifiable medical condition until too many couch potatoes began to show the same catalogue of diseases, which includes heart attacks, diabetes, and strokes.
Now a few studies have linked gluten — inherent in most grains — to depression and have found links to depression and anxiety in diets heavy in fast foods and even health foods.
So how did we do this to ourselves? The answer is part biology, part psychology, part economics, and part government policy.
The great American food processor
World War II marks a turning point in our relationship to food. Until then, most people bought meat at a butcher shop and vegetables at a greengrocer. When it was time to have brownies and cookies, mom made them. A significant share of our food still came from farms near enough to visit.
The end of the war presented us with a new world. Instead of turning out staple items to keep armies alive in the field, our food industry needed to feed a growing army of consumers. Not only did a growing population need more food; it also needed more convenience. Families were having babies and building houses. Women didn’t have as much time to lavish on cookery.
So the industrial machine that won World War II turned its talents to our groceries. With more families buying refrigerators, frozen foods became a mass-market item. The number of breakfast cereals expanded, saving time-pressed mom from having to mix pancake batter or cook oatmeal. Canned goods proliferated. In the 1950s, heat-and-eat three-course meals — “TV dinners” — wowed consumers. From Hamburger Helper to Chef Boyardee’s ravioli in a can, the convenience keeps on coming.
Mass producing foods also makes them cheap, especially with the menu of federal farm subsidies that began underwriting farming in 1933. Corn, wheat and soy are not only the most widely-grown plant crops on large American farms, but also staple ingredients in processed foods where their derivatives are used as everything from thickeners to sweeteners — and among the most heavily subsidized.
But cheap foods come at a price. The more food is processed, the more it loses in flavor, texture and nutrients. Also, additives need to be mixed in with many manufactured foods to keep them from becoming lumpy or gummy while they wait for consumers to eat them. They need added chemicals to help them survive months on a shelf. These foreign elements can add flavors of their own, many of them unpleasant. So manufacturers replaced lost flavor, and covered unappealing ones, with cheap, plentiful salt and sugar, and replaced natural nutrients with synthetic mimics.
In theory, the result should be cheap, healthy food for all. But reality is something different.
It turns out that people with low incomes — who were supposed to be key beneficiaries of cheap, healthified food — are more subject to obesity and other diet-related illnesses than higher income people. The reasons vary. First, farm subsidies drove down the price of manufactured foods but did nothing to reduce the cost of fresh produce (although this discrepancy has been redressed a bit in the newest federal farm bill). Poor families were left with a choice of risking meager grocery budgets on things like kale and carrots, which kids might reject, or investing in fortified foods such as canned stew or mac-and-cheese mixes that satisfy their tastebuds. Sadly, the benefits of added nutrition in many of these foods can be overwhelmed by the volumes of fats, sugar and foreign additives that accompany it. Farm subsidies also haven’t addressed the cheap, fatty cuts of meat that dominate diets of people with little money.
Low incomes also create “food deserts,” areas abandoned by supermarkets because the people who live and shop there can’t spend enough to support the stores’ produce, meat and dairy departments. That leaves inner-city and poor rural residents, who often lack transport, to shop at convenience or village stores where produce is usually an afterthought and processed foods are plentiful. The issues of urban food deserts and the higher cost of fresh, healthier foods is a sparkplug of the community gardening and urban farming movements (“The Rust Belt Goes Green,” Trends Journal, Summer 2013).
Another reason that we’re living large is that we’re constantly encouraged to do so. Children see at least 12 food ads daily and are bullseyed by food makers who include toys and prizes in their packages. Children also see products placed in movies and television shows, pictures of superheroes emblazoned on soda cups (collect all 12!), and now in video games.
It’s during childhood that we form our personal “taste profile,” a sense of what tastes “right.” The human body is designed to crave calorie-dense fats and sugars to get us through famines and shortages; if we’re not exposed as children to a larger palette of sours, bitters, savories, sharp flavors, and varied textures, we’re more likely as adults to reach for chips and candy instead of celery.
Also, many marketing messages simply tell us to eat more. In 1934, upstart Pepsi began selling 12-ounce bottles for the same nickel that Coca-Cola charged for its six-ounce drinks. Most of bottlers’ expenses are in production, distribution, and advertising, so the trivial cost of a few more ounces of pop was more than made up by sales increa
ses. Others borrowed the tactic, topping competitors’ offerings with bigger and bigger sizes — culminating in excesses such as McDonald’s “Supersize Me” campaign a decade ago and 7-11’s infamous 64-ounce Slurpees.
Numbers prove the point
A 2002 study from New York University found that French fries, hamburgers and soft drink sizes in fast food restaurants had grown to two to five times the size they were when they were introduced in the 1950s. The same study found that manufacturers’ recommended portion sizes of processed or packaged foods for everything except white bread exceeded the US Department of Agriculture’s recommendations by staggering proportions; cooked pasta, muffins, steaks, and bagels exceeded USDA standards by 480, 333, 224 and 195 percent, respectively. According to Lisa Hughes, one of the study’s authors, portion sizes have grown to the point where companies manufacturing dinner plates now make their plates as much as 25 percent bigger than they were 30 years ago, to hold all we’re eating without our servings lopping over our plates and reminding us of our gluttony.