America’s Weight Problem

We’ve all experienced hunger—that gnawing reminder to eat. But for the 40 million Americans, including more than 12 million children, who live with food insecurity, the sensation isn’t temporary or easily satiated. It is persistent, pernicious, and damages everything it touches, from behavior and brain chemistry to physical health and societal infrastructure.

Nearly 1 in 3 adults (30.7%) are overweight. More than 1 in 3 men (34.1%) and more than 1 in 4 women (27.5%) are overweight. More than 2 in 5 adults (42.4%) have obesity (including severe obesity). About 1 in 11 adults (9.2%) have severe obesity.

As for what is driving America’s chronic weight problem, there are no definite answers. Scientific studies often reach conflicting conclusions, meaning many theories are out there, but the preponderance of evidence points to the two causes most people already suspect: too much food and too little exercise.

Bigger Portions

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that the average American ate almost 20% more calories in the year 2000 than they did in 1983, thanks, in part, to a boom in meat consumption. Today, each American puts away an average of 195lbs of meat every year, compared to just 138lbs in the 1950’s. Consumption of added fats also shot up by around two thirds over the same period, and grain consumption rose 45% since 1970.

illustration concepts by shawn kober

Inactivity is the New Normal

Lack of exercise is also a major culprit in the obesity epidemic. It’s been decades since most Americans worked in fields and on factory floors, a far greater majority of us are sitting throughout our workday. This means less exercise each day. According to one study, only 20% of today’s jobs require at least moderate physical activity, as opposed to 50% of jobs in 1960. Other research suggests Americans burn 120 to 140 fewer calories a day than they did 50 years ago. Add this to the higher amount of calories we are packing in, and we get a perfect recipe for weight gain.

But lethargy goes well beyond the workplace. It is also how we get to work and what we do after. Americans walk less than people in any other industrialized country, preferring to sit in cars to get around. And at the end of the day, 80% of Americans don’t get enough exercise, according to the CDC.

illustration concepts by shawn kober

The greatest disparity is racial, with Asian adults far less likely to be obese, and black and Hispanic adults slightly heavier on average than white adults. Reasons behind these disparities are subject to debate and often controversial, but diet, exercise, and environment likely play a role, as evidenced by disparities in habits like fast food consumption. One CDC report shows African Americans consume up to 33% more fast food than Caucasians.

In general, however, the poor are more likely to be overweight or obese than the rich. Again, nobody is certain why, but studies suggest lower-income individuals consume higher amounts of calories through fast foods and sodas that are high in sugar, fat, and calories. Quite simply, in the United States today, eating healthy food can cost more than eating junk.

illustration concepts by shawn kober

Other demographic research has focused on actual access to healthy food, most notably, the “food desert” hypothesis, which suggests poor, urban areas don’t have enough nearby restaurants and grocery stores that sell healthy food. The theory is popular, but there is some skepticism surrounding it. Recent research found no correlation between the type of food sold in neighborhoods and obesity rates.

illustration concepts by shawn kober

As of now, the forces driving higher obesity rates in certain demographics aren’t fully understood. It’s easy to say that weight control is a choice, but it’s also a choice that’s easier to make when you have the time and money to make it. One the community level, the obesity problem is a complex function of a community’s level of access to affordable, nutritious food, healthcare and healthcare education, and recreational and fitness facilities.

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