By Robert A. Vella
There is a long-held international view of Americans as being fat, lazy, and obnoxious. How this perception originated and evolved over time is open to speculation, but opinion polls have consistently showed a marked decline in favorability for both the U.S. and Americans since the turn of the millennium. What initially triggered the world’s negative opinion of Americans can probably be traced back to the early 20th century when U.S. involvement in global affairs rose in ascendancy, and when the image of the nation was portrayed by powerful and overindulgent industrialists like Wall Street banker J. P. Morgan.
However, widespread obesity in the U.S. is a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to World War II, malnutrition and disease were much bigger problems. From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
The latest statistics clearly indicate a continued rise in obesity. From The New York Times via MSN:
American adults continue to put on the pounds. New data shows that nearly 40 percent of them were obese in 2015 and 2016, a sharp increase from a decade earlier, federal health officials reported Friday.
The prevalence of severe obesity in American adults is also rising, heightening their risks of developing heart disease, diabetes and various cancers. According to the latest data, published Friday in JAMA, 7.7 percent of American adults were severely obese in the same period.
The data — gathered in a large-scale federal survey that is considered the gold standard for health data — measured trends in obesity from 2015 and 2016 back to 2007 and 2008, when 5.7 percent of American adults were severely obese and 33.7 percent were obese. The survey counted people with a body mass index of 30 or more as obese, and those with a B.M.I. of 40 or more as severely obese.
Public health experts said that they were alarmed by the continuing rise in obesity among adults and by the fact that efforts to educate people about the health risks of a poor diet do not seem to be working.
If obesity was the natural result of economic prosperity, as the international view of Americans might suggest, then the above graphs should show increasing rates during the boom period from the end of WWII to the 1970s when the current recessionary cycles began (i.e. economic volatility due to global instability in energy and financial markets) and decreasing rates thereafter as wage stagnation and the wealth gap intensified and began to erode away the nation’s large middle class. However, that isn’t what the graphs show. What the graphs for both adults and children do reveal is a noticeable upturn in obesity around the year 1980. What happened around that time which can account for Americans’ expanding waistlines?
Firstly, the consumption of fast food and processed foods increased quite dramatically. As a child in the 1950s and 1960s, virtually all my meals were home cooked or prepared at the school cafeteria. Only occasionally did my family go out to eat and more often it was at a traditional restaurant rather than at a fast food joint. We always had fresh fruit and vegetables to eat, and our meat consumption would be considered low by today’s standards.
Secondly, the end of the postwar boom saw the demise of progressive politics and the rebirth of conservative activism in the U.S. As this societal tug-of-war ensued, American politics became dominated by the corporatization and globalization characterized by neoliberalism. Economic inequality worsened, budget-cutting and other forces decimated public education, and the day-to-day stresses began to mount upon large portions of the population. Today, America is a country beset by cultural polarization, lost economic opportunity, a failing school system, and facing various domestic and foreign threats. And, it is known that excessive stress can lead to a variety of eating disorders. From the Mayo Clinic:
The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown. As with other mental illnesses, there may be many causes, such as:
- Genetics and biology. Certain people may have genes that increase their risk of developing eating disorders. Biological factors, such as changes in brain chemicals, may play a role in eating disorders.
- Psychological and emotional health. People with eating disorders may have psychological and emotional problems that contribute to the disorder. They may have low self-esteem, perfectionism, impulsive behavior and troubled relationships.
Teenage girls and young women are more likely than teenage boys and young men to have anorexia or bulimia, but males can have eating disorders, too. Although eating disorders can occur across a broad age range, they often develop in the teens and early 20s.
Certain factors may increase the risk of developing an eating disorder, including:
Family history. Eating disorders are significantly more likely to occur in people who have parents or siblings who’ve had an eating disorder.
Other mental health disorders. People with an eating disorder often have a history of an anxiety disorder, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Dieting and starvation. Dieting is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder. Starvation affects the brain and influences mood changes, rigidity in thinking, anxiety and reduction in appetite. There is strong evidence that many of the symptoms of an eating disorder are actually symptoms of starvation. Starvation and weight loss may change the way the brain works in vulnerable individuals, which may perpetuate restrictive eating behaviors and make it difficult to return to normal eating habits.
Stress. Whether it’s heading off to college, moving, landing a new job, or a family or relationship issue, change can bring stress, which may increase your risk of an eating disorder.
Or, Americans are fat because they really are lazy and obnoxious. You decide.