We hold this truth to be self-evident: that Americans are seeing their waistlines expanding more than ever, with no known end to our increasing girth. The stereotype of the fat American has been reduced to a punch line the world over, disguising the dire statistics that this country leads regarding obesity and threat to national healthcare and overall quality of life. We are the fattest industrialized nation across the world, with 2/3 of Americans qualifying as overweight or obese. The obesity epidemic has spread to our nation’s youth, with 1 out of 3 children born in 2000 or after projected to develop type-2 diabetes across his or her lifetime.
As a culture we need to become more aware of forces outside of ourselves that are leading to our expanding waistlines. Personal discipline can only go so far—the numbers are a clear indicator that changes American weight has undergone is strongly influenced by external factors including but not exclusive to access to healthy foods and parks, the rise of fast food and more generally eating out, sedentary lifestyles, significant shifts in agricultural production of what constitutes food today, a revolving door between lobbyists representing big food industries and public policy makers that should be protecting the public interest, socio-economic factors (there is a strong link between poverty and obesity), just to name a few. Policymakers and scholars have begun to shift the focus from individual blame (although there is plenty of that to go around as well) to larger social and cultural forces that have accompanied the soaring rates of obesity ever since the 1980s.
The following is my condensed list of the top five cultural factors making Americans fat today:
1. Access. Everywhere we turn today, we are constantly being bombarded by social cues telling us to eat: be it on television, online, or for those of us in urban areas walking within a one block radius, we are swept up in an over-stimulating cultural assault telling us to: consume, consume, consume! Be it Starbucks or the classic golden arches, or watching commercials on television bombarding us with food and drink, everywhere we turn as Americans, we are assaulted by the overabundance of food.
It is no wonder that by some scholarly estimates, Americans are making about 250 food related decisions every day. And let’s face it: most of them are not healthy ones. This is because most of the foods we are bombarded with in our immediate environments at work or school, or via some method of advertising, are part of the standard American fare that is high in calories, saturated fats, preservatives, and additives. Much of this accessibility is related to the huge explosion of the fast food industry. In fact, Eric Schlosser (2000), author of the seminal work on the industry entitled Fast Food Nation writes that:
Fast food is now served at restaurants and drive-thrus, at stadiums, airports, zoos, high schools, elementary schools, and universities, on cruise ships, trains, and airplanes, at K-Marts, Wal-Marts, gas stations, and even at hospital cafeterias (para 5).
There is very little that we can do as individuals to stop the visual onslaught of constant food imagery and brands, other than to become more mindful of the role access may be doing to our perceptions of hunger. Ask yourself, am I really hunrgy? before doubling down on that popcorn at the movie theatres, because chances are, that purchase is just a habitual pattern that has been developed as part of the movie going experience, and indicative more of access than underlying hunger.
Access is such a pervasive influence to our overeating that an often quoted experiment in psychology found that office workers who had candy in glass jars placed in a visible part of their desks were far more likely to over-consume than those whose candy was not placed in a visible area of their office space. Access feeds consumption, but we can turn this influence to our advantage by making healthier foods more visible in our immediate environments.
2. Technology. This leads me to my next point, which is that as we become more wired as a culture, not only are we opening ourselves up to newer methods of advertising and marketing bombardment, but we are also becoming more prone to multi-tasking, which means eating on the run and doing whatever we can to save time. In fact, the proliferation of fast food itself is a direct byproduct of the American obsession with time thrift, the value of saving time at all costs. This has led to a growth of eat-on-the-go patterns, which again severely increases the likelihood of consuming higher fat content.
Technology has also had the impact of making our lives more sedentary. In fact, so much of our culture has become automated that we are using our bodies for less and less activity—why take the stairs when you can use the elevator or escalator, or why walk around the corner to get to the grocery store or even walk into the coffee shop when you can drive to your destination or race through a drive thru and get your coffee to go? Our youth today are spending their leisurely time connected to some gadget instead of connecting with nature or playing outside, and physical education is being cut by many schools under strict budgetary restrictions. The one two punch of higher fat diets and less and less physical activity is fueling our ever expanding waistlines.
3. Portion Control. Portion controls have skyrocketed over the decades, as indicative of the ever increasing sizes of beverages (can you believe our parents’ generation used to consume 8-ounce cups of coffee?). But it isn’t just our drinks that are expanding by the ounces it is also our portions of foods such as the size of what constitutes a slice of pizza, a bagel, or a hamburger today. In fact, portion sizes at fast food restaurants are about two to five times larger than what they used to be (Montes, n.d.).
Portions are important because they convey a subtle social cue regarding how much we should eat—the larger the portion size, the more the social norm shifts to eating greater amounts. Indeed, many scholars note that larger portion sizes distort our sense of how much is appropriate to eat. This effect is particularly magnified when we eat out, which most Americans are now doing for about half of their meals. About twenty years ago, a standard box of movie popcorn was about 270 calories; today movie popcorn weighs in at nearly 700 calories (Monte, n.d.). The new norm has become overeating.
4. High sugar drinks. The role that high sugar drinks have played in our surging rates of obesity have received particular coverage recently in the news because of New York Mayor Bloomberg’s recently passed initiative to ban the sale of 32 ounce beverages (with some exceptions). In fact, about 20% of daily sugar intakes from Americans are coming from beverages. This fact, in conjunction with the noted inflation of portion sizes today, is particularly dire. Many of us underestimate or completely ignore the calories we consume through daily liquids, but that Vitamin Water or Grande latte can add hundreds of extra calories to our total daily intake.
5. Mindless Eating. All of these cultural changes have altered social cues sending messages to individuals that we should be consuming more and more foods. Many of us are eating on the go, or letting the situation we are in dictate whether we consume foods. In fact, we are turning to outside cues to determine our food consumption instead of the only reliable one: our internal cues. This has led to an epidemic of mindless eating, meaning the consumption of foods without vigilance or awareness of what is being consumed. How many of you have ever sat down in front of the television with a plate of food, only to look down and see that you have emptied the plate with little to no recollection of having eaten anything? Welcome to the world of mindless eating, consuming without thought, eating the portion that is given to you without awareness of when your body is full or whether or not you are even hungry. Any kind of social distraction heightens our likelihood of mindlessly eating, from eating in social settings to eating in front of a screen or even while reading a book or newspaper. Anything that takes us away from the focus of our food and process of consumption heightens the likelihood of our eating mindlessly. In a world of distraction and multi-tasking, we are more prone to this type of consumption than ever before.
As consumers today we face so many social cues that are hard, if not impossible to resist. Greater awareness and vigilance regarding what in the culture may be facilitating our eating habits goes a long way towards trying to alter them. We can’t change the larger culture, but we can change how we react to it and try to restore a sense of awareness to what we are putting in our bodies.
Monte, Liz (no date listed). Portion size, then vs. now. Mind, Body, Soul. Retrieved on October 21, 2012 from: http://www.divinecaroline.com/22175/49492-portion-size-vs-now .
Schlosser, E. (2000). An Introduction to Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. The New York Times, Books Section. Retrieved on October 21, 2012 from: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/s/schlosser-fast.html .