What Is Driving the Obesity Epidemic?

How much free will can consumers muster in a food saturated environment?

Posted Mar 04, 2019

Perhaps it is one of those questions that can never be fully answered, but as American waistbands continue to expand, what accounts for the obesity epidemic? In terms of the numbers, report after report is identifying figures regarding the percentage of adults and children who are obese in America are higher than have ever been documented (e.g. Devitt, 2018). To give this some context, there has been a significant shift over the years. Obesity went from being seen as a largely genetic problem to an issue of personal responsibility and control (read: willpower) to a public health crisis.

So, what is really at the root of the obesity epidemic? It appears to be a complex mix of biology, psychology, and culture. There are significant social and economic factors at play as well. For instance, rates of obesity vary considerably state by state in America, suggesting that environment significantly impacts lifestyle and options regarding food. Factors that don’t obviously seem related to obesity are identified as critical to the epidemic, such as socio-economic status, how educated a person is, and whether they live in an urban versus rural environment (Devitt, 2018). Access is a significant factor—whether it be access to healthy food options, to nutritional information, to parks and other recreational options, or economic. A disproportionate number of economically disadvantaged groups and minorities are impacted by a lack of access, or what researchers refer to as “food deserts” where they do not have easy access to fruits, vegetables, or other healthy food options. Unfortunately, institutionalized forms of discrimination also play a role when it comes to the most basic need of hunger and how we satiate ourselves.

The fast food industry isn’t helping. A recent study has identified that, “fast food menus are less healthy than they were 30 years ago” (as reported by Hsu, 2019, para. 5). This includes larger portions, more fat and salt content in meals and more dessert options. We are living in a food-saturated environment, where food or advertisements or images of foods are pervasive in our every day lives. The majority of these foods are loaded with preservatives, animal fats, sodium, and hosts of other ingredients that aren’t good for us.

To be clear, it isn’t that individual choice doesn’t matter, it is that the options most readily offered to individuals make it challenging to make smart choices. There is a lot of junk we have to resist in our culture, and in this case specifically, junk foods are just another form of cultural conditioning we have to become socialized to say "no" to.

There are significant public health challenges that come with this rising epidemic. Moreover, there are also significant public health policies that can be enacted to attempt to alter the tide. Prevention of obesity is critical, for as we know, once a person has become overweight or obese it is very challenging to lose weight in a healthy and sustainable way.

Some literature I would recommend for consumers to become better informed regarding the food industry: Eating Animals by Johnathan Safran Foer. There was a very thorough documentary series on the obesity epidemic by HBO entitled "The Weight of the Nation" that can be found online. Also, newer documentaries on Netflix, such as "What the Health."


Hsu, T. (2019, March 4). Bigger, Saltier, Heavier: How Fast Food Changed Over 30 Years. The New York Times: B3. [Print]

Devitt, M. (2018, October 15). New Report Shows U.S. Obesity Epidemic Continues to Worsen. AAFP. Retrieved on March 4, 2019 from: https://www.aafp.org/news/health-of-the-public/20181015obesityrpt.html

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