The latest obesity research has demonstrated the body’s extraordinary ability to maintain a constant weight by adjusting its metabolic rate. But when physiology encounters a culture that features thousand-calorie fast-food sandwiches and two-car families, it’s no contest: Between 1980 and 1990 adult obesity jumped by 30 percent. In that same decade teenage obesity rose 40 percent and superobesity doubled. One out of three adults and one out of five teens is now clinically obese.
Obesity is as much about survival as appearance. It increases the risks of diabetes, stroke, heart attack and certain cancers. “Weight-related diseases killed 300,000 Americans in 1994,” says former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
Despite enduring daily personal anguish and higher disease rates, Americans may well have accepted obesity as the price they pay for a comfortable lifestyle. After all, so many things that make life easier, more fun, or safer also promote obesity:
Television, watched by the average American for about four hours a day, keeps us firmly planted in our chairs, often with food firmly planted in our mouths. Television will only become more alluring as TV sets get bigger and sharper, receive hundreds of channels and are hooked into computers.
Automobiles have made walking almost obsolete; the auto culture has replaced walkable urban communities with suburbs (some even without sidewalks).
Countless other labor-saving technologies - from electric can openers to leaf blowers to telephones - have slashed caloric expenditures.
Many parents, concerned about crime, insist their kids ride the bus to school and stay safely inside the house after school.
While our culture helps us burn ever fewer calories, it also spurs us to consume ever more calories. A few decades ago soft drinks were six ounces; today the standard container is twice that - with many convenience stores and restaurants offering 32-ounce or larger servings. Restaurant meals often provide enough calories for a whole day’s worth of eating. Kids are fed the “eat-nonstop” message early in life, when they are bombarded with countless commercials for junk foods, see the sugary cereals that stores carefully place at eye level and are visited by cartoon characters doing double-duty as sales vehicles.
Marketers ensure we’re never more than a step or two from food: Fast-food chains have put outlets in thousands of high schools, airports, museums, and toll plazas. Food courts are de rigeur in shopping centers. And vending machines fill all the interstices. It’s no wonder that “three square meals” has been replaced by “grazing.”
Many Americans have succumbed to easy eating and a sedentary lifestyle, have given up all hope of reaching their “ideal” weight and decided that they’d rather be fat than change their lifestyle. That’s why “fat is beautiful” clubs are popping up across the country.
A nation of fatties means not just greater personal feelings of inadequacies and unhappiness but also reduced productivity, more disease and higher medical bills. Preventing obesity ought to be considered a national priority. Our society, if it cared about the soaring rates of obesity, needs to do much more:
Fast-food restaurants should be required to list the calorie content of their offerings right on their menu boards and on packaging; other restaurants should offer lower-price half portions and provide calorie and other nutrition information.
Every school system should help students build physical activity into their daily lives.
Employers should provide exercise facilities at workplaces and encourage employees to use them.
Cities should provide safe networks of parks, bike paths and jogging trails. They should also support convenient mass-transit systems and build sidewalks to get commuters and shoppers out of their cars.
Commercials for fast-foods, soft drinks, sugary cereals and similar products should be banned from children’s television and replaced by public-service messages and shows encouraging good nutrition.
We can’t change biology, at least for now. But we certainly can change our society to help us all build more activity and a healthier diet into our lives.