Every day, there seems to be a new report on something that’s going to kill us. This food causes cancer. Aluminum kills brain cells. Coffee is bad. Fat’s bad, carbohydrates are bad—and the jury is still out on whether protein is a problem.
I’d like to make a more drastic suggestion. It’s not one thing—it’s modern life in general.
A Silent Epidemic
So you’re probably thinking the above statement is overkill. I’d agree—not every bit of modern life is leading us to shorter lives. But there is one thing it is contributing to:
The Obesity Epidemic
First and foremost, let me say that I hate the terminology here. The term “obesity” conjures up negative images. And add “epidemic” to that? It’s blatantly negative. But, the term is commonly used, so it’s the simplest way to describe current trends. Let’s take a look at the numbers (and remember, here, we’re looking at just the United States):
Since 1960, the rate of adult obesity (defined by the CDC as a BMI between 30-40) has tripled. The rate of “extreme” obesity (again, the CDC’s definition and terms for a BMI over 40) has increased tenfold. And childhood obesity? Tripled between 1970 and 2010 (which is the last year we have data for).
Interestingly enough, the number of overweight adults (defined as a BMI between 25 and 30) has remained fairly stable at 30%. There’s no data to indicate why these numbers have remained stable, but I believe it’s because of a “step-up” process. Essentially, the individuals who would have been at a normal BMI in the 1960s have become overweight and the individuals who would have been overweight in the 1960s have become obese.
Childhood rates of overweight, on the other hand, have increased by half. Combine this with the childhood obesity rates and it looks like a very bleak picture for future generations.
Why Is This A Problem?
So the numbers don’t look good. But why would we consider this change to be an epidemic? The answer is simple: health problems.
Obesity is linked to:
- Coronary artery disease
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Osteoarthritis and gout
- Fatty liver disease
- Decreased fertility
- Direct risk for six types of cancer
- Association of increased risk for ten other types of cancer
And that’s just scratching the surface of the problems that can arise. Not to mention that these health risks increase with greater BMIs over a longer period of time. In other words, those obese children are set up for a lifetime of health problems if we don’t get control of the situation.
Why Is This Happening?
You might be looking at those numbers and feeling concerned. After all, if the statistics have increased this dramatically, there has to be a reason, right?
Well, we can’t link it to one thing. Instead, it’s a tangle of factors combining to produce the numbers we see now.
To me, the main contributing factors are:
- Increased availability of food
- Increased portion sizes
- Decreased activity demand
- Rampant misinformation
Increased Availability of Food
The first factor is fairly self-explanatory. We live in an age that most individuals in the United States have 24/7 access to food. That access is easy, cheap and calorie-dense. Consider this: one fast-food chain had 228 stores in 1960. Today, that same chain has over 14,000 stores.
With this, keep in mind from a biological standpoint, humans are designed for “feast and famine” conditions. But now, we live in an age of a constant feast.
Increased Portion Sizes
What was the calorie count of the average bagel in 1985? 140 calories.
What was the calorie count of the average bagel in 2005? 350 calories.
And that’s just for a bagel. Soda? The average portion size was 8 oz and 85 calories in 1985. Now, the average portion size is 20 oz at 250 calories. Pizza—up by 350 calories for the average portion. (Note: here I’m using the term “portion.” A portion is not a serving size. A serving size is the amount suggested to be consumed or served. A portion size is the amount actually consumed or served).
The data indicates that portion sizes have exploded over the last thirty to forty years. It doesn’t look like that’s going to slow down anytime soon. As more and more individuals become dependent on restaurants for their meals, this increase is going to become more and more of a problem.
Decreased Activity Demands
Data collected on jobs from 1960s to now shows a sharp decline in the amount of activity we’re getting at work.
In 1960, 50% of the population worked in jobs that required moderate to heavy levels of activity. Think mining, construction and agricultural jobs. The other 50% worked in jobs that were either light activity or sedentary positions like office work.
Today, almost 75% of the population works in a lightly active or sedentary job. The other 25% works mainly in moderately active jobs rather than heavily active jobs.
Think about the average desk job—how often is someone standing up versus sitting? What about walking around? Usually pretty rare for most of us chained to a computer all day.
Overall, this has led to a huge decrease in the average calories burned in a day. The majority of our day is now tied up in activities that make it much more difficult to burn calories. And so far, we haven’t found an appropriate way to replace those calories lost other than exercise—which most people struggle to do on a regular basis.
So we’re dealing with greater availability of food, bigger portion sizes and less capability to burn calories during the day. What could possibly make this worse?
A worldwide web in which anyone can chime in on “best practices” for losing and maintaining weight.
Usually, weight loss articles are powered by click-bait and “magic bullet” schemes. Even the simplest of searches can lead down a rabbit hole of confusion. It’s amazing how you can find an article to “disprove” any other article on the internet.
Perfect example: one of my patients walked into my clinic one day and asked “Am I supposed to eat fruit or not eat fruit? The internet says both!” No wonder the average person winds up frustrated when they start trying to improve their health!
In short, we’re overwhelmed with information and have no way to filter it out.
What Can We Do About It?
While everything above may make the obesity epidemic look like a complete disaster, I want to leave you with good news. Now that you know what we’re up against, you can start taking steps to combat it.
And how exactly are we supposed to do this?
Check back in two weeks for the next lecture!