Americans are fatter and sicker than they have ever been before. The obesity rate more than tripled since 1980 and is showing shocking growth in children especially. What's causing this? These graphs from Authority Nutrition may explain.
People are eating more junk food than ever.
People are eating more calories than before… but pretty much all of the increase has come from processed foods. In the graph above, you see how the population changed its eating habits in the past 120-130 years. At the turn of the 20th century, people were eating mostly simple, home-cooked meals. Around 2009, about half of what people ate was fast food, or other foods away from home. This graph actually underestimate the true change, because what people are eating at home these days is also largely based on processed foods.
Sugar consumption has skyrocketed.
Added sugar is the single worst ingredient in the modern diet. Numerous studies show that eating excess amounts of added sugar can have harmful effects on metabolism, leading to insulin resistance, belly fat gain, high triglycerides and small, dense LDL cholesterol… to name a few. There is also a plethora of observational studies showing that the people who eat the most sugar are at a much greater risk of getting type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even cancer. Sugar is also fattening, partly because it doesn't get registered in the same way as other calories by the brain, making us eat more. It also has adverse effects on hormones related to obesity. Not surprisingly, studies show that people who eat the most sugar are at a high risk of future weight gain and obesity.
People gain a lot of weight during the holidays, which they never get rid of.
Most people don't gain weight overnight… it happens slowly, over years and decades. But the rate is uneven throughout the year and spikes dramatically during the holidays, a time when people tend to binge on all sorts of delicious holiday foods and eat much more than their bodies need. The problem is that sometimes people don't lose all the weight back. They might gain 3 pounds, but only lose 2 after the holidays are over, leading to slow and steady weight gain over time. In fact, a large percentage of people's lifetime weight gain can be explained just by the 6 week holiday period.
The obesity epidemic started when the low-fat guidelines were released.
There was an epidemic of heart disease running rampant in the U.S. in the 20th century. A lot of scientists believed fat, especially saturated fat, to be the main dietary cause of heart disease (although this has since been disproven). This led to the birth of the low-fat diet, which aims to restrict saturated fat. Interestingly, the obesity epidemic started at almost the exact same time the low-fat guidelines first came out. Of course, this doesn't prove anything, because correlation doesn't equal causation. But it does seem likely that putting the emphasis on saturated fat, while giving processed low-fat foods high in sugar a free pass, may have contributed to negative changes in the population's diet. There are also massive long-term studies showing that the low-fat diet does NOT cause weight loss, and does not prevent heart disease or cancer.
Food is cheaper than ever before.
One factor that has most likely contributed to increased consumption is a lower price of food. From the graph above, you see that food prices have dropped from 25% of disposable income to about 10% of disposable income in the past 80 years. This seems like a good thing, but it's important to keep in mind that real food isn't cheap… it's processed food. In fact, real foods are so expensive that a lot of people can't even afford them. In many poor neighborhoods, they don't even offer anything but junk food, which is often subsidized by the government. How are poor people supposed to stand a chance if the only food they can afford (and access) is highly processed junk high in sugar, refined grains and added oils?
People are drinking more sugary soda and fruit juices.
The brain is the main organ in charge of regulating our energy balance… making sure that we don't starve and don't accumulate excess fat. Well, it turns out that the brain doesn't "register" liquid sugar calories in the same way as it does solid calories. So if you consume a certain number of calories from a sugary drink, then your brain doesn't automatically make you eat fewer calories of something else instead. That's why liquid sugar calories are usually added on top of the daily calorie intake. Unfortunately, most fruit juices are no better and have similar amounts of sugar as soft drinks. Studies have shown that a single daily serving of a sugar-sweetened beverage is linked to a 60.1% increased risk of obesity in children. Sugar is bad… but sugar in liquid form is even worse.
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