Beyond what we eat, what we’re born with and what we do, our environment contributes in major — and mostly unnoticed — ways to our health and our weight.
All have conspired to make two-thirds of adult Americans and one-third of American youths overweight.
As this four-part series has revealed, the reasons Americans are fat and getting fatter are complex. The answer is not simply that too many Americans eat too much and exercise too little. “That’s like saying the room is crowded because it has too many people,” says science writer Gary Taubes, author of “Why We Get Fat?”
In today’s finale, local and national obesity experts weigh in on 10 ways our environment and government policies have contributed to Americans’ growing girth.
1. Farm subsidies: When American farmers’ profits are off, the federal government pays farmers the difference. These subsidies entice farmers to grow more of the subsidized crops, which drives supply up and price down, say agricultural economists. Attracted by lower prices, food manufacturers buy more cheap crops and stream more of them into the food supply. Of the $10 billion to $30 billion a year the USDA distributes in farm subsidies, more than 80 percent goes to growers of corn, wheat and rice, all carbohydrate-laden foods, many of which get refined into the kinds of simple carbohydrates that are expanding American waistlines. Less than 1 percent goes to fruits and vegetables, the foods the government says Americans need to eat more of.
“Decades of subsidizing big grain growers have assured a cheap, steady supply of corn and wheat, which is in almost every food on the shelves,” says David DeGennaro, legislative analyst for Environment Working Group, a nonprofit, public-health advocacy group that has tracked and condemned farm-subsidy policy for years. “It has contributed indirectly to making the wrong kind of calories cheaper.”
2. High-fructose corn syrup and refined flour: Corn reaps nearly 40 percent of USDA subsidies and is the main ingredient in high-fructose corn syrup, a cheap sweetener laced into packaged foods and sodas. Wheat, the second most heavily subsidized crop, gets refined into flour, a chief component of foods that nutritionists refer to as simple or “bad” carbohydrates. An increased consumption of corn syrup and refined carbohydrates, experts say, is the leading driver behind today’s obesity epidemic.
3. Physical-education cuts: Many school systems have eliminated physical-education programs to focus on academic subjects. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children and adolescents do one hour or more of physical activity each day. However, according to data from the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, fewer than one in four high-school students does so.
4. Food availability: Thirty years ago, food was limited to markets, restaurants and kitchens. Now unhealthful food and sodas are everywhere: at the gas station, the carwash and in school vending machines, says Dr. Steve Smith, an obesity expert and scientific director of Florida Hospital-Sanford Burnham Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes, in Orlando.
5. Outdoor spaces: Studies have found that whether a community has sidewalks, parks and streetlights can significantly affect the weight of its residents. “A person who lives next to a park will probably get more exercise than a person living next to a highway,” said the 2011 “F as in Fat” report, co-sponsored by Trust for America’s Health. Many neighborhoods, particularly in lower-income areas, have few parks and playgrounds, and no sidewalks or bike trails, which curtails healthful outdoor activity.
6. Crime: In addition, residents who don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods tend to be less active, because they stay inside more, the fat report noted.
7. Urban sprawl: As Americans grew more dependent on cars, more American communities were designed with cars, not pedestrians, in mind. “After World War II, spread-out housing communities became much more common,” says Reid Ewing, professor of planning at the University of Utah, who studies environment and obesity. Sprawling communities produce heavier people. University of Utah professor Barbara Brown, who studies the link between obesity and neighborhood layout, found that those who live in more-compact, more-walkable neighborhoods weigh a lot less than those who live in sprawling neighborhoods. A 6-foot male in a sprawling area weighs 10 pounds more than one in a dense area, she says, because those in spread-out neighborhoods drive more and walk less.
8. Fat is relative: “A person’s ability to assess how fat he is goes down when everyone around is fat,” says Smith. “Fat is the new normal.” The marketplace also conspires to help Americans think their size is OK. Vanity sizing, where what would have been a size 14 in the 1970s is now a size 10, is a marketing ploy to lure customers who feel better about themselves when they can slip into a “smaller” size.
9. Instant satisfaction: The shift toward instant gratification in our culture has led to America’s overspending trend and our overeating problem, many experts think. This upswing of consumer debt and obesity during the past 30 years is remarkably similar because, as many financial psychologists think, overspending and overeating share common roots. “The no-money-down, zero-percent-interest, buy-now-pay-later era of lending and spending encouraged one behavior, just as slicker food marketing, super sizes and fast access to fattening foods fueled the other,” says David Krueger, a Houston-based psychiatrist who specializes in issues surrounding money. “People use food and money in similar ways.”
In 2010, Americans carried 2.6 times more debt than they did 30 years ago, according to the Federal Reserve Board. Meanwhile, they’re 2.3 times more likely to be obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A German study of more than 9,000 participants looked at the relationship between debt and weight, and found that those who were significantly in debt were 2.5 times more likely to be obese than adults of normal weight. Those who were overweight were twice as likely to be in debt, according to the 2009 study.
10. Advertising: America’s youth have increasingly been targeted with aggressive food marketing and advertising, which mostly promote foods and beverages high in sugars, high-fructose corn syrup and refined carbohydrates, and low in nutrition, according to the fat report. The U.S. food-and-beverage industry spends $2 billion each year to market unhealthful foods and beverages to children and adolescents. The marketing efforts now extend well beyond television and packaging, and into mobile phones, social networks, interactive games, online videos and virtual worlds.
What can we do about it? Awareness of the many ways in which our environment affects our behavior, health and weight is critical to mastering our wellness and taking control of our bodies. Work to be alert to the influences that mass marketing, food subsidies and urban planning have on your choices and behaviors, advise the experts. Mindfulness must become the new mantra if Americans are going to override the many forces standing between them and their healthier, trimmer selves.
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