Yep, I'm going to go there. I know this topic has been covered on several other retro blogs, but it's worth repeating because of the health implications: we're a nation of fatties. It's estimated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that 34% of Americans aged 20 and older are overweight and another 34% are obese. That's 190 million people, 2/3 of the country's population. Childhood obesity has also tripled in the past 30 years.
And we just continue to get bigger. One interesting thing I've noticed is that "fat" characters in movies from as recently as 25 years ago really aren't all that big by today's standards. For example, over the New Year's weekend I ended up watching Stanley Kubrick's 1987 war flick, Full Metal Jacket (uh, yeah, my brother lent it to my 80 year-old mother and me thinking, I don't know, that it would make a good watch for chick flick night.) Since there was virtually nothing else to watch we turned it on. One of the soldiers in training, played by Vincent D'Onofrio, is constantly verbally abused by the sadistic drill sergeant for being overweight and out of shape. How would I describe D'Onofrio's physique? Chubby at the most, but certainly not obese. I was also watching clips of the 1980 Dom DeLuise movie Fatso, which is a comedy (and a pretty good one, too, even though it would probably never be made today due to the touchy un-PC subject and weight jokes) about a man struggling to lose weight - again, DeLuise could stand to lose about 20, maybe 30 pounds on the screen, but he hardly looks like someone an airline is going to ask to pay double to fly one of their planes.
We just didn't have as many obese people back then, and certainly not many overweight actors unless they packed on the pounds for a particular role, a la Robert DeNiro's Raging Bull. But today? If a director can't find an obese actor, all he or she has to do is take to the streets to grab an ordinary citizen - think Gabourey Sidibe from Precious. It's amazing to me that we've become so desensitized to the growing girth of today's society that when we watch a movie made in the 80s and a character is presented is fat we can actually say, "he isn't that big at all."
Which is why, like everyone else, I'm wondering why it's a national problem. Well, I guess we all know the reasons why...there's no definitive answer, but there's definitely several major differences in the way our lifestyles are today compared to yesteryear that has contributed to the weight problem:
* People used to move more. Before so many varied forms of transportation were invented, people had to rely on their own two feet to get somewhere, and physical labor - farming, building, manufacturing, etc. - used to be a way of life.
* Too much packaged and processed food; less growing and/or raising your own food at home. Michael Pollan, author of several books about food manufacturing in America and healthy eating, has said that if your grandmother wouldn't have recognized what you're eating as food, then you shouldn't be putting it your mouth. What I think are worse, however, are the gimmicks food manufacturers use today to make consumers think the junk they're eating is actually good for them; for example, sugary children's cereals with added fiber and vitamins.
* The convenience of fast food restaurants at every corner. I remember when McDonald's was THE only fast food restaurant that I knew about in my immediate area. Then a Burger King opened in the next town over, then a Wendy's and a KFC. In a span of 30 years, it's gotten out of control and made it all too easy for tired folks to stop off to pick up an unhealthy meal on the way home from work.
* It's often cheaper to buy junk then healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables. Sad but true. I've heard that a meal at McDonald's is cheaper than getting a salad.
* Supersized portions for a deal compared to buying a meal piecemeal. And while we're at it, it's a challenge if not impossible to choose a healthy meal from the chains that are not exactly fast food restaurants, such as the 99 and Outback Steakhouse. Many restaurant portions are also HUGE - much larger then they were in the 60s and 70s. Someone once asked George Burns how he stayed so slim. His response was that he only ate half of what was put on his dinner plate. It's good advice, because whenever I go out to eat at one of these establishments, I almost always get stuffed and end up taking home the rest in a doggy bag; at least I'm getting another free meal out of the deal.
* People working more and longer hours including both parents; not enough time to exercise. Plus, the nuclear family sitting down to enjoy a meal together has pretty much gone the way of the Dodo bird, according to this recent Retrospace post. Less families are eating dinner together, much less taking the time to prepare a healthy meal together. Parents are also more willing to give in and let their picky kids eat whatever they want just to keep the peace, instead of enticing them to eat healthier food.
* Technology and video games taking away from physical activity. As a kid, I lived for summer vacations and weekends, which meant riding my bike, using my rollerskates, jumping rope, running and sliding down a slip-n-slide. And I did it without worrying about a kidnapper lurking in the neighborhood. I had an Atari, but my parents made sure I only played for an hour or so before going out to get some good old fashioned sunshine. Today's kids don't always have the luxury of a safe neighborhood, and too much technology has them sitting on their rear ends, texting away a beautiful day. At least there is the Wii and that new Xbox Kinect which requires you to move your body to play a game.
* Not making gym class a requirement. Hearing this revelation on ABC News recently floored me. Growing up, we were never given an option to opt out of physical education (although we certainly would have given the chance...thanks to Mrs. Christopher's creepy ways of spying on us girls while we were changing.) But today, in many schools, it's no longer a requirement. The report even said that some schools allow students to take gym online!
* Horrible school food. British chef Jamie Oliver's ABC series last year exposed the greasy, artery-clogging underside of an elementary school cafeteria's kitchen. Chicken nuggets full of processed meat, bones, and crap is offered alongside nachos with artificial cheese sauce. It's often too time consuming and expensive for lunch ladies to make a slew of healthy meals by scratch (and as Oliver painfully discovered, many kids tossed his meals into the trash cans instead of even trying them.) Also, soda machines are accessible in many schools today, something that I didn't encounter until I was in high school.
* Food is a growing addiction. For many people, unfortunately, food is their drug - it brings comfort when they're down. I'm not so sure if it's a better option than alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs.
We are such an unhealthy nation today. I hope we can change our ways before it's too late.