Why Are So Many of Us So Fat?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

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. 


  1. I concur 100 percent Pam! I was astonished watching Biggest Loser tonight how ex athletes let themselves "drift" into the 500 zone. I mean how do you operate socially? I know when I'm 10lbs up it stops me from doing so much with friends, family etc. I certainly will never call myself thin and have always struggled with the yo you syndrome being a fat kid but FAT certainly does not equate to what I see out there now. Girls in their teens with such tummy fat and proud that it produces a muffin effect above their jeans and tight shirts. They revel in it. When I was that age you could not have pinched an inch (age has come into play) It's not only unsightly but it's incredibly unhealthy. Stomach fat leads to more heart disease. Yes my heaviness lends itself to my lower body but just because you can cover your "stuff" up with the latest trends with skinny legs won't help you down the road. AGH. I agree, I have such an issue.

  2. Oh....portion size!!! You touched on a good one, there!

    When I moved here from Canada just about six years ago, the FIRST thing I noticed about restaurants here is that the portions are HUGE!!!!!

    I joined Weight Watchers about 8 years ago and lost 40 pounds. I've kept about 30 off. (I need a little work with that 10 that crept back). We learned portion control and exercise are KEY.

    Thanks for the motivation. The treadmill keeps beckoning. I really need to stop walking past it and jump ON it.

  3. The portion sizes are way too big. I usually either split a meal or only eat half of mine and take it home. Why do people think that they need to eat practically everything on the plate and when and why did places start serving so much. I agree with everything you said about this subject. It truly is sad that our nation is having such a problem. Healthy stuff does cost alot. I wonder how long it's been this way? I just paid about 80 cents for just one pear the other day. I'd love to have a salad everyday but can't even fit it into the budget because of this.

  4. All of your points are very valid, but the most important part is the notion that chubby is the new thin. It is no longer shocking to see 200 pound teenagers or 300 pound adults since they are so commonplace. Anybody who has a normal body (by retro standards) is considered anorexic. And what's worse, the idiotic notion of being politically correct makes people fearful to speak up and call a spade a spade, meaning that we are getting fatter and fatter and that's NOT a good thing.

  5. I can remember as a kid when there was usually just one or two fat kids in my class at school. Looking back, those kids would definitely be considered normal by todays standards. Its sad, but kids don't really go outside to play like they used to, they are too busy playing computer games and watching TV and getting fatter and fatter. I can remember as a child, we always played outside, and usually ran around like a bunch of lunatics! A rainy day was frowned upon, because it infringed upon our playtime. I'm not saying that we didn't sit around and watch cartoons, but given the choice, we would have preferred to play with our friends outside.

  6. I think you made some great points Pam! I agree with so much of this. I also think that as a country (especially now) we are in the midst of a major depression, probably attached to many issues such as the economy or even modern day terrorism. I think it's like you said, food is a drug for some people. I think it offers some kind of solace in a place where we find very little human contact comfort. Probably because we stay indoors more. It's all sort of intertwined.

    That said, I'm on vacation right now and have eaten WAY too much. Today is my last day, but I don't know how anyone can eat the way I have for more than a few days... but they do. That said, I have a weight struggle myself, thanks to some bad medication I was given which did something... but we're not sure what... to my metabolism. The second the doctors took me off it, I gained about 15 lbs, which won't move. Still, I'm in a normal range for my height, so I just try to maintain it now. I bet you could add meds to this list. I'm not the only one who has been given a "new" drug for something and has suffered for it (the meds I had didn't even work anyway)...

    I also think there is a real confusion between what is thin and what is fat. I mean, America Ferrara from Ugly Betty is not a large girl at all, but she is considered fat by Hollywood standards. That kind of body image pressure adds to the anxiety of young girls who think if they are normal, they are fat. Then it increases depression, and well, you get where I'm going.

    Also, a great gage for how the weight had increased is in game shows. Look at a 70s game show and everyone is so thin and dressed up. Now, like on the new Price is Right, everyone is fat and in dirty Tee shirts. We have slipped...

    OK, I'm done! :)

  7. So many great comments, folks...I wouldn't know where to begin here. I was a bit concerned about pissing people off, but I think there's no denying we have gotten bigger as a nation and there's several reasons why.

    Standards have definitely changed...case in point the two movies I mentioned and Luis' comment about chubby being the new thin. It's just so weird to look at the Fatso clips now and realize DD wasn't large at all by today's standards.

    Amanda, I meant to add meds to the list so thank you for reminding me. I know many prescriptions can cause weight gain and wreck havoc on a person's metabolism.

    I definitely think we are a depressed, negative nation. Not long ago I took a wrong turn in the blogosphere into depression and bipolar land...oh boy. Scary stuff.

  8. I also heard that the availablility of sugar after WWII lead to what we have now (as outlined in your post.) Dr. Atkins related that story in one of his books.

  9. Man I used to sleep good as a kid. Because? I use to play my @ss off! (Literally) Eating a little better, and getting more active does wonders.

    I remember they made a movie called FATSO starring Dom DeLuise, and this was when he was young and NOT very fat by today's standards!

    People eat SO unhealthy these days! Something has got to give soon!

  10. I agree with 99.9% of what you said about why we are overweight as a culture. And the .1% I disagree with you about also contributes to obesity.

    You said that neighborhoods aren't safe. Actually, they are safer than when I was a child in the 60's. However, the fear factor that has partially led to helicopter parenting has us believe that it isn't safe for children to roam the neighborhoods.

    Are their unsafe neighborhoods? Yes. But generally speaking, the statistics indicate that crime is the lowest it has been in decades.

  11. I need to correct myself...you didn't say that neighborhoods aren't safe. You said that not all children have the luxury of a safe neighborhood. So, I agree with you 100% :)

    But, I still think that parents are overly concerned about their children's safety when they shouldn't be. The vast majority of kidnappings are by relatives of the child.

    I certainly don't want to make light of parental concern--I was kidnapped by a stranger when I was a child from behind my own house, not roaming the neighborhood, so I know how traumatic it can be--but the statistics just don't bear out the level of fear that parents have for their child's safety.

  12. Darrin - yup, I mentioned the movie Fatso and how DD was not at all obese by today's standards. For most folks, it really all comes down to common sense when it comes to eating and moving your body.

    DrJulieAnn - you make a valid point about overprotective parents. I guess what I was saying is that for kids who are living in an apartment in a city it is tougher for them to get outside and play if there isn't a yard to play in or a playground nearby. I grew up in a nice suburb with a yard (though I realize a kidnapping can happen anywhere and by relatives as you pointed out.) And yeah it's no excuse for not encouraging a child to be active.

    What floored me the most is that gym class is essentially going to disappear eventually, as so many students choose to opt out of taking it. That town that Jamie Oliver visited on his show? The funeral homes do a thriving business there, as so many people are dying younger from complications due to obesity. They showed coffins to accommodate these people - they cannot fit in a regular hearse but need to be transported on the back of a truck. It's a sad state of affairs.

  13. I learned to speed read in the late 70's, and early 80's. (remember that fad?) Great for quickly reading the mass of blogs and sites I follow.
    NOT so great however when you miss groups of words like I did on the 1st paragraph of this post. ARGGHHH! That'll teach me to slow down. (At least with my good friends blogs) Heh Heh.

    I still have FATSO on VHS. Need to get it on DVD!!

  14. *chuckle* I'm so suburbanated (I think I made up that word just now) that I didn't even think of children living in city apartments! *palm hitting forehead*

    Excellent point and I appreciate the clarification.

  15. Great post, Pam. And you know this is an area of great interest for me. You said it all!

  16. Not sure how old or new the original post is?? Ihope its still active. Being 38 born in the 70s grew up all thru the 80s and 90s I have definately seen the huge change. I was always the artisstic type as a child,has asthma and couldnt be as active as most even then.Yet I was still very thin then. I think it is the food 90% to blame. I did have video games from the 80s on,and my parents didnt limit anything on me,I could watch TV for hours if I liked,sit drawing and painting all day Etc. And I was thin. I think food changed and I got fat from it and gastric bypass does not work well for ppl whoeat for flavors alone,like I do. I never feel hungry,whether or not I eat,its all flavor for me. Also I am forced to take seven horrificly bad meds.for my lungs,my lungs are hardly functional half the year and Ive never smoked. Prednisone is AWFUL! Advair etc.make you gain pure water weight of over 25 pounds at times. All my fat is in my stomach,and I have decided to eat only organic foods from now on.I lost the only&first seven pounds I ever able to lose in 16 years just from organics alone,no calorie changes just changed frm processed and not organic into all organics. It is EXPENSIVE eating this way,and shouldnt be. I also began making everything from scratch,I am a chef so I certainly can.I have lost weight from doing so,with no calorie changes. Eating real butter has helped my cholesterol,in fact to go back to normal.It was higher when I ate margarines and fake sugar. Theres something to this I am certain! When a person sits too long all at once,for hours.for example;their metabolism slows.If you sit for hours on end,be sure to flex all your abdominals and lower body muscles,twist arnd.and move a bit every hour.This small activity can change a lot.seriously.It keeps the metabolism running and organd "awake"and aids digestion. Especially for folks like me who cant always be active because I cant breath. I couldnt breath inthe 80s either,and we ate a TON of sugary cereals then too!we were still thin.Food has changed and needs to change back.I shop also at foreign shops,and co ops and this is slowly helping my weight,as I said seven pounds lost with no other effort.Just some thoughts... I love your post.


Powered by Blogger.