In my column for CNN, I discuss the root causes of America’s obesity epidemic:
Obesity has become the country’s leading public health problem. Yet as we talk and talk about the issue, the country only becomes fatter and fatter.
The problem for the country echoes the problem for individuals: Willpower is not enough. “(It’s a) basic instinct, even stronger than the sexual instinct, to store calories to survive the next period of starvation. And we live in an environment where there’s food every half mile. It’s tasty, cheap, convenient, and you can eat it with one hand.”
Thus says Martijn Katan of the Institute of Health Sciences at VU University in Amsterdam, author of one of the many studies on the limits of dieting, quoted in U.S. News & World Report.
If you as an individual want to change your weight, you must change your whole life. Likewise, to reduce obesity in modern society, we will have to alter the way society is organized.
Weight gain is driven by two trends: increases in calories consumed and decrease in calories expended. Modern America induces both.
For example: The after-inflation cost of sugary soda has declined by an estimated 48% over the past 20 years. Correspondingly, consumption of sugary soda has soared: Sugary soda is now thesingle most important source of calories in the American diet.
For example again: The number of Americans who work at physically taxing jobs continues its steady decline. Even those jobs that demand physical labor — manufacturing, for example — are much less grueling than they used to be, as electrically powered machines do the lifting and shifting that used to consume human energy.
While Americans expend fewer calories at work, they spend more time in cars — almost twice as much as in the 1970s. They spend26 hours per week consuming TV or online entertainment. Americans could theoretically compensate for more sedentary lifestyles by stepping up their recreational exercise — but only about 20% of Americans bother. Some 80% never do — including presumably all those failed dieters.
Want to change this? It’s no small project. It would involve the redesign of cities, the relocation of schools, the reinvention of our modes of eating and amusement.