For much of history humans struggled to acquire enough food. In much of the West, especially the United States, there is a new struggle involving food. This is the battle against the fattening. While the exact figures vary from study to study and estimate to estimate, it seems reasonable to accept that about 68% of adult Americans are overweight and about 34% are obese. While many parts of the world are still faced with food shortages, it is estimated that about 10% of men and 14% of women are overweight.
Given the advances in agriculture and improvements in distribution, it is hardly surprising that people have better access to even more food than before. However, the relatively recent surge in obesity in the United States does raise some questions about the cause(s).
One obvious causal factor is that a considerable percentage of food is high calorie (generally processed). As such, people are getting more calories per bite than before, which can easily contribute to weight gain. While people do need energy, much of the available food is calorie dense while being nutrient low (or empty). This creates situations in which people can be obese and also malnourished. As might be imagined, this is rather bad. A solution that people can apply themselves is to make better food choices: select high nutrient and lower calorie foods over those that are high calorie and low nutrient. Trying to avoid processed foods and junk foods as much as possible is a good idea.
A second obvious factor is that food portions are larger than in the past. People, Americans especially, tend to link volume with value. That is, getting more is good-even when it is more than a person needs. ‘”Super size” nicely sums up this volume problem. People typically get more than they need, they tend to eat it all anyway and thus they themselves become super-sized. The personal solution is to avoid super-sizing. True, you will get less for your money, but there will also be less of you-which is trading one value (money) for another.
A third obvious factor is technology. People in the United States spend a great deal of time watching television, playing video games, surfing the web and so on. These activities do not burn many calories and tend to encourage idle snacking. The personal solution is to cut back on these activities and to resist the idle snacking.
A fourth obvious factor is the dominance of fast food and convenience stores. These places make it easy to simply grab food quickly. The problem is, of course, that these places tend to provide high calorie and low nutrient foods. While there has been some push to get these places to improve food quality, the obvious solution is to not get your food at such places. For example, I make my own lunches for work and thus avoid the junk (and also save money). If you must get your food from such places, then select the best available option-which probably won’t be that great.
A somewhat less obvious factor is politics. Certain high calorie foods (like corn which yields the ubiquitous high calorie corn syrup) are heavily subsidized by the state which is why such foods (or foods containing them) tend to be cheaper than more nutritious fare. As might be imagined, people will tend to buy what is cheaper. That said, it is possible to get nutritious food that is not extremely expensive. However, solving this will require shifting the subsidies so that healthier food is being subsidized. Or, as true free-market and small government folks might argue, food subsidies should be eliminated. This would bring food prices for the good foods more in line with the now cheaper foods, but would do so by increasing prices.
Another somewhat less obvious factor is based on economic class. Poorer areas of the United States tend to have a significant density of fast food places and convenience stores while lacking full grocery stores. Individuals can, of course, take the extra time and effort to travel to the grocery store. However, this is not always a practical option for many folks (such as people who do not own a vehicle). When I was in graduate school, I did not own a car and I can testify to the challenge of carrying groceries even for just a few miles. There have been some calls to see to it that better food is available in such food deserts. However, the obvious problem is that businesses go where they will make money (or they fail) and hence there is not much incentive to open such a store in such places. The state could, of course, step in an provide incentives to such businesses. This could actually make good economic sense. After all, what is spent in tax money to help the businesses could be offset by the savings in later medical expenses and the fact that local jobs would be created would be a plus.
A final factor is that people seem to be less inclined to be active, although there are some notable exceptions. Part of this is, obviously enough, the impact of technology. Social changes are also probably a factor, such as the tendency to drive even when something is within reasonable walking distance. Individuals can, of course, solve this problem themselves-get up and do something (other than eating).
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