How Did We Get So Big: Five aspects of the obesity crisis in America

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A deep look at the rising rates of obesity in America.

A wake-up call

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention predicted that the number of people who are clinically obese would climb to 42 percent by 2012 compared to the current 34 percent. Meanwhile, obesity-related illnesses cost the U.S. health care system about $190.2 billion each year. How did we get here?

A shift in environment

Basic body chemistry has not changed since our ancestors walked the earth.  If you consume more calories than you burn on a daily basis, you will gain weight. What has changed is our daily tasks and the way we live our lives.

How much do you move?

Only 19 percent of Americans get the recommended amount of physical activity each day, which is about 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity for children and 20-30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity for adults. In 1971 about 20.2 percent of children walked to school each day.  By 2001, only 12.5 percent of children walked to school and the number continues to decline.

Walking less, eating more

As the country becomes more industrialized, we need less movement to fulfill basic tasks in our daily lives, resulting in fewer calories burned on a daily basis. However, our caloric consumption has not decreased proportionally.  In fact, it has increased.

How much we eat

Adults in the 1970s consumed, on average, 1,996 calories each day.  Today's adults not only eat more - about 2,234 calories per day - they are also more reliant on cars rather than walking or biking. As a result, the number of adults classified as obese (a body mass index of 30 or above) has increased to 35.7 percent.

Food companies bulk up

The food and beverage industry is powerful.  So powerful that most of the products you eat and use each day come from among only 10 companies. Food companies respond to consumer demand, even if it means selling less nutritional content.  And when the market is saturated with high-calorie food, consumer choices become increasingly unhealthy.

The politics of food

Not only do food companies such as Coca Cola and Pepsico distribute most of the food available on supermarket shelves, they also have a great influence on the food policies of federal and state governments. Since 2009, the $1.5 trillion food and beverage industry spent over $175.9 million to lobby against measures such as a soda tax and other efforts to encourage healthier eating.

Feeding kids in schools

The National School Lunch Act was passed in 1946 as a 'measure of national security to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation's children..., encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agriculture products,' and educate children on a 'proper diet'. In short, many children in the U.S. were not eating enough and the federal government stepped in to feed them.

Gaining weight at school

Nowadays, however, half of childrens' waking hours are spent in school where they encounter: school lunches where pizza and french fries are defined as vegetables, fewer physical education classes, vending machines with high-calorie foods and beverages.

How kids eat now

Children in 1977 consumed on average 1,842 calories per day and the childhood obesity rate was 5 percent. In 2006, children consumed 2,022 calories per day and the childhood obesity rate currently hovers around 17 percent.

Obesity and race

Reports from the CDC suggest a strong correlation between income level and obesity rates across the U.S.  Higher income women, for example, are much less likely to be obese. The highest obesity rates by race in the country all are held by ethnic minorities:Non-Hispanic blacks - 44.1 percent; Mexican-Americans - 39.3 percent; Hispanics - 37.9 percent.

When children are insecure about food

Children who aren't certain where their next meal is coming from are more likely to be overweight than their more affluent counterparts. A study recently published in Pediatrics found that children whose families are 'food insecure' (i.e. cannot always afford to put food on the table) are more likely to be obese because they lack basic self-control around food.

What do we do?

The Institute of Medicine recommends a five-pronged approach, which includes daily physical activity, access to healthy food and beverages, making healthy food appealing, expanding the role of health care providers in obesity prevention, and focusing on schools.