It’s no secret. Americans are getting fatter. In fact, obesity is on the rise, and this concern is often featured in various news broadcasts, articles, charts, and videos throughout the country every day. Over half the American population is overweight or obese, and the number of overweight children is rising at twice the rate as overweight adults (Brownell and Horgan 3). Even without an extensive, scientific knowledge of nutrition, the basic tenet commonly understood by many is that if one eats more calories than they consume, they will gain weight. However, there are several key factors contributing to the current, nationwide “battle of the bulge” that are hard to ignore as they perpetuate this troublesome statistic. While genetics may play a part in body chemistry working against some individuals in shedding pounds, there are some factors that, if confronted, can help lessen this epidemic…and hopefully eradicate it entirely. The rising cost of food, the influence of media advertising, lifestyle conflicts, and habits learned at an early age are some leading causes of obesity in Americans, and must be addressed in order to combat the growing health concerns plaguing our steadily increasing, overweight population.
Processed foods are generally cheaper than fresh foods. Just go to any supermarket, and you will see the price differences not only on the shelves and among the sales flyers, but also on the receipt after going though the checkout counter. Whereas a ready-made lunch box of cheese, crackers, cured lunchmeat, juice box and miniature candy bar can cost on average about $2.50 in the refrigerated section, a ready-to-go grilled chicken salad with low-calorie dressing can put one’s wallet back about $6.00, give or take. A fresh-cut fruit salad is considerably more expensive than a can of “fruit in light syrup”, a box of frozen fish sticks are less costly by the pound than fresh fish fillets from the seafood counter, and a bag of brown rice is definitely more dollars per ounce than a box of instant, seasoned, to-the-table-in-minutes, processed, parboiled rice. On this same note, perishable foods are, on average, more expensive than canned, boxed, jarred, and preserved foods. For example, canned green beans versus fresh green beans, or frozen berries as opposed to fresh berries. Being that processed foods are generally lower in nutrients and higher in calories, sodium, and sugars as opposed to fresh foods, this makes for a precarious path when trying to balance the diet without breaking the bank.
In addition, cheap, fast meals cooked by a business can seem more attractive to consumers over cooking from scratch, which may include long ingredient lists and added preparation time. A kids’ meal of chicken tenders and fries at the local fast food chain can sometimes be less expensive than cranking out the same meal at home, for instance. When there’s a hungry family waiting at home, that $10.99 family feast variety pack can seem mighty tempting when the other option is to stop by the supermarket and load up on all the ingredients to make it at home, at a higher cost. Brownell and Horgen agree that “…unhealthy food is convenient, accessible, good-tasting, heavily promoted, and cheap. Healthy food is harder to get, less convenient, promoted very little, and more expensive. This alone would predict an overweight nation” (199).
It wouldn’t be surprising to find that an overwhelming number of Americans may more readily remember catchy fast-food jingles and spot familiar logos of popular snack food companies than they could recall former Presidents of the United States or state capitals. Children, even at very young ages, learn to recognize slogans, recognizable characters and logos as they are exposed to advertising campaigns (Brownell and Horgan 103). It is the job of each and every commercial and advertisement to embed itself in the human psyche in such a way as to invoke a desire for the intended product. Clever marketing has reeled in many an American. From “BOGOs” to “Details Inside” offers, subliminal persuasion to catchy song themes and mottos, and from shock-factor imagery to emotional, touching voice-over stories, there are a variety of ways a company selling a product will try to get you to want their product more than any one else’s. McGinnis, Gootman and Kraak found that “Children are exposed to extensive advertising for high-calorie and low-nutrient dense foods and beverages and very limited advertising of healthful foods and beverages during their daily television viewing” (185). One disturbing way food companies are reeling in children is by advertising popular television character-based toys as rewards for purchasing their “Kids’ Meals”, and using the same characters in ads to lure them in and to pester their parents for the product, as well (Oliver 167).
Larger companies have been known to “buy” certain shelves in grocery stores, usually at eye-level and towards the front of the aisles that are closer to checkout lines. In addition, companies will shell out more money to have certain displays set up either at the end-caps of aisles where more foot traffic is, or standing alone, separate from the regular aisles throughout a retail store so their product will be more visible and available to the consumer. Best-sellers and big-spenders, therefore, have the “prime real estate” in a grocery store, paying extra to have their product more accessible for a higher probability of purchase due to their location and colorful displays (McGinnis, Gootman and Kraak 21). Also, the more money a food company generates, the more they can spend on packaging. So, the smaller, organic company selling whole-grain, preservative-free cookies might not only be on the lowest or highest shelf where it is less visible, but might also have a more conservative packaging as opposed to the bright, eye-level, fancy packaging of big-name corporate products that have grown to be household names through clever advertising and strategic spending, despite having more sugar and chemicals.
Another advertising trick used to reel in customers is to appeal to current trends and diet fads. “Low-Carb”, “Fat Free”, “All-Natural”, and “Gluten-Free” are common examples of this. These products might help individuals adhere to their particular diets, but are often high in preservatives and artificial sugars to make up for what they are claiming to be “free” of. Little do many realize, yo-yo dieting is very often ineffective over time, as the body’s metabolic rate and energy levels decrease and water retention increases, making sustained weight loss nearly impossible (Oliver 108). Sometimes, a simple over-marketing of a popular, high-calorie food craze can do damage as well. For example, the bacon craze is a prime example of a food trend that is being exploited by many corporations. You can now find bacon milkshakes, double-bacon burgers, bacon doughnuts, bacon cotton candy, and even bacon bubble gum making its way throughout the restaurants and store shelves of America.
Lifestyle conflicts in modern-day households can also lead to a larger waistline. As people’s lives get busier and more stressed, while technology and economic competitiveness grows, home-cooked meals and taking time to prepare wholesome dishes at home falls by the wayside (Brownell and Horgen 37). After a long day at work, for example, a parent may decide that in order to have more time to spend with his or her family and to relax, picking up a few “extra value meals” on the way home would be their best option. Or, on the way to work or on a lunch break, one may feel that a quick meal at the nearest fast food chain or sugary snack at the convenience store would save them some time and money. In a hustling, bustling, stressful world, people are often drawn to options that save time, cut costs, and keep them moving. These are the foundations of fast-food culture, and a contributing factor to the high-calorie, large-portion consumption that leads to problems with health and weight.
Another aspect of lifestyle conflicts affecting one’s diet would be the availability (or lack thereof) of local produce in one’s community, and of education regarding cooking, nutrition, portion control and fitness. If farmer’s markets, local dairies and specialty shops (such as charcuteries or bakeries) were more available, in turn making local foods more prevalent, perhaps the dynamic of buying food and eating would also change. Farming communities have available to them the basic building blocks of a healthy diet—whole food products that are much more nutrient-dense than the cheeseburgers and milkshakes down the street or the preservative-laden aisles of a commercial grocery store. As local governments try to take action towards making healthy foods such as produce and fresh dairy more available to communities, it is important that these efforts are supported and promoted by the citizens to keep it going strong (Koplan, Liverman and Kraak 217). Also, if more schools were to teach the importance of basic nutrition and exercise to youth, perhaps a better foundation can be laid for their overall wellness in the future. There are some adult cooking and nutritional programs available in many communities, and these may prove instrumental in providing basic skills necessary to create healthful, balanced meals at home.
Eating habits adopted an early age can affect lifestyle choices. It is no secret that children are very impressionable. They often mimic their parents and older siblings, and are very susceptible to influences as they grow and develop. “Parents who eat a healthful diet and are active typically provide access to healthful food and opportunities for physical activity for their children as well” (Koplan, Liverman and Kraak 306). If a child grows up bombarded by the media (advertising kids’ meals and snacks that include fun toys and smiling mascots), learning from their parent’s habits and values, and observing other kids at school, their diets can most certainly be affected by what they witness and experience. Growing up in a household and school environment where healthy foods, portion control, and regular exercise are promoted can make all the difference.
In addition, many cafeterias in schools and workplaces alike may serve calorie-dense, low-nutrient foods to their customers in an effort to cut costs. Parents, trusting that their child is being fed according to the USDA’s Food Pyramid (which is heavily carbohydrate-based), may be unhappy to find that little Johnny or Suzie are actually lunching on industrial-grade pizza, flash-frozen burger patties, and preservative-laced mac and cheese. Some schools are addressing this issue and are initiating programs to incorporate more whole foods and produce, culinary training for cooks, and better menus for their districts. However, many schools are still rampant with widespread availability of high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar, low-nutrient dense foods and beverages, negatively impacting the health of students (McGinnis, Gootman and Kraak 113). Just as parents have the responsibility of packing healthful lunches for their children or ensuring their school district is providing adequate nutrition for their students, it is also important to encourage wellness at home in regards to eating, staying active, and developing healthy habits at an early age.
There’s a lot of work to be done to halt the spread of one of today’s fastest-growing health concerns. Nearly half a million Americans die of obesity-linked ailments as healthcare expenses tip the scales at around 100 billion dollars each year (Oliver 1). Concerns such as depression and body image issues, diabetes, joint stress, asthma, cancer, heart disease, hypertension and increased medical costs are but a few of the obesity-related troubles Americans face today. Once the factors of food cost, the power of advertising, lifestyle conflicts, and childhood habits are considered, it is easy to see what should be addressed when confronting the burgeoning problem of obesity in America. If just one of these problem areas were tackled (or even better, all four), it would be a step in the right direction of helping this nation to shed the extra pounds and start moving towards a more mindful today and a healthier tomorrow.
Brownell, Kelly D., and Katherine Battle Horgen. Food Fight : The Inside Story Of The Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis, And What We Can Do About It [e-book]. Chicago: Contemporary Books; 2004. Available from: eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 22, 2013.
Koplan, Jeffrey, Catharyn T. Liverman, and Vivica I. Kraak. Institute of Medicine. Preventing Childhood Obesity : Health In The Balance [e-book]. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press; 2005. Available from: eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 22, 2013.
McGinnis, J. Michael, Jennifer Appleton Gootman, and Vivica I. Kraak. Food Marketing To Children And Youth : Threat Or Opportunity? [e-book]. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press; 2006. Available from: eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 22, 2013.
Oliver, J. Eric. Fat Politics : The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic [e-book]. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2006. Available from: eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 22, 2013.