According to a recent food and health survey, 52% of Americans polled believe it is easier to do their taxes than to figure out how to eat healthfully (The International Food Information Council Foundation, 2012). Considering how complicated our tax codes are, this means that eating healthily can be really, really tricky for many people. As a country in an ongoing battle with obesity, this is perhaps not surprising. Over a third of the American population is considered obese; however, the obesity statistics alone do not capture the entire picture. When we combine the statistics on Americans who are overweight or obese, we find that approximately 70% are considered overweight or obese—more than 2 in 3 adults (Flegal, Carroll, Kit, & Ogden, 2012).
Why are the statistics for America’s prevalence of overweight and obesity so dismal? There are many factors that contribute to increased body weight and obesity. One of the main culprits is our diet. As we went from being a nation that relies on procuring food from local farms to one that mass-produces, processes, and prepackages most of what we consume, there has been a dramatic decrease in the quality of our diets. This transition in food production has allowed food to be less expensive and readily available, with little effort on our part, almost everywhere we go, which certainly makes our busy lives a little bit easier. However, the types of foods that are typically easy for us to access also tend to be high in calories, sugars, fat, and salt—all of which can contribute to added weight. From the sugary snacks in the break room to the omnipresence of fast food chains, it is clear that both the quantity and quality of our diets have evolved such that we have the opportunity to eat unhealthy foods virtually non-stop. In many ways, an obesity epidemic was imminent.
Another issue is quantity. The number of calories a person needs per day is specific to each individual, depending on gender, age, height, and level of daily physical activity. In a recent poll, only 15% of individuals correctly estimated the number of calories they need for weight maintenance, with many individuals underestimating (The International Food Information Council Foundation, 2012). The benchmark number, as seen on food labels, is approximately 2,000 calories per day (a number that may be more than the limit for sedentary or smaller individuals). Two thousand calories may seem like a lot, but many can consume this amount in a matter of just a couple hours. In fact, having lunch or dinner at many of today’s chain restaurants can cause a person to unknowingly meet or even exceed this limit.
Next, let’s discuss quality. Growing up, most of us learned from our parents about what types of foods are good for us and what types are not. The message was pretty simple: Fruits and vegetables are good, sweets are bad. The message about the rest of the foods we eat (including meats, dairy products, and grain/flour products) wasn’t always as clear, but we got the idea that they should be consumed in moderation. Though this concept of “healthy eating” was instilled in us from a young age, in practice we do not seem to be following this advice. This is made evident by the top five sources of calories among Americans:
- Grain-based desserts such as cakes, cookies, quick breads, pastries, and pies;
- Yeast breads and rolls;
- Chicken and chicken mixed dishes;
- Soda, energy, or sports drinks; and
- Pizza (National Cancer Institute, 2010).
This means that our top five sources of calories consist mostly of refined grains or sugars. Moreover, no single fruit or vegetable is among the list of the top calorie sources for adults or children—unless you count fried white potatoes aka “french fries,” which we all know don’t count as a vegetable!
It’s not all bad news: there is evidence that Americans are taking steps to improve their diets. In a recent poll, 67% of participants reported trying to limit or reduce their fat intake and the majority of polled individuals reported making an effort to reduce their intake of sodium. Likewise, 51% reported trying to cut down on their consumption of sugars. However, participants reported taste and price as factors that determined their food and beverage choices more frequently than health (The International Food Information Council Foundation, 2012).
We know that the amount and type of foods that we eat are significant contributors to our obesity epidemic today, but with a multitude of other factors influencing our food choices on a daily basis—from a busy schedule and a lack of sleep to a stressful moment and sudden hunger pangs—we don’t always take the time to question what it is that we are putting in our bodies. Further, although the technologies involved in agriculture and the food industry more generally have advanced considerably over the last several decades, the most helpful way out of our current predicament may be to go back to basics.
Flegal, K. M., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B. K., & Ogden, C. L. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in the distribution of body mass index among US adults, 1999-2010. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 307, 491-497.
The International Food Information Council Foundation. (2012). 2012 Food & Health Survey. Retrieved from http://www.foodinsight.org/Content/3848/FINAL%202012%20Food%20and%20Health%20Exec%20Summary.pdf
National Cancer Institute. (2010). Food sources of energy among U.S. population, 2005-2006. Risk Factor Monitoring and Methods. Control and Population Sciences. Retrieved from http://appliedresearch.cancer.gov/diet/foodsources/energy/table1a.html