Written by: Anna Korbut
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the rates of American adults with obesity have continued to increase over the past couple of decades, rising significantly among adults, from 13.5% in 1980 to 39.6% in 2014, but what are the main causes of obesity? There are a plethora of answers, including major attributes in too much food and not enough exercise. With this fast growing epidemic, several documentaries have been released including Super Size Me and Fed Up that tackle the topics of obesity and food in America. As a cause of these documentaries and growing research, many fast food restaurants have introduced healthy menus and different fad diets have popped up as a method of management and prevention such as low-carb, low-sugar, and keto diets.
Obesity is defined as a person who has a body-mass index of over 30 and one of the main causes of the increase in obesity rates is more food and less exercise. Compared to the way the American’s lived 30 years ago, jobs now require less physical activity and entail more sitting. This, coupled with the amount of food that people consume, becomes a recipe for disaster. Our World in Data, a publication comprised of a team of researchers from the University of Oxford, aiming at providing information to the public about the worlds largest problems, published information in 2013 about the amount of calories consumed by many different countries and its comparison to the share of overweight/obese men and women. In 2013, 72% of Americans were considered overweight/obese and consumed 3,682 calories per day, compared to 1975 where only 47.5% of the population was considered overweight/obese, consuming 3,033 calories per day. To put into perspective the sheer size of these numbers, the current average American eats on average 2,700 calories, despite the 2,000 recommended caloric intake, meaning 72% of the population in 2013 was consuming almost double the recommended daily calories (Ritchie et al.).
Eating 2,000 calories a day may seem like an easy task, however, we are surrounded by a number of fast food places that are cheap and easy to purchase food from. Along with that, it can become difficult to make a fresh, home cooked meal with a hectic schedule that makes the “fast” in fast food appealing. Cooking at home provides many health benefits because of the use of healthy ingredients, mindfulness of portion sizes, and the options vary more due to the amount of produce in grocery stores. Portion control is a huge problem when dining out and has been a factor in the increase in obesity because when purchasing a meal from a restaurant, it is not always explicitly stated the amount of calories that are in such a portion. This means you might eat a smaller sized meal, thinking its healthier for you, when in reality it might be packed with unnecessary oils and processed foods.
Even more detrimental to health is ultra-processed food, also known as fast food, which became popular in the 1950s. It started with the introduction of Burger King, Taco Bell and later, McDonald’s, becoming the fastest growing food chain, and now largest in history. This had sparked an uprising in purchased fast food because of how quick, easy, and cheap the food is. The masked deliciousness is riddled with high carbs, fat, and calories along with a long list of preservatives. In 2004, the documentary film directed by and starring Morgan Spurlock, Super Size Me, was released, tackling the many problems that come with eating fast food, and in the film, specifically McDonalds. In Super Size Me, Spurlock eats McDonalds everyday, three times a day, with the minimal recommended exercise of 5,000 standard steps a day for 30 days straight. He states that his purpose in creating this documentary is to open the eyes of others on the topic of obesity and show the effects that eating such unhealthy food can have on the body. After the 30 days, Spurlock gains 25 lbs, developed heart palpitations on day 21, becomes extremely lethargic, and sees a huge decline in his overall health. Post-experiment, in efforts to reverse the 25 lbs gained, he does a detox which takes him 14 months in order to get back into the same shape he was before this ordeal. With this documentary, the Morgan Spurlock does a phenomenal job in trying to display the horrible effects that fast food has on the body, and specifically what super-sized meals with minimal exercise can potentially cause. His story-telling strategy of having the camera’s constantly following him and showing how much his life has changed provide insight to the powerful effects this food has.
The lengthy and health-harming process that Spurlock went through overdramatized consuming fast food because typically, the average American will consume fast food at least once a day whereas Spurlock ate it three times a day. The message that the actor tried to send to viewers was to show the effect that these foods have on the body, and he got his result in the end. In reality, Spurlock did not have to go through 30 days of eating that way, nor did he have to deal with the repercussions of later trying to undo the damage but he did it because he wanted to send a message, not only to the American people, but also to fast food chains, with the hope that they would eventually change. The films release seemingly caused McDonalds to take the supersizing meal option off of the menu and add foods that were considerably more healthy as well. Continuing on this trend, several fast food chains introduced menus with healthy options that reduce the calorie intake. For example, The Cheesecake Factory, an American staple and delight, created a SkinnyLicious menu with all of its meals under 590 calorie and Chick-fil-a has grilled options instead of the fried that knock off on average 150 calories.
Although Super Size Me speaks greatly on the topic of obesity, processed foods, and the relation of it all to poor health, it mostly provides insight on adults, sparing little time for the effects on children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an organization committed to informing the American people about expensive and dangerous health threats, released data from 2015–2016 that showed that 1 in 5 school children (age 6–19) are obese. Not only is this number already immense but in the past four decades, the number of obese children has tripled. A few factors play into these statistics, however, including genetics, metabolism, and lifestyle. In fact biological factors play a key role in determining one’s appetite, undercutting the common misconception that food intake is primarily under voluntary control. According to the Obesity Medicine Association, “people who have obesity have multiple genes that predispose them to gain excess weight. One such gene is the fat mass and obesity-associated gene (FTO), which is found in up to 43% of the population.” Having this specific gene means that you are more likely to gain more weight which can potentially lead to obesity (Sicat). Additionally, metabolism and lifestyle play a part in the potential of becoming obese. When in an environment at home, full of unhealthy food, children are more likely to adopt unhealthy eating habits as adults when this becomes the only food provided. Everyone’s parents has regurgitated the common saying “don’t forget to eat your vegetables” at least once and the importance of this is not stressed enough.
Kids would much rather eat pizza, mac and cheese, and ice cream than healthy counterparts of fruits and vegetables. Companies have found ways to market to parents and their kids products that would be appealing to them, including pouches of applesauce and fruit purees which are easy ways to get daily doses of fruits and vegetables. Plum Organics, a company that opened in 2007, sells small pouches that are yummy for kids, easy to take on the go, and also provide the necessary nutrients for children. The companies smart marketing team provides parents with quick information about the product on their packaging writing that the food is organic, non-GMO, and uses whole foods which is something every parent would want their children to consume. This being said, the way that fast food chains and unhealthy food in general is marketed is similar to how the aforementioned Plum Organics, markets their product which is to cause consumers to buy more of it. The one major difference is that when the food is unhealthy, the company will find ways to hide the problems in the food and instead market it as if it is healthy.
Foods marked as fat-free, sugar-free, or low-anything, is almost always substituted for something worse than what full-fat food items would have. Sugar-free foods contain artificial sweeteners that those with diabetes often use to help but these sweeteners also have side effects including stomach upset, blood sugar control issues, and increased risk of some types of cancer (Strawbridge). These sweeteners are usually hidden in food labels and not marketed directly to consumers seeing as though they don’t pose many health benefits. The mislabeling of foods directly affect children as sugary foods make up a lot of the average child’s diet with cookies, cake, and candy.
To help expose the food industry and its effects on children a bit more, in 2014, a decade after Super Size Me came out, another documentary was released, Fed Up. This film, directed, written and produced by Stephanie Soechtig proved the conversation that obesity and diabetes in children have been an epidemic. In fact, Type 2 diabetes had not been known in children until a couple decades ago where in 1980 there were zero cases and in 2010, there were 57,636 (Konstantinovsky). As previously stated with the misunderstanding of how healthy a fat-free food may be, the documentary does a great job of also explaining that when a food is labeled as “fat-free” it also contains twice the amount of substitutes due to loss of flavor from the fat. Some of these substitutes include carbohydrate-based or protein based subs such as starches, gums, egg white, milk, and whey that all try to keep the similar, creamy texture of fat in foods (Marcus).
With all of the talk about food and its effects on health, it can be easy to forget about the other half of the problem: lack of exercise. Although many believe that only what you eat leads you to a healthy or unhealthy lifestyle, the amount of daily activity that one participates in must also be accounted for. As reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, “More than 80% of adults do not meet the guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities, and more than 80% of adolescents do not do enough aerobic physical activity to meet the guidelines for youth.” This shows that a large amount of people are simply not getting the recommended exercise, which can lead to many health issues including coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and breast and colon cancer (Triggle). The lack of activity can be seen also due to technology because sitting in front of a television, computer, or on the couch with a smartphone is much more appealing than going to the gym for a workout to sweat and burn the calories consumed throughout the day.
Obesity has been an increasingly growing problem and recent reports project that by 2030, half of all adults in the United States will be obese. It might be difficult to believe because this is a decade into the future but with the spike of fast food chains, consumption of supposedly healthy foods, and increasing laziness, it may not be far from reality. It also can spark the question of what can be done about it, hence the many fad diets including low-carb, low-fat, low-sugar or keto which all try to promote a healthy lifestyle. Personal experience hasn’t brought the desired results and as much as it may seem easy to cut out carbs, fats, or sugars, one comes to find that these are either replaced with ingredients that are worse for you, or that you don’t enjoy eating. Additionally, although these diets may work for a little while, every person has a body “set point” that they will naturally return to despite trying to lose the extra pounds. The body is a system of balance and it knows its limits which means that when someone tries these extreme diets, the weight they initially lose, tends to be water weight, making the person believe that they’ve lost what they needed to and can go back to eating the way they used to, a vicious cycle of food. What is most important for everyone and the future generation is understanding the tactics of companies and the way they try to market their foods. Additionally, having knowledge of what causes obesity can help to slow down the increase in the statistics.