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How America’s current food environment makes it easy to become obese

As an article in Vox points out, we’re not consciously choosing to overeat. Our excess calories often result from social, cultural and commercial interests that have gradually created an environment that encourages gluttony.

The average American downed 2,481 calories a day in 2010 — 23 pecent more than in 1970.
REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

As the ever-growing obesity epidemic has made clear, it’s quite easy these days to put on excess weight — and quite difficult to take it off. Indeed, a stunning 40 percent of American adults — more than 93 million individuals — are obese.

The average American now weighs at least 15 pounds more than 20 years ago. 

Most people who are overweight or obese want to lose their excess body fat but find doing so extremely challenging. The reasons why are complex, and (as has been explained in Second Opinion before) are not always a matter of individuals failing to have enough self-control over the calories they consume.

Still, the bottom line is that we Americans are taking in more calories than we did in past decades. The average American downed 2,481 calories a day in 2010 — 23 percent more than in 1970.

Unconscious behavior

As an article published Thursday on the online news website Vox points out, however, we’re not consciously choosing to overeat. Our excess calories result, instead, from social, cultural and commercial interests that have gradually created a society-wide food environment that encourages gluttony without us even noticing it. 

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In the article, Vox reporters Eliza Barclay, Julia Belluz and Javier Zarracina outline — with backup data and some great charts — seven ways in which our current food environment encourages overeating.

Recognizing these influences on our eating habits may help us resist them. Here, in brief, are some of the ones highlighted in the article:   

  • As the Vox reporters point out, we now spend more than half of our food dollars on meals in restaurants or on “convenient on-the-go” foods than on groceries. And the more meals we eat away from home, the more calories we’re likely to consume. “Researchers have found that people typically eat 20 to 40 percent more calories in restaurants compared with what they’d eat at home,” the reporters note. That’s in large part because the average meal served in restaurants today is more than four times larger than it was in the 1950s.
  • We’re drinking a lot more sugary beverages than in years past. The good news is that our consumption of these unhealthful products has begun to decline in recent years. “But we may still be getting hoodwinked by other, equally sugary beverages,” the Vox reporters warn. “… [W]hile the soda category is shrinking, juice sales have held steady, and sales of energy and sports drinks have been growing.”
  • We’re getting “hidden” added sugar from many more foods today than we did in the past  — whether it’s in our cereal at breakfast, our salad dressing at lunch, or our pasta sauce at dinner. “So many of the additional calories in our diet that weren’t there a few decades ago are coming in the form of sugar,” the reporters point out. “Back in 1977, the average adult got 228 calories per day from sugar in foods and drinks. By 2010, it was up to 300 calories a day.”
  • It tends to be more expensive to purchase healthful foods — the ones without all that added sugar — than unhealthful ones. “When it comes to how many calories you get per dollar, sugar, vegetable oils, and refined grains deliver a higher bang for the buck than fruits and vegetables,” explain the Vox reporters. “… If your household income is low, you’re probably going for the cheapest, highest-calorie options.”
  • The most frequently consumed vegetables in the U.S. are processed potatoes and tomatoes — foods that are often accompanied by fat, salt and even sugar (think French fries and pizza). The reporters add this interesting bit of information: “We’re told to eat nutrient-dense foods like broccoli and Brussels sprouts instead of energy-dense foods like soda and French fries, yet there aren’t enough nutrient-dense foods to go around. Researchers have pointed out that if Americans actually followed the US dietary guidelines and started to eat the volume and variety of produce health officials recommend, we wouldn’t have nearly enough to meet consumer demand.”
  • Today, we’re bombarded with ads for unhealthful, calorie-laden snacks. “In 2014, food companies spent $1.38 billion to advertise snack foods on television, in magazines, in coupons, and, increasingly on the internet and mobile devices,” write the reporters. “Almost 60 percent of that advertising spending promoted sweet and savory snacks, while just 11 percent promoted fruit and nut snacks.”

Policy changes that could help

Barclay, Belluz and Zarracina end the article with a discussion of new tactics that health officials have begun to experiment with to transform the current food environment. 

One is the taxing of junk foods — a policy that helped reduce the number of people using cigarettes. Another is putting warning labels on unhealthful food products, such as sugary beverages.

But while getting people to eat less junk food is important, so is getting them to eat more healthful ones. That means making fruits and vegetables more affordable, accessible — and visible — to consumers.

“To this end, nonprofits like Wholesome Wave have been working with government to offer fruit and vegetable subsidies for the poor, and even experiment with produce prescriptions (which are essentially vouchers handed out by doctors to patients with problems with food access),” Barclay, Belluz and Zarracina report.

“The status of fruits and vegetables also needs to be lifted up, so that we can see these options in our foodscape instead of only billboards for greasy hamburgers and candy,” they add. “Here, too, there’s movement. A number of celebrities and even Olympic athletes have been working with nonprofit organizations and grocery stores to appear in colorful advertisements peddling everything from apples to tomatoes.”

That may be movement, but it seems miniscule when compared with what’s being spent on by the food industry on marketing junk foods. 

As one expert acknowledged to the Vox reporters: “Transforming the food industry is one of the real uphill battles that will have to be fought over the next few decades.” 

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FMI: You can read the article on the Vox website