Obesity Epidemic

News of the western world’s obesity epidemic appears everywhere, so unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade or so, you’re likely aware that we’re all putting on a lot of weight.  Coincident with this news are many theories as to why it is happening; I’ve listed below in no particular order, a few of the ones that make the most sense to me as key contributors to our amassing bulk.
size comparisons between US and UK

  1. Clothing size escalation – I’ve not seen a lot reported about this, but the reality is that clothing sizes in America are dramatically bigger than they used to be.  Take my particular case:  I graduated from high school some thirty-plus years ago at a 125 lbs, and wore a size 10 or Large for most clothing.  I’m fortunate enough to weigh within 3 lbs of that  weight currently, and now consistently wear a Small — size 6 or even a size 4 in some cases. From this it is obvious that clothing manufacturers have used vanity sizing to hide expanding waistlines from customers.  I would wager that to wear the same size today as the 70’s high school me, I’d need to put on more than 75 pounds.  Put another way, North Americans who haven’t changed clothing size in a while have been lulled into thinking their body size hasn’t changed, or not that much, any way.  Nowhere is this most apparent but in the US; this size chart shows the UK apparently hasn’t succumbed to this trend at all.  
  2. Portion size escalation – This problem manifests itself both when eating out and at home, but for different reasons.  First is the fact that not only do we eat out far more frequently than our forebears, but also the amount of food put in front of us, both at so-called fast food places as well as some more upscale establishments, is huge.  I am no longer surprised to be served a pasta portion that would easily feed two or three  — well more than one would serve at home if you were in charge of the ladle.  (I’m a committed doggie-bagger.)   The second less obvious issue is the size of our crockery has increased.  For example, if I compare bowl sizes from dishes I had when first married to the latest set I acquired a few years ago, the new one is almost double the size of the previous one.  If you’re used to filling up to within an inch of the top, it is easy to double your portion size without realizing it.  The next time you’re visiting your granny’s take a look at the juice glass sizes; I’ll bet they are half the size of your modern ones at home.
  3. Climate control – By this I mean our lovely climate controlled environment.  No longer do we need to be cold or hot in our homes or cars; the prevalence of cheap HVAC systems and energy to run them has meant we rarely sweat nor shiver.  In the former case, people report they feel less like eating during a heat wave, but if you live in air-conditioned comfort, moving from cool home to car to office, you never really experience the heat, so that natural appetite moderator doesn’t kick in.  Home air conditioning was far less common when I was growing up, and I recall our family would take to the basement of our non-air conditioned home whenever the summer’s one major heat wave appeared.  My mother was particularly affected, and refused to serve warm meals at these times; a diet of deviled eggs and rice salad comes to mind from those days – perhaps the reason for our decreased appetites!  When cold, we expend calories shivering, but nowadays are likely to simply turn up the thermostat because the price of heating is not as dear as it used to be.  My husband thinks nothing of wearing only a T-shirt inside in mid-winter; our grandparents were used to layering on clothing, and being cold.  And while no one is going to adopt “temperature effects” as a weight loss strategy, over years, the calories these indoor climate effects represent add up.
  4. The endless sun – From the advent of electric lighting to the prevalence of giant televisions and brightly lit mobile handsets and tablets,  we are exposed to far less darkness than we used to be. Our circadian rhythms are being impacted by the apparent longer day time, causing a change to our natural hunger patterns.  The resulting lack of sleep means we are more likely to be sleep-deprived, a condition studies have shown leads us to consume more.  When sleep deprivation is the norm, excess eating is not far behind, not least due to the increased opportunity to snack.
  5. Pop – Call it soda, a soft drink or just “pop” as we do in Canada, it is liquid sugar in a can.  That North Americans have developed a taste for this most effective calorie deliverer  is a double-whammy as it offers nothing nutritionally — it is the exemplar “empty calorie”.  Couple that with the portion size escalation issue above, and you have many kids today consuming hundreds of empty liquid calories daily. And if you think drinking diet soda is the answer, here’s some worrying news: a new study shows consumption can lead to a higher risk for Type 2 diabetes.  While researchers aren’t certain of the mechanism, it may be that the artificial sweeteners increase our desire for sweetness or cause us to overestimate the calorie savings from the diet soda, leading us to overcompensate with other eating.
  6. The Costco generation – I’m a latecomer to the Costco or “superstore” revolution, but finally got my membership this year.  It is clear that these kind of companies offer some fantastic bargains on a wide variety of products, particularly if you’re willing to visit often and keep an open mind.  But one characteristic of their business models is that they sell in large quantities, no doubt improving margin by selling you a kilogram of Raisin Bran instead of the 400 g box you can get at your grocery store; you the consumer are happy because the unit price is great.   But the large box you bring home results in a behaviour change … you become caught up in the economics of abundance.  You have more, so you consume (or even, waste) more.  You come up with ways to use Raisin Bran at other meals, in other dishes; you’re even sprinkling Raisin Bran on the dog’s food because it is so cheap. Pretty soon, you always buy the 1 kg box, because your family can’t get by between shops on the smaller one any more.  My assertion is that the “superstore” business model of large sizes leads to higher consumption.

Of course, the number one reason the Western world’s waist size is increasing is that we’re consuming more food than the energy we expend daily.  In a world where food is abundant and cheap and we have to pay to sweat, it is not surprising.

Some references:

  1. Vanity sizing
  2. Some portion size escalation examples
  3. Sleep and obesity
  4. Soft drinks and their impact on health
  5. Diet soft drinks and health