A popular talking point on the far right is that the United States has such a high standard of living and is so blessed that even its poor are obese. But the exact opposite is true: rampant obesity reflects the country’s decline and underscores the fact that the quality of life is growing worse for much of the U.S. population.
Ironically, our culture bombards people with weight-loss schemes and goofy fad diets while doing so many things to promote obesity (and by extension, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and other chronic conditions). That is not to say it is impossible to stay thin in the U.S. or that Americans battling weight problems should simply give up and take a fatalistic attitude. But obesity is encouraged by one’s environment, and there is much about the modern American lifestyle that is conducive to gaining a lot of weight.
Below are 10 things that encourage obesity in the United States and make weight loss not impossible, but more challenging.
1. Widespread, Increasing Poverty
Between corporate downsizing, outsourcing of American jobs to developing countries and the economic crash of September 2008, poverty has become much more widespread in the U.S. (where the number of people poor enough to quality for food stamps went from 17 million in 2000 to 47 million in 2013). While it is certainly possible to eat healthy on a budget, it can be challenging—especially when unhealthy processed food is cheap, ubiquitous, convenient and easy to obtain. In a 2013 article for the Washington Post, Eli Saslow took a close look at the relationship between poverty and obesity in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas: not surprisingly, many of the poor, obese people Saslow interviewed were living on a steady diet of processed foods.
2. Food Deserts
The term food desert refers to a poor area (urban, suburban or rural) with limited access to fresh fruits, whole grains and vegetables; a place where it is much easier to find unhealthy processed foods. In a food desert, a place that sells whole foods might be 10 or 15 miles away while a convenience store or dollar store selling an abundance of processed foods is much closer. Food deserts are plentiful in the U.S.: the United States Department of Agriculture even has an interactive online map of food deserts, showing that they can be found all over the country. In that type of environment, eating healthy and staying thin requires a lot more time and effort. One of the Rio Grande Valley residents Saslow interviewed for his Washington Post article lived seven miles from the nearest place that sold fresh produce.
3. Processed Foods Are Omnipresent
Even if Americans who are poor and obese don’t live in a food desert, they may live in an area where frozen corn dogs sold at the local dollar store are more affordable than fresh fruits and vegetables sold in a supermarket. In 2013, NPR ran a segment on childhood obesity, comparing what healthy and unhealthy food can cost: Central California resident Araceli Flores, a mother of two, noted, “I can buy a box of macaroni and cheese for a dollar. A bunch of bananas—like a good maybe week-and-a-half’s worth of bananas—will cost me over a dollar. Strawberries are four dollars. Apples, a bag of apples, is going to cost me five dollars—way more pricier to buy vegetables and fruits than it is to buy boxed food.”
Then there’s the time factor: microwaving unhealthy processed food is less time-consuming than cooking a healthy meal from scratch. Many poor Americans are working 50, 60 or more hours a week and are plagued by a lack of free time. Processed foods save them time and money, though they will prove more costly in the long run should they develop heart disease or diabetes.
4. Not Enough Places to Walk or Exercise
One of the best pieces of advice to give someone who is watching his/her weight is to get out and walk an hour a day. But that is much easier to do in some places than in others. New York City, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago have the pedestrian-friendly appeal of European cities: it is possible to function without a car. But many Americans live in small towns, suburbs or rural areas that are not pedestrian-friendly, and those places encourage driving rather than walking. That doesn’t mean people who live in the Sun Belt can’t find places to walk, but they have to drive to get to them.
5. Nonstop Stress
From job insecurity and high unemployment to a dysfunctional health insurance system, life has becoming increasingly stressful in the U.S.—and research shows a strong link between stress and weight gain. People who are under a lot of stress might resort to overeating or binge eating, but that is something they have control over. Stress eating is a learned behavior. However, there is much scientific research indicating that stress can affect a person’s metabolism. So even if one exercises and refrains from overeating, stress can make it easier for a person to gain weight. In 2010, a study conducted at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine indicated that stress not only had negative short-term results, but could also cause metabolic changes in the long term, making it easier to gain weight and harder to lose it.
6. Poor Work/Life Balance
According to the 2013 OECD Better Life Index, the U.S. ranks 28th among advanced nations when it comes to work/life balance. Denise Dellarosa Cummins (author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think) has pointed out that obesity is one of the results of Americans’ poor work/life balance. Americans are not only overworked and stressed out, they are consumed by the workplace in a way most Americans of the 1960s and '70s were not. And the ever-increasing demands of work leave little time for people to take care of themselves and get adequate exercise or rest.
7. Lack of Universal Healthcare
The Affordable Care Act of 2010 has given millions of previously uninsured Americans access to health insurance. But millions of other Americans remain uninsured, and cut off from things that discourage obesity, such as programs promoting wealth loss or weight management. The ACA does encourage programs for obesity screening and counseling, although how much is offered can vary from plan to plan. Bottom line: the ACA is a small step in the right direction when it comes to offering overweight Americans access to medical care, but there are still millions of Americans who have weight problems and aren’t getting the attention they need.
8. High Unemployment and Underemployment
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. unemployment rate was 6.1% in June. But that figure is misleading because it ignores all of the Americans who have been out of work for so long they have simply vanished from the government’s radar. The Washington Post’s Michael S. Rosenwald and the Huffington Post’s Arthur Delaney have both asserted that there is a major link between unemployment and obesity. Rosenwald points out that American counties with higher unemployment rates also have higher obesity rates, and Delaney said that unemployment promotes obesity because these days, the unemployed spend so much time online looking for work. Delaney recently told journalist Bill Press: “The only way to get a job is to sit at a computer and fling résumés off. If you pound the pavement and knock on doors, they’ll tell you to get lost and file your application online. So you become chained to a computer when you are laid off.”
9. Not Enough Sleep
The U.S. was far from perfect in the 1950s, 1960s and '70s, but overall, the working conditions for most Americans were much better then than they are now—and as more and more Americans find themselves working longer hours and making less money in the 21st century, they also end up sleeping less. In 1960, sleeping an average of 8.5 hours per night was the norm for most Americans; in 2002, less than seven hours per night was the norm. A 2004 University of Chicago study found a link between increased appetite and inadequate sleep. To make matters worse, the study said, lack of sleep encourages cravings for unhealthy snacks.
10. Powerful Junk Food Lobby
For many years, lobbyists for the tobacco industry enjoyed enormous power on Capitol Hill. But these days, with fewer Americans smoking and big tobacco having shifted its marketing efforts to developing countries, the lobby that’s doing the most to promote poor health may very well be the junk food lobby, which spends millions of dollars trying to influence policy in Washington, DC. Junk food lobbyists went ballistic when First Lady Michelle Obama asserted that schoolchildren should be watching their weight and eating more fresh fruits and vegetables. The food industry has lobbied aggressively to prevent food stamp benefits from excluding soda, potato chips and other obesity-promoting junk food.