Perhaps the most obvious consequence of our national diet of calorie-rich, nutrient-poor processed food is the ongoing obesity epidemic.
Over one third of all Americans are now clinically obese, as our nearly 20% of our children.
In 1996, no state in America had an obesity rate of greater than 20%. But by 2010, a mere 14 years, every state in America had an obesity rate of over 20%. And in 12 states the rate exceeded 30%. Americans today are nearly three times more likely to be obese than we were just a mere 30 years ago.
The costs are enormous. On average an obese person spends $1,500 more per year on health care than a person of normal weight. The CDC estimates that the amount spent on medical care to treat obesity-related illnesses in the U.S. is about $147 billion per year. By comparison, the United Nations estimates that we could end world hunger for about $30 billion per year, about 1/5 of what we spend to treat illnesses caused by eating too much.
Not only does obesity diminish the quality of life, it significantly increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and chronic illnesses like cancer. The American Society of Clinical Oncology reports that obesity is now poised to overtake tobacco use as the leading preventable cause of cancer in our country. One study concludes that nearly 1/5 of all deaths can now be linked to obesity.
Of course there can be a complex set of reasons for obesity–including cultural, environmental, and genetic factors. But at its core is an increase in caloric intake. The USDA estimates that Americans consume on average 500 calories more per day than we did 40 years ago, with nearly all those additional calories coming from grains, starches, sugar and fat.
This epidemic is so widespread and pervasive that it’s difficult to discuss, especially while trying to remain careful not to shame or judge those who are victims of it. The reality is that we have a food system hell-bent on selling processed junk food to us, regardless of the consequences of eating it. They have multi-million dollar advertising budgets and an army of chemists and food scientists designing chemicals and flavorings intended to create a form of addiction to the stuff they sell. And to make matters worse, we’re an increasingly sedentary society–we’re eating more and exercising less, making obesity inevitable.
There are lots of excellent reasons to break industrial food’s grip on our society. There are no shortage of reasons to favor nutritious ethically-sourced food, consumed in moderation. But surely ending the obesity epidemic has to be one of the most urgent.