The World Has Changed & So Have Our Waistlines

1 Posted by - September 26, 2013 - PREVENTION

Obesity and Changes in the US Diet since 1980

Global obesity rates have doubled since 1980.  Three decades ago, about 5% of men and 8% of women were obese.  In 2008, nearly 10% of men and 14% of women worldwide qualified as obese. (1)

Among wealthy nations, the United States weighs in with the heaviest citizens. In 1980, 15% of Americans were obese.   Today, one out of three Americans (36%) are obese and two out of three are overweight (69%). If the current trend continue at this rate unabated, by 2030, nearly half of our population will be obese. (2)

Obesity occurs when an individual regularly consumes more calories than they can expend and those extra calories are stored as fat, which eventually turn into weight gain.   So what has happened in the last three decades that a large portion of the population is gaining weight, when only a small portion has historically been obese?  Have will all decided that being a normal weight is not a priority? Or are there other cultural factors at play that are affecting us?





























Super-size Me.

We are eating more.  In fact we are eating about 500 calories a day more. In 1970, the average American ate 2,064 calories in a day.  Today, we typically eat 2,538 calories per day, the equivalent of eating an extra McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese every day.

We also eat out more and get served more food.    Increased portions at restaurants began in the 1970s, with portions markedly increasing in the 1980s.   Not surprisingly fast food restaurants chains have “supersized” their meals to the greatest extent with most items now 2 to 5 times larger than two decades ago.   We are 40% more likely than Americans in the 1970s to eat at a restaurant three or more times in a week.   So if we are served more food, do we necessarily eat more of it?  Yup.  Studies have demonstrated that larger portions lead to the consumption of more calories. (3)

We Regularly Drink 22 Packets of Sugar.

Our sweet tooth is much sweeter.  The USDA estimates that since 1950 our sugar consumption has increased by 39%.   On average we are consuming 22 teaspoons of sugar per person per day (and some estimates are much higher).   The daily-recommended amount of sugar according to World Health Organization 2003 guidelines is less than 200 calories, (8 teaspoons or 34g).  For perspective, a single can of coke has 41g of sugar, which is 10 teaspoons,and a 20 ounce bottle contains 65g or 22 packets of table sugar.  A single 12-oz can of coke is over the daily-recommended amount of sugar.

Sugar is also lurking in many foods and much harder to identify than a few decades ago. Sugar is naturally occurring, such as in fruits and milk, or added to products in the form of table sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Added sugars are large culprits of extra calories and thus excess weight gain.  Added sugars are most often found in things you might expect such as soda, candy, cakes, and fruit drinks.  Added sugars are also often added to low-fat foods to make them taste better and add many unwanted and unexpected calories.  They are also found in many foods not typically sweet tasting foods, which are surprisingly high in sugar, such as ketchup, barbeque sauce, spaghetti sauce, cereal, granola and protein bars.   1980 marks the year Coca-Cola switched from table sugar to less expensive high-fructose corn syrup.   Many health concerns have been raised regarding high fructose corn syrup particularly linking its consumption to weight gain and the disruption of normal appetite function.






















We Love Cheese.

According to the USDA,  from 1950 to 2000 the average American  annual cheese consumption increased by 287%  and continues to rise. We are up to consuming 23 pounds per person per from 8 pounds back in 1970.  Lifestyle and convenience is a major factor in cheese consumption, as most cheese is an added ingredient found in pizza, nachos, quesadillas, soups, or tucked in our pizza crust.   Cheese consumption has paralleled the Department of Agriculture promotion of cheese and meat that began in 1985.  Overproduction of milk in the American food supply system has turned to pounds and pounds of cheese for the US consumer. Cheese is now the single largest source of saturated fat in the American diet.


















We Live in a Toxic Food Environment

How we choose what to eat is determined by many environmental factors and the culture around food has drastically changed in the past several decades.  A number of novel foods were created in the 1950s and subsequent decades for the sake of adding convenience to our modern life.  These “convenient” processed foods often forsake nutritional value and add fat, sugar, salt and calories to deliver flavor.  These foods were designed as occasional departures from a home cooked diet and have now often become the mainstay of many of our diets.

In the last several decades, we have also seen the rise of fast food chains and convenience stores populating our neighborhoods and making processed foods that much more of a convenient option.   Increased sedentary lifestyle with an average five-hour daily TV habit that is bombarded with food marketing also greatly contributes to our cravings and the foods we choose to eat.  And, in a culture where the norm is overweight or obese, friends, family and co-workers may not be who to turn to for nutritional advice or encouragement. We are living in an environment where we have to make a conscious effort to be aware of what we are eating in order to be healthy and get our population healthier in the coming years.

The world we live in has markedly changed in the last three decades and so have our waistlines.  To reverse the trend in obesity, we need to make educated choices about how much and what kind of food we eat.


  1. Lancet.
  2. Harvard School of Public Health.
  3. Ledikwe et al. Portion sizes and the obesity epidemic. J. Nutr. April 1, 2005 vol. 135 no. 4 905-909.

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