Why America is Obese

Note: I’ve been wanting to post this for 2 years,  this draft was actually mostly written last year.  I finally decided to publish it after getting my diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes.  I don’t mean it as an excuse (I know full well many of the reasons I developed Diabetes and was working to eliminate them, I just didn’t do it soon enough or go far enough), I mean this post to try and get a better conversation started on why the MAJORITY of Americans suffer from obesity and diabetes.

This is an issue that comes up quite often in the media.  Americans are overweight, why and what can we do about it?  The answer is simple, just kidding, it’s ridiculously complex.  No seriously, it is.  Here are a few of the reasons that are commonly given for why Americans are obese:

  1. Don’t exercise enough
  2. Too much fast food
  3. Too much processed foods
  4. Lazy
Those all sound good, but I think they’re actually symptoms rather than the problem.  The problem is the American system of employment.

Who has time to exercise?

I think Americans work more hours and have to travel farther for work than people in most other countries.  Let’s look at a typical 24 hour weekday for a family with kids.  Let’s say you work 8 – 5, with an hour off for lunch.  The average commute for Americans is 24.3 minutes each way.  So you have to take off to work by 7:30 to get to work by 8.  But of course, you don’t just jump out of bed and jump straight into the car.  You’ve got to get ready.  I take 30mins, put your time in and move backwards.  So for me I get out of bed at 7 and then work till 5.  But wait, I said a family with kids.  This means you’ve got to get your kids ready (or make them get themselves ready) and get them off to school or daycare.  I’m going to add another hour for that.  So that means you get up by 6am.  So when you get off of work at 5 you’ve got another 30min commute, maybe have to pick up kids, etc.  Let’s be generous and say you get home at 6pm.  So just for work related things, you’ve spent half your day already.  6am – 6pm is taken.

 

Now let’s say you sleep 6 hours, so you go to bed at midnight wake up at 6am.  So you’ve got 6 hours to spend with your kids, exercise, cook and get ready for bed.  I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying that you’ve got to put your kids to bed if they’re young by about 8-9.  Which means if you worked out immediately after work, you’d only get maybe an hour to spend with them.  Unless you have a home gym, which would help.  And cooking takes a minimum of 30-45mins.  So if you get home at 6, say get 15mins to change clothes, then start cooking.  dinner is ready by 7pm.  And if you eat at 7pm, then you can’t exactly work out at 7:01.

 

Do you see what I’m getting at here?  Time is not on your side.  And this time frame I outlined above only applies to people with “9-5” jobs.  What if you work multiple shifts? Or, have multiple jobs?

 

There have been studies that show that rotating shift workers are more obese than those who work a steady 8-5 job. (I don’t know how reliable this study is, but it references several others.  WebMD also points to increased risk of obesity in shift workers.)   Seeing how hard it is to workout with a regular shift imagine the stresses working say 1pm to 10pm (a full-time closing position in retail).  You’ll have to join a 24 hour gym to get a good workout, but you probably can’t afford it since you’re working retail.  Though if you do manage to time-shift your hours, you’re either getting up really early or staying up really late. If you’re working part time, you’ve most likely got a second job.  Good luck coordinating time off.  The reason I think shift work leads to obesity (before I even Googled to see if there was a correlation) is that when you’re a shift worker you don’t have set hours and days, and when it comes to working out you need a schedule and pattern.  The symptom that presents itself as “doesn’t exercise enough” is caused by our work schedules.

 

Fast Food Nation

What about “eat too much fast food” surely that’s not caused by our work habits?  Again, I think this is a symptom and the cause is our jobs, specifically hours and pay.  I’ve gone over the time factors above and I think I don’t need to readdress them, but what about pay?

 

A lot of America, right now and very recently, is what is considered working poor.  I myself was working poor very recently.  I remember having only $40 to make it between paychecks (that’s after paying every bill I had and gas).  How do you make $40 last, you buy cheap food high in calories and sodium.

 

Recently there was this post by Kimberly Palmer who interviewed a comedian about how to eat on $7 a day.  It was also posted on Yahoo, where the comments are always fun.  Everyone kept commenting on how horrible this diet would be.  You need more vegetables and fresh food.  REALLY? Have you ever been poor?  I made $40 last 2 weeks, which means I ate off $3 a day!  My choice: 10 meals for work at a cost of $8.80 and dinner that consisted of $1.00 rice sides and thin sliced pork chops and really fatty ground beef.  Also, .99 pizzas.   There is no where in this country you can buy fresh food to last 2 weeks on $40!  Even the suggestion on the “Eat on $7 a Day” story encourages you to buy bulk.  Yeah, you can save a lot of money buying bulk, if you have the upfront capital, which poor people don’t.  When I lived on $40 if I had extra money I would buy a few bulk items.  Pick up that $10 bag of chicken breasts.

 

I’m certain this is the same decisions that are being made all across this country right now.

 

Even if you’re not “working poor” the time constraints make it so that you would rather sit 10 mins in a drive through (or have food delivered) so you can get to other things quicker (like say spending time with kids or trying to work out).

 

So this is why I believe most Americans are consuming too much fast food and too many processed foods.

 

Lazy Americans

Okay, if you read the above and still think Americans are lazy, because, “Hey, I make time to work out and spend time with my kids, etc.  These people are just lazy and don’t want to put in the work required for healthy living.”  OK, if you make very little money, and are constantly stressed about where the next meal is coming from, and how you’re going to make your car payment because you’re a shift worker and you hope that next week you’ll get enough hours at work (and at your part-time job as well), diet and exercise are further down your list of priorities.  Heck if you’re working 60 hours a week at two jobs, is it really fair to criticize that person because they’d like to sit down and watch TV on their few precious hours off from work.  Heck, those few precious hours they spend in front of the television are most likely a couple hours of respite from working, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, doing the dishes, yardwork,  or caring for their kids.  You begrudge them some time sitting on the couch escaping from reality.

What’s the Solution

I don’t really have a legitimate one.  My solution would require a major revolution in business and agricultural science.  I think people should be able to work 30 hours a week and earn enough to live.  (If you give people more time to cook and exercise, and they still don’t do it, then you know that people are actually lazy.)  I think healthy foods should cost less than unhealthy foods.

I recently got diagnosed with Type II diabetes.  I’m spending 2-3x as much on my food as I was before.  Until you can buy a healthy meal for $10 that feeds your whole family and you don’t have to cook (I’m referring to the Pizza Hut pizza deals), this country is going to continue to have an obesity problem and a diabetes problem.

Also, companies should work on making low calorie foods that taste as good as the unhealthy ones.  My doctor, after she gave me my diagnosis, tried to convince me that a bean patty would be as good as a burger.  NO, NO IT’S NOT!  Broccoli is not as tasty as Pizza.  I love the tastes of these horrible-for-me foods.  Make good food taste better, and you’ll have Americans lining up to eat it.  Don’t try and convince us “it’s just as good”, because it’s not.  If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, of course, this stuff is yummy to you.  But if you love the taste of the Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger from Jack in the Box (yeah, no surprise why I have diabetes), eating nothing but greens is punishment.

I think it’s something we can do.  This past weekend shopping at Whole Foods i realized that people who needed healthier options that tasted good, started companies to fill that void.  I ate a lot of tasty meals that decades ago didn’t exist.  I made a pizza out of gluten-free dough, goat cheese, turkey pepperoni, and Kale, Spinach, and Chard.  It was actually quite tasty, and I feel like I ate a gourmet pizza.  Next time I’ll add mushrooms and jalapenos. But do I long for a pizza from Pizza Hut, or that new pizza place I’d just discovered before I got my diagnosis. You bet your ass I do!

So I don’t know if there is a actual solution to the problem of obesity in America. I do know it’s complex and i didn’t even get into further complexities like how your familiy’s socio-economic status can limit your opportunities to move up the socio-economic ladder (thus keeping you in lower earning jobs, earning smaller paychecks, requiring the purchase of cheap foods) or how we’ve been cutting exercise programs from schools, and cutting budgets from schools so they are forced to purchase unhealthier food to feed our children. Or, how farm subsidies make it cheaper to produce unhealthy rather than healthy foods.

It’s a complex issue that’s going to require complex solutions. Hopefully one day we’ll get serious about it and actually try and tackle the problem. Until then, I’ll be eating my leafy greens hoping they invent a salad that tastes like pizza.

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