Obesity in America: A Theory

The rising rate of obesity in America is a much talked about topic in recent years. All sorts of folks—medical professionals, endocrinology specialists, fitness experts and so on—have a lot to say on the subject, suggesting everything from an increased sedentary lifestyle to processed foods as the cause.

I have another, possibly half-assed theory to propose.

We have all heard—and likely accept—that we have evolved from ancestry that employed hunter-gatherer subsistence methods for millions of years. As a result, we will feast when food is plentiful in preparation for when food is scarce. A critical survival strategy when there was no domestication or consistent food sources, our body stores these reserves as fat for later use.

How does that equate to a sudden upward trend in obesity, specifically local to America?

Anthropology takes the long view, seeing things over thousands and millions of years. I suggest a much shorter time frame.

depression-era photoThe Great Depression was a large-scale incidence of scarcity in recent history, resulting in food lines, rationing and starvation. While those that lived through it processed their fat stores, they appropriately developed a deep and lasting aversion to wastefulness. When food was once again available, they were loathe to waste anything that made it to the table. The Clean Plate Club was established, and children of Depression-era parents developed an ingrained compulsion to eat everything they were given.

In the meantime, America becomes the land of plenty once more, progressively bringing food access to new levels of ease. Diners, fast food, drive-ins, drive-thrus, tv dinners, microwave ovens and prepared foods become more than commonplace. Food is readily and cheaply available at virtually any time, almost anywhere. Dining out gains popularity as a social event, and chefs (Julia Child, Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali) rise to the status of celebrity.

A generation (or possibly two) passes, and the confluence of these two factors—Depression-influenced practice of never squandering food and omnipresent dining options—begin to show on American waistlines.

Anecdotal Experience
You likely don't have to look too far back in your American family history to find someone affected by the Depression. Possibly a parent or grandparent of yours was a teen or child, experiencing food shortages, rationing, maybe they even stood in a food line to wait their turn for milk or bread. I'd be willing to bet that same relative is famous within the family for making their loved ones a big breakfast, or hosting a plentiful Thanksgiving dinner. They're the first person to ask a guest if they want anything to eat, and the last person to let you go home hungry.

Why is America growing ever fatter? Because we historically (in the long view) are mammals that descended from hunter-gatherers, and (in the short view) have experienced a scarcity event that has frightened us en masse to eat while we can in preparation for the next one.

Are we more sedentary? Sure. Do processed foods supply less nutrients in a higher caloric payload? Probably. The experts are likely right: we are biologically unprepared for modern living, and these are all probably contributing factors to obesity.

I can't help but think, however, that an event as large as the Depression has had a lasting impact on subsequent generations' eating behaviors. It will take generations to winnow out the Clean Plate Club mentality, but I propose in time obesity levels will settle back down.

Just a thought. I warned you in the beginning that it was a half-assed theory.

Photo courtesy Dorothea Lange/NARA.

2 Brilliant Remarks:

  1. Amy Guth said...

    I have thought quite a bit on this very subject, as fitness and health are such important issues to me. I agree with you-- I think it both the less-healthful processed food accessibility and sedentary lives of convenience you mention coupled with the scarcity thinking you so wonderfully examine.

    I can't help but wonder, also about the opposite having an, oddly, similar result. I say that only as I have personally seen an inclination in individuals to act out to undo unfavorable conditions in their upbringing, say growing up poor leading to a "I'll never be called poor again!" mentality causing a hyper-consumerist adulthood. Could the same be true for food? Children of Depression-era parents reeling from their parents' scarcity thinking and wanting to feel free to be less conservative in their kitchens? I have nothing with which to back up this theory, other than observed examples.

    I should say that I, too, am proposing an off-the-cuff idea. If your theory is half-assed, as you insist (though I would disagree) and my hypothesis is in response-- does it make my theory quarter-assed? Probably. So it goes.

  2. @amy guth
    ooooooooh I think you're onto something--a sort of rebellious, generational contrariness to do whatever is opposite of your parents' beliefs/practices. I like it! Behavior and human nature being what it is (multivariate, multiple outcome), we could both be right(ish).
    Now all we need is another quarter-ass and we'll have a whole, complete-assed theory.