What Causes Obesity in America? An In-Depth Look at the Obesity Epidemic

obesity in America

Looking for a statistic about the obesity epidemic that will make you sit up and take note? Here it is: Obesity causes more deaths than being underweight. In fact, it’s among the top five leading causes of death worldwide, contributing to 2.8 million deaths every year. It’s no secret that obesity in America is a serious problem — one that gets worse with each passing year. Despite more health knowledge and dietary advice than ever before, the problem (and the people) continue to grow. What’s behind these alarming rates of obesity in the US? Is it simply a matter of eating less and exercising more? Or are there other underlying obesity causes and factors to consider? In this post, we’ll take an in-depth look at some common causes of obesity. We’ll also provide expert guidance that can help you and your employees stay motivated during your weight loss journey.

Obesity in America: How Big Is the Problem?

“Obesity” is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but how serious is the problem? For starters, let’s get clear on the difference between overweight and obese. Experts estimate that 70% of Americans are overweight, meaning they have a Body Mass Index (BMI) between 25.0 and 29.9. For someone who’s 5’9″, for example, a healthy weight is between 125 and 168 pounds. Once they reach 169 to 202 pounds, they’re categorized as overweight. Seven in ten Americans fall into this category, and more than half of those (37% of the total) also fall into another category: obese. Anyone with a BMI of 30 or higher is considered to be obese. For our friend who’s 5’9″, they’re obese if they weigh 203 pounds or more.

A Breakdown of Obesity in the US

The US is the most obese developed country in the world. In fact, only 11 nations (mostly small Pacific islands) have a higher obesity rate than the US. The obesity epidemic affects adults and children across all demographics. However, lower-income individuals (those who make less than $36,000 a year) are more likely to be obese than people with higher salaries. Research also shows that Black and Hispanic people are more likely to become obese than Asians or Caucasians. Sadly, obesity in the US isn’t limited to adults. Nearly one in five children under the age of 20 are obese. This comes as a result of childhood obesity rates that have risen ten-fold since the 1970s.

5 Common Causes of Obesity

It’s clear that obesity in America is an alarming trend. What’s not as clear is what’s causing it. For most people who struggle with weight loss, it’s a combination of factors (such as unhealthy food cravings) that lead to obesity. Let’s consider some specific reasons for obesity that are backed by science and research.

1. Poor Eating Habits

Not surprisingly, diet is one of the number one contributors to obesity in America. For some, it’s simply eating too much. For others, it’s eating too much of the wrong things. Even if you’re not good at math, it’s not a difficult equation to solve. You consume a certain amount of calories each day. You also burn a certain amount of calories each day. When you take in more calories than you burn off, you will gain weight — end-of-story. Is it just a matter of counting calories, though? Or is it more important to consider the types of calories you’re consuming — for example, eating more protein? Let’s break this down further and look at some specific dietary causes of obesity.

Too Much Sugar

In the 1980s and 1990s, fat was thought to be the #1 enemy to weight loss. This started the low-fat diet craze that ultimately led to Americans becoming — well, fatter.

What was the problem? Food manufacturers were replacing fat with sugar or sugar substitutes. It only took a few decades for experts to realize that sugar is the biggest dietary contributor to weight gain, not fat.

Case in point: In the early 1800s, the average American ate two pounds of sugar every year. Now, we eat over 150 pounds of sugar each year. Is it any wonder we’re in the middle of an obesity epidemic?

Even if you don’t add sugar to your food or drinks, chances are you’re still consuming a lot of it. Added sugars (such as high fructose corn syrup) are in virtually every type of processed food, from sauces and dressings to bread, soups, and cured meats.

Experts recommend that men should consume no more than 36 grams of sugar per day. For women, that number drops to 25 grams. Now consider how much sugar is in some of your favorite food and beverage items:

  • Starbucks frappuccino: 55 grams of sugar
  • 12-ounce can of Coke: 39 grams of sugar
  • 1/2 cup granola: 32 grams of sugar
  • One cup low-fat yogurt: 45 grams of sugar
  • 2 tablespoons BBQ sauce: 9 grams of sugar
  • Protein bar: 20 grams of sugar

What’s the point? Even if you’re eating relatively “healthy” foods, you’re likely still consuming double or triple the recommended amount of sugar. One can of Coke, for instance, already puts you over the daily allotment — and that doesn’t even include anything else you eat or drink.

Oversized Portions

How many times have you heard questions like these?

  • Do you want fries with that?
  • Would you like to supersize your order?
  • Did you know you get a free refill on that jumbo tub of movie popcorn?

Yes, Americans love to get the most bang for their buck — hence the reason behind our enormous portion sizes. Foreigners are often shocked when they dine out in the US and see the gigantic platters of food that land in front of them.

Just how large are our portion sizes? On a daily basis, Americans consume more calories than any other nation on earth. Our average calorie intake per day is 3,770 calories — nearly double the recommended amount of 2,000.

Larger portions became the norm during the 1970s and 1980s, and the trend has only accelerated over time. The average hamburger is 23% bigger than it was 20 years ago, while the average snack foods (chips, candies, crackers) are 60% larger.

As our portion sizes have grown over the decades, so have our waistbands.

Higher Costs of Healthy Foods

Here’s an often-overlooked reason behind obesity in America — food costs.

Let’s say you take your family to McDonald’s for dinner. You can order a classic cheeseburger off the value menu for just $1, while a grilled chicken salad (the healthier option) will set you back $4.59. If you’re on a tight budget, which option are you going to choose?

This is just one example of a sad truth: It’s more expensive to eat healthy in America.

The same is true for buying groceries. Some items at Whole Foods, for example, are priced 40%-50% higher than their generic counterparts at a supermarket. Meanwhile, organic foods will cost anywhere from 10%-30% more than mass-produced items.

For low-income families, spending hundreds of dollars a week on organic whole foods simply isn’t an option. And those who live in rural areas may not have access to stores that sell fresh, high-quality ingredients.

2. Not Enough Physical Activity

Switching gears, let’s focus on the next-biggest cause of obesity in the US: our sedentary lifestyle.

Researchers have found that Americans walk the least of any industrialized country on earth. The average American only clocks 4,774 steps per day, which is less than half of the recommended 10,000 steps we should aim for.

In 1960, 50% of American jobs required physical activity. Today, less than 20% of jobs require getting up and moving around. And with the growing number of people working from home, that figure is sure to drop even lower.

Everything about the American lifestyle is designed for our comfort and convenience. Think about elevators, moving walkways, or automated machinery. These things do make our lives comfortable and convenient, but they’re not doing our health any favors.

Think too of how we choose to spend our leisure time. We’ve become a nation of couch potatoes, spending close to five hours a day watching TV or using our smartphones. (This is in addition to the 8+ hours we spend at work or school.)

As if all that sitting isn’t bad enough, we tend to combine watching TV with eating meals or snacks. As a result, we take in more calories and fail to burn them off, resulting in a vicious cycle of weight gain.

3. Challenging Community Environment

If you visit a major city in Europe or Asia, you’ll see countless residents walking or riding their bikes. Even if they do own cars, being a pedestrian or riding a bicycle is still an acceptable (even preferred) way to get around.

Sadly, most communities in the US are just the opposite. Neighborhoods are designed around vehicle use and have few (if any) sidewalks or bike paths. Those who live in a big city may also lack access to parks or recreation centers.

Meanwhile, in schools, physical education and sports programs are often the first things to go when new budget cuts roll in. For the schools that still offer them, half of all high school students don’t even take one physical education or sports-related class during the week. And in lower grade levels, recess times are being cut short or even eliminated in favor of longer class times.

What’s the point? Even for adults or kids who want to be more physically active, their environment could make it a real challenge to follow through.

4. Genetics & Family History

Why does it seem like some people can eat whatever they want and not gain weight, while others diet for years without weight loss success? To a certain degree, our genetics can play a role in our ability to gain or lose weight.

For example, a child diagnosed with Prader-Willi syndrome may battle life-threatening obesity at a young age. Other diseases such as Cushing’s Syndrome or hypothyroidism can make it very difficult to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

Hormone imbalance is a leading cause of weight gain in both women and men. This could be due to a hereditary factor or disease, or it could be the result of yo-yo dieting (repeatedly gaining and losing substantial amounts of weight).

Anyone who’s struggling to lose weight despite adopting healthier habits should visit their doctor for a thorough checkup. It’s possible that an underlying medical or genetic condition could be to blame.

5. Medications & External Stressors

Our discussion of obesity causes wouldn’t be complete without mentioning external factors as well.

As an example, certain types of prescriptions drugs can contribute to weight gain. These might include steroids, antidepressants, and diabetes medications.

For others, there’s an emotional reason behind their inability to lose weight. They may binge eat or indulge in “emotional eating” when they’re tired, bored, or stressed. Someone who spends too much time scrutinizing body trends on social media may become depressed or anxious (and eat more as a result).

Another factor many people overlook? Sleep. Studies have found that adults who consistently get less than eight hours of sleep are more prone to weight gain than adults who sleep eight or more hours each night.

What’s the takeaway? Any combination of stress, depression, anxiety, and poor sleep habits can sabotage your efforts to lose weight.

Obesity Causes & Solutions: MyUnCrave

As we’ve discussed, obesity in America is an alarming epidemic. It’s affecting adults and children from all walks of life. And it’s an especially challenging problem to solve because there are so many contributing reasons for obesity.

In the quest for weight loss and improved health, more and more people are turning to wellness apps. If you’re a business owner or HR director hoping to introduce an employee wellness program, we have exactly what you’re looking for.

MyUnCrave provides virtual support for anyone struggling with traditional diet plans or workout routines. Its goal is to help each of your employees understand their personal obesity causes and how to create healthier habits.

Does this sound like the right addition to your employee wellness program? Click here to learn more or to schedule a product demo.

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