In our modern Westernized world, it truly seems that excess has become our default setting. With everything needing to be bigger and better than ever before, it appears that this sentiment has also carried over to our diets and the amount of food we are consuming on a daily basis. This profound excess has started to have a profound impact on our overall health — and as a result, many people are living with excess body weight caused by poor diets and overconsumption.
According to the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), the average weight of both men and women in America has increased over the past twenty years. It was reported that the current average weight for men and women is 197.7 lbs (89.8 kg) and 170.6 lbs (77.4 kg) respectively — with both of these values increasing by over 24 lbs since the 1960s¹. Additionally, the latest CDC estimates show that as of 2016, 40% of American adults and 19% of youth have a body mass index (BMI) within the obese range².
All of this information is collected by the CDC as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES). In these surveys, interviews and physical health measurements are conducted in order to get a better picture of average American health. As a result, we can see a clear trend forming — since the 1980s, obesity and extreme obesity rates are increasing at an exponential rate.
These increases indicate that the average American adult weighs more now than any other time in recent history. Paired with the progressive weight gain, significant increases in the number of people living with chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
While our general physiology has remained the same over the past few decades, it appears that it is becoming harder and harder for people to maintain healthy body weight. So, what is it about the 21st century that has made weight gain so prevalent, and what can we do to tackle this problem before it becomes an even larger issue?
Obesity is defined as a condition where someone has excess adipose (fat) tissue on their body that increases their risk of experiencing negative health outcomes. Because we all come in different shapes and sizes, there is no specific weight that is indicative of obesity. Instead, the most common way that obesity is measured is by calculating a person’s BMI value.
The body mass index is a simplified equation used to calculate a ratio comparing a person’s weight to their overall height. Using the BMI chart, a person can be put into different weight categories including underweight, normal, overweight, and obese³.
Using this chart, a person with a BMI of 30 or greater is considered to be obese³.
It is important to note that this equation is not always accurate. Shorter people who are are muscular (like bodybuilders who have lots of dense and heavy muscle tissue on their bodies) will often be categorized as obese based on their weight and height. But, despite its shortcomings, the BMI index is still the most commonly used measurement of weight and obesity around the world.
When it comes to gaining weight, there is no secret factor that causes people to become overweight. Just like every other organism, human beings eat food to provide energy to the cells of their body to be able to participate in their daily routine. When we overeat past our metabolic need, the excess calories are then converted into fat tissue by our liver, resulting in weight gain.
While this principle seems simple to understand and avoid, it turns out that this is not the case when put to practice. Studies have shown that while modern American adults are more likely to participate in more leisure activities than adults from the 1980s, we still have a 10-14% higher caloric intake every day⁴.
This increase in weight can be seen in the reported average BMI indexes across the world as well. In 2016, countries such as Canada, Australia, Mexico, Russia, The United Kingdom, and many more had between 60-70% of their population falling within the overweight or obese BMI categories³. Only a few countries (The United States, Qatar, Kuwait, and some small pacific islands) had over 70% of their population reporting within this BMI index range³.
As the 21st century continues to offer us an abundance of modern luxuries and conveniences, there are a variety of reasons why our global population is struggling to maintain a healthy weight. Some of the most common reasons why we facing these additional challenges:
Processed foods have truly taken over the world. Able to be stored and kept for much longer than perishable foods like traditional bread, fruits, and veggies, many people across the world subside off of a diet almost completely saturated with processed foods.
Processed foods are highly palatable and delicious because of their high concentrations of sugar, salt, and preservatives. Something as simple as a granola bar or sports drink may have up to half of your daily recommended intake of sodium in a single serving, which in turn has led people to consume much over the recommended amount of these substances every day.
According to the CDC, it is estimated that the average American gets over 70% of their daily salt intake from processed or restaurant food⁵. These high concentrations of sodium absolute shock our palate, making healthier and less salty food options taste bland and unpalatable.
When it comes to picking the food you eat, taste and nutrition are not the only factors. Prices of foods play a huge role in what people choose (or are able to afford). With over 37 million Americans living below the poverty line in 2020, many people are having to choose cheaper food options at the grocery store — and as it turns out, this means higher calorie and processed choices⁶.
Research has shown that foods that can offer the highest number of calories for the lowest cost include grains, sugars, and oils. Healthier and natural foods like fruits and vegetables run at a high cost and have fewer calories per serving, resulting in many people having to choose less healthy options in order to feed their families on their budget⁷.
On top of the decreased consumption of fruits and vegetables around the world, whenever we do choose to have vegetables in our diet, we often choose options with less nutritional benefits. As it turns out, potatoes and tomatoes make up over 50% of the available vegetables in America⁸. Of this large portion, many people only consume these veggies in processed foods, such as in sauces and fried foods. This low-level consumption of nutrient-dense veggies like spinach, broccoli, and other greens has resulted in increased nutrient deficiencies and weight gain across the country.
While exercise isn’t directly related to our diet, it has a huge impact on our overall health and body weight. With a record-breaking number of people now working sedentary desk jobs and spending a large portion of their time leisuring at home, many people are not meeting the physical activity guidelines set by the CDC. In a recent study, it was reported that only 23.2% of Americans were meeting the guidelines for aerobic (cardio) and muscular-strength training⁹. This increase in sedentary behaviour is resulting in fewer calories burned throughout the day and increases in our overall weight.
Over the past few decades, the amount of food we are offered at restaurants has significantly increased. According to the CDC, current portion sizes are on average four times larger than they were in the 1950s¹⁰. With many fast-food restaurants offering large quantities of calorie-dense food for low prices, many Americans are now used to consuming incredibly large portions of food at every single meal, resulting in significant weight gain.
Who doesn’t love a night out with friends and family? And while there is nothing objectively wrong with having the occasional meal at your favourite local restaurant, frequently having dine-in meals is leading to massive weight gain around the world.
As it turns out, many Americans are choosing to dine out a lot more than we may have thought. In 2015, it was reported that American adults spent more money on meals out than on their groceries for the first time in recorded history¹¹. With many young people living in dense-packed urban areas full of restaurant options and with the invention of food ordering services, eating out has never been more convenient, accessible, and popular.
We all have had the experience of craving something sweet to eat — but it turns out that we are getting more than the recommended amount of daily sugar from food sources you may not even suspect.
From breakfast cereals to pasta sauces, hidden sugar is prevalent in modern processed foods. With the average American consuming 228 calories of sugar a day in the 1970s, now it is very common for adults and children to consume well over 300 calories of sugar alone every day¹².
With this increase, it is important to note that the recommended number of calories per day from sugar is 150, meaning our current intake is over double the amount we need to maintain a healthy diet and weight.
With our jobs, families, and lifestyles continually demanding our time and energy, the modern world has created a massive amount of stress. Particularly felt by younger generations, stress can lead to people using negative coping mechanisms, such as drinking, smoking, and overeating. Chronic stress causes the release of cortisol, a hormone known to increase appetite. Stress eating, which is incredibly common around the world, has since been proven to be linked to weight gain, intense food cravings, and poorer health outcomes¹³.
On top of all of the other factors leading people to gain weight, we are constantly being bombarded with advertisements for processed and high-calorie snack foods. In 2014, over 700 million dollars were spent on marketing for sweet and savoury snack goods alone in the United States¹⁴.
Commonly shown on social media, TV, and on the radio, this constant inundation of messages about buying and trying the next new processed food snack leads is saturating the market with unhealthy foods.
One of the most sought-after amenities of modern life is convenience. With many households not able to support a family on a single income, this change in dynamic has led many people to turn to fast food as a way to get their meals throughout the day. Making matters worse is the massive number of fast-food vendors located on what feels like just about every street in busy urban areas.
This problem has gotten so out of control that in America, there are over 13,000 Mcdonald’s locations ALONE — let alone any other fast food restaurants¹⁵. This easy access to calorie-dense and fried foods like burgers, french fries, and sandwiches has resulted in local regulars experiencing significant weight gain.
So, as we can see, the epidemic of obesity has truly taken over the 21st century. With more people experiencing negative health impacts as a result of their weight every single year, tackling this problem has never been more important.
Because this problem is multi-faceted, there is no simple solution to preventing obesity. Looking to offer suggestions about what our next steps forward should be, the CDC has made these recommendations to tackling the obesity epidemic¹⁶:
At a state level, it is recommended that public health initiatives be started to encourage people to get more aware of their health, diet, and exercise levels. Increased education about the BMI index, food nutritional values, and daily exercise are imperative to help people live healthier lifestyles.
Community-level initiatives must also be taken to support people maintaining healthy body weight. Efforts should be made in a variety of community locations, including schools, child care fasciitis, primary care facilities, and food service venues.
While these solutions are broad, they are guidelines to provide support to our local and global communities to better control the rate of obesity. With increased awareness and education about how to better maintain healthy body weight, the CDC and other health organizations are hopeful that we will be able to get better control over our obesity rates over the next few decades.
Mean Body Weight, Height, Waist Circumference, and Body Mass Index Among Adults: United States, 1999–2000 Through 2015–2016 | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015–2016 | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Obesity | Our World in Data
Sodium and food sources | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Income and Poverty in the United States: 2020 | The United States Census Bureau
Potatoes and tomatoes account for over half of U.S. vegetable availability | The US Department of Agriculture
Exercise of physical activity | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Do increased portion sizes affect how much we eat? | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Why stress causes people to overeat | Harvard Health Publishing
Strategies to prevent & manage obesity | Center for Disease Control and Prevention
The author, Dawn Teh, is a health writer and former psychologist who enjoys exploring topics about the mind, body, and what helps humans thrive.