Friday, July 17, 2009

The 80s Made Us Fat

I just read the neatest article in the New Yorker where Elizabeth Kolbert reviews several new books with new theories about why we, as a nation, have gotten to be such porkers.

Kolbert points out that while there had been a gradual weight gain of the average american since the 1960s, the biggest jump took place since the 1980s. In the 1994 Journal of the AMA, Flegal et. al found that whereas 25.4% of Americans had been overweight in the 70s, by the early nineties that percentage was now 33%. Whoa, Nelly!

Among some of the familiar explanations (evolutionary "fat genes," dangerous urban centers), it seems like the 80s took their toll in a number of ways:

1. In Eric Finkelstein's "The Fattening of America," the eighties marked a time of cheap fats and sugars. Economically speaking, the real price (adjusting for things like inflation) of fats and oils decreased by 16% between 1983 and 2005. Soda pop alone got 20% cheaper. Since food expenses are income normal (meaning the more money you have, the more money you spend on food), the poorest people are eating the cheapest/least healthy foods. This is one reason why cities with more low-income residents (like Detroit and Philadelphia) have the highest obesity rates while cities with higher-income residents on average (like Denver and Portland, OR), have the lowest rates. ((Not that it's necessarily related, but I'd like to point out that Provo-Orem UT is in the lowest 5 cities for obesity! WOO!)) The eighties revolution in cheap fats and oils made it frugal to get fat.

2. David Kessler's book "The End of Overeating" is evidently far more sinister; he claims that big business goes into make food equal fun, and adding additive combinations of fats and oils becomes sort of a holy grail among junk food companies. Kolbert shares a quote from a products-developer who says that they try to "cram as much hedonics as you can in one dish." And when did these eatertainment companies start to fight each other to create the most novel junk? The eighties. (Remember Pop Rocks? And Push Pops? and all those new flavors of chips)

3.Marion Nestle and Lisa Young of NYU discovered that the amount of food that's "one serving" has jumped in supermarket packages and also in old cookbooks (like Betty Crocker or "the Joy of Cooking")--what used to be sixteen servings is now twelve, or ten, or eight. And when did the number of slices per cake go up? You guessed it--the eighties.

So, thank you, Elizabeth Kolbert for explaining to us how the eighties not only gave us electro-pop and crimped hair, but also expanding waistlines. It might take more than Olivia Newton John's "Let get Physical" to get our nation back on track.

Read the full article at


Margaret said...

Perhaps someday we can invite truly "electric youth" and get rid of obesity all together.

One small criticism, I think you mean to say that unhealthy foods are income inferior goods. (Poorer cities consume more of them and are thus less healthy.)

Emily Lyman said...

Couldn't this also have something do do with the baby boomers hitting middle age in the 80s? Provo is probably so trim because it is so relatively young...

mlh said...

No, I mean that food is income normal--the more money you have, the more money you spend on food.

UNHEALTHY foods are income inferior, but food in general is income normal.

mlh said...

As for age, that might help Provo, but it doesn't seem to be helping other relatively young-demographic university towns of a similar size, like State College PA.

Jared said...

Once I had a dream where I was driving down an alley filled with balloons and confetti tape. Then I met the Pope.

Patrick D said...

hello friends, excellent blog on The 80s Made Us Fat, in the 80s was where it started the concept of unhealthy foods, and it was there the U.S. population increasing rates of obesity, I hope this agree with my comment and thanks for sharing this information us