Obesity: A History Lesson?

I came across a treasure trove the other day.

Posted on | Ramani Durvasula, PhD | Comments ()

I came across a treasure trove the other day.

A neighbor left a pile of Life magazines from 1968-1972 in the vestibule of my apartment building. I grabbed them up, thinking they would make a wonderful history lesson for my children.

They ended up making me wonder about how we as a nation got so overweight.

The bulk of the advertising in the magazine was for alcohol and cigarettes. Very few ads featured food, though there was one ad for a product designed to help people gain weight. All of the recipes were for high fat/carb dishes – steaks, blueberry pies, potatoes cooked about 400 ways. No mention of produce, and when vegetables were included in recipes – lard, butter and cream were present in equal balance.

Very few people featured in the photographs of regular folks were overweight.

So, is the secret to weight loss -  whiskey, cigarettes and chicken pot pie?

Probably not. 

It is clear that nicotine does have appetite suppressant properties, and in addition, if you are sticking a cigarette in your mouth, you are not eating. Most of the time people don’t want to quit smoking because they don’t want to gain weight. But the drops in smoking are likely not why we as a nation are overweight.

When you look at obesity trends in this country, in the past 20 years – obesity has been steadily rising.

What happened? We’ve heard it all - lots of chatter about inactivity in kids, inactivity in adults, the proliferation of processed foods, the affordability of bad foods, the loss of the family dinner table, two working parents, reliance on prepared meals, the toxic food environment. Data supports some of this but not all. I would also throw in stress and psychological factors.

But our best health lessons come from history. The 1980s were a mind game. Restraint and excess were being sold to us simultaneously. Our vices were taken away – no more ads for tobacco and booze. AIDS made quick work of casual sex. And Reagan’s war on drugs made it a little harder to get high in other ways (though cocaine made a strong showing in the 1980s). Thinness came back into vogue. Eating disorders proliferated in young women. At the same time, the message of conspicuous consumption, greed and inequitable distribution of wealth was everywhere. This set the tone for an economic zeitgeist that persists to this day.

I don’t endorse smoking, drinking, drug use and casual sex as antidotes to weight gain. But I wonder if taking away all of our vices has left food as the lone acceptable vice left standing (other than reality TV – and people tend to eat while they watch it). Look at a magazine now – the ads alternate between Lapband and fast food. Restraint and excess.

Our anti-tobacco campaigns are some of the most successful public health endeavors ever seen. In a relatively short period of time, smoking rates dropped across all age groups, smoking is prohibited in most public places, and taxation has resulted in price hikes that were the most powerful deterrent. I realize that more than a few libertarians will believe that government has no place there, but as a health psychologist I believe what we have done where cigarettes are concerned is quite impressive.

Smoking is a known contributor to emphysema, COPD, cardiovascular disease, numerous cancers, secondhand smoke, dermatologic problems, and dental complications. It seemed the responsible thing to do to create policies to address smoking.

So why not food? Overeating and obesity contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancers, musculoskeletal problems and psychological distress. Do we need policies here too?

Once upon a time, not long ago, we managed to keep obesity at bay. Something shifted. Were we buried in other vices? Too poor to eat out? It’s time to find a way to treat food as nourishment and not another vice.  Does that require taxation? Regulation? Discipline? Common sense? Better school lunches? 

Weigh in. How can we as individuals and a nation beat this epidemic?

Blog written by Ramani Durvasula, PhD
Dr. Ramani Durvasula has over 15 years of teaching, clinical and research experience. After receiving her doctorate in clinical...