America remains the fattest nation, as recommendations by health officials to eat healthy and exercise stay widely ignored. In the last year, adult obesity rates have increased in 28 states, and currently more than two-thirds of states have adult obesity rates over 25 percent, according to “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens American’s Future 2010,” a report put out by the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).
Researchers are reluctant to point the finger at one cause. It is a combination of things, including changes in the food industry and the workforce that has changed the way Americans live.
A century ago, gender placed men and women in their prospective spots. Men were the hunters and gatherers; whereas women stayed home to take care of the family, cook, and clean. According to Asya Ferda, professor of Women and Gender Studies at Bloomsburg University, today the role of women has changed, and this has contributed to the obesity epidemic.
“Today, women, even in the western world, may be legally equal to men in domestic and professional spheres,” she said, explaining that women’s work is no longer constricted to the household. “Women, though very slowly and gradually, have gained a firmer ground in the workforce.”
In 2005, according to the annual Employment and Earnings report, men worked an average of 44.2 hours per week, while women worked just slightly less at an average of 41.1 hours per week. No longer are men the sole breadwinners; today many American women are working the same long hours as their male counterparts, leaving little or no time to provide healthy meals for their families.
“I get home from workaround five p.m. and my daughters all bombard me the second I walk in the door. They’re hungry, but I want to relax,” said Kathleen Richards, mother of three. “There are some nights in my house where I make them fend for themselves, whether it be grabbing takeout or heating up a frozen pizza. Some nights I just don’t want to cook.”
Because of this, fast food, frozen food, and instant food have taken the place of home-cooked meals. While these meals are quick and easy, they often lack the nutrition that is essential to the human body. Frozen meals contain high fat content and high levels of sodium, and the portions are small. They also lack enough vegetables and whole grains, which causes eaters to be hungry sooner, leading them to eat more.
Fast food is another story all together. Because fast food items are laced with high doses of sodium and saturated fats, consuming them can be detrimental to a person’s health. Aside from adding extra weight on one’s body, fast food has been known to raise blood pressure, increase bad cholesterol, and weaken the immune system. Because of this, nutritionists recommend not eating more than one fast food meal per month.
While there are healthy fast food chains, such as Saladworks and Panera Bread, the prices at these restaurants are extremely high. A salad from Saladworks averages at about $7.99, and that is without a beverage. On the other hand, an individual can go to McDonald’s and order an entire meal, including a hamburger, French fries and a drink, for three dollars when purchasing from the “Dollar Menu.” For mothers who have to feed an entire family of five, choosing McDonald’s means paying $15 versus $50.
The current state of the economy certainly impacts the way Americans eat. While the “Great Recession” officially ended this September, the economy is still lagging and many individuals are still left unemployed. The current rate of unemployment is 9.1%, and President Barack Obama recently announced a two-year pay freeze on federal wages. This has led many Americans to cut corners, left to ration wisely the money they have. Grocery shoppers know that healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, come with a hefty price tag, and some just don’t want to pay it.
“The other day, I went to the store to buy some apples, but when I went to checkout I found out the bag was $8! That’s just ridiculous,” said Patricia Fania, a retired retail manager and frequent shopper at Weis Markets, who then left the store empty-handed.
Director of Public Relations for Weis Markets, Dennis Curtin, said that wholesale food inflation in 2011 has affected the way people shop. “As a result of the economy, people are extremely cautious in their purchasing patterns,” he said. According to Curtin, grocery prices have risen in the last year by about 6%, but said that the company has not passed the entire 6% onto its customers. The Weis Corporation works to provide their customers with cost-saving alternatives by offering a high-quality Weis brand in the place of name-brand products, holding 90-day price freezes when needed, and offering special sales for Weis Club Card members.
Some things are unavoidable, though, according to Curtin. “With produce, bad weather can affect pricing.” As he explained, if there is a lack of a certain type of produce due to the bad weather conditions, the demand of that product is high, thus raising the price.
Americans today are busy; they get the kids ready for school, and go to work, but it doesn’t end there. Parents then have to go home to fix dinner, worry about helping children with homework, and getting their children to bed. With a schedule like this, who has time for exercise?
Andrea Perrucci, a full-time Verizon Wireless representative, doesn’t have kids, but has a two-hour commute to work and back. “I am gone from my home for most of the day,” she said. “I’m exhausted when I get home.”
With little free time of their own after taking care of their responsibilities, Americans are reluctant to give up their leisure time to exercise. Instead, they spend the last few hours of their night catching up on a favorite sitcom or reading a good book in bed.
This lack of exercise for Americans today is a contributing cause to the rising obesity epidemic. According to the Surgeon General’s Healthy Guidelines for the Nation 2010, adults should be getting at least 150-minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week.
According to Swapan Mookerjee, an Exercise Science professor at Bloomsburg University, the 30 minutes do not have to be consecutive, as many people cannot sustain a full 30-minute workout. As indicated in the Surgeon General’s Healthy Guidelines “aerobic activity such as brisk walking or general gardening should be done in episode of at least 10-minute and preferably should be spread throughout the week.”
“You might take a 15-minute walk in the morning and then take another 15-minute walk on your lunch break,” said Mookerjee.
Mookerjee also notes that American’s dependency on automobiles has taken away from physical activity. As he points out, though, there is reason behind it. “[Automobiles] are used as a way of efficiency and time management—they get us where we need to go faster.” He also adds, that even in a suburban town like Bloomsburg, there are no bike lanes on the roads for those who would like to use them.
While all these factors all contribute to the growing obesity epidemic, nobody is forcing fast food burgers down American’s throats. People can point the finger and play the blame game, but at the end of the day, the finger points directly back at them. Americans are given the options, and in the end, it’s all about the choices they make.