In my mother’s day, there was no Jenny Craig, no trendy health clubs, no fat-free anything. And yet only 10 percent were obese and 30 percent were overweight. So why is it that after a million diets, parades of fitness routines and metric tons of tofu, we are fatter than ever?
The truth is that it’s less about the obvious differences between generational eating habits (like, say, portion size) and more about the hundreds of little lifestyle differences that have added up to one very big problem, pun intended.
Here’s just a handful of habits that, taken together, start to explain some of the seismic health shifts:
1. Cigarettes vs Chairs
Our parents smoked all day. We sit all day. Guess what? Sitting might even be worse for our health. Excessive sitting, which is what we do about 9 hours a day on average, turns out to be lethal. It increases the likelihood of almost all major killers in the US today – especially obesity, whose related diseases are responsible for the death of 35 million people each year, 10 times more than cigarettes. Maybe it’s time to light our chairs on fire and smoke them. We might be better off.
2. Commies vs Psychos
The 24-hour news cycle relies on fear for decent ratings. It makes every parent paranoid their child will be abducted if they set a foot outside alone. The kids of the last generation used to roam the neighborhood from dawn till dusk. Our parents’ irrational fears were confined to the Soviets and the Twilight Zone. Crimes rates are at the exact same level of the 1950’s, but reporting of crimes has soared, giving the impression that we now live under siege. This means our kids have less everyday freedom and therefore less activity, encouraging a generation who are far more likely to hang out in the basement or backyard instead of making the world their playground.
3. Landlines vs iPhones
We now work at least two hours per day longer than our parents did. Why? Because work follows us home like an angry puppy on our iPhone, tablets and laptops. Time at home spent answering irate emails from the boss is time not spent working out or otherwise being active with the family. Our mobile devices, once designed to set us free, are tethering us to work more than ever.
4. Homemade vs Readymade
Most families have two full-time working parents which means the thoughtful preparation of meals has gone out the (drive-thru) window. One major side effect is that pre-made meals, even if purchased in a grocery store, are mimicking the trend in super-sized restaurant meals. There’s also the rather obvious fact that when we don’t prepare the meals, we don’t control the types – or amounts – of ingredients being used. Many prepared foods, including seemingly benign options like cereals, canned vegetables, or soups, are surprisingly high in sodium. This not only harms our health, but trains our palate to expect that degree of saltiness. Then even if we make an effort to prepare more food from scratch, we’ll begin adding more of the bad stuff to our homemade meals to mimic what we’ve come to expect.
5. Real Food vs The Perpetual Diet
Low-fat cheese puffs, simulated lean meat and diet sodas amount to chemically altered versions of bad foods. These pseudo-diet food-like substances actually make us gain weight. What’s worse, some research suggests that the very promise of diet drinks – that you can enjoy the flavor without the calories – is exactly the problem. As the Harvard School of Public Health put it, “Until recently, sweet taste meant sugar, and thus energy. The human brain responds to sweetness with signals to, at first, eat more and then with signals to slow down and stop eating. By providing a sweet taste without any calories, artificial sweeteners could confuse these intricate feedback loops that involve the brain, stomach, nerves, and hormones. If this happens, it could throw off the body’s ability to accurately gauge how many calories are being taken in.”