Eat this now!
It's everywhere. Tank up your car, and you walk past soft pretzels with cheese sauce. Grab a cup of coffee, and you see doughnuts, danishes, and cookies the size of hubcaps. Stop at Staples for an ink cartridge, and you confront candy bars at the register.
Stroll past the receptionist's desk at the office, and find somebody's leftover Christmas cookies, Valentine's Day candy, Easter Peeps, birthday cake, or vacation saltwater taffy. "We're just surrounded. Food is available every time you turn around," says Marilyn Tanner, dietitian at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Overeating and its lethal companion underexercising are the recognized culprits in this country's rise in obesity rates. Today, two thirds of American adults are obese or overweight. A national team of researchers reported in last week's New England Journal of Medicine that obesity already reduces the current life expectancy in the United States by four to nine months.
What's worse, they project that the rise in obesity rates among children and teens could knock off as many as five years from today's average of 77 years as overweight people in that generation grow up and die prematurely. Diseases associated with obesity, such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and some cancers, are likely to strike at younger ages. It would be the first time in 200 years that children would be statistically likely to live shorter lives than their grandparents.
It's a controversial prediction, called speculative and "excessively gloomy" by Samuel Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania.
And the outcome is far from inevitable. All it would take to change that dire prediction is to have millions of people change their habits. That means diet, exercise, and a strong will within every individual to pass up high-calorie temptations. Right?
It's not that easy, as every failed and yo-yo dieter knows. The playing field is heavily tilted--by advertising, fast-paced lives, convenience foods, and treats every time you turn around--away from healthful eating choices. Many experts in nutrition, public health, and law believe that the national obesity problem doesn't simply come down to millions of failures of individual will.
Attitude shift. A generation ago, it was considered rude to eat in front of others. Now, Americans eat everywhere, all day long--an average of five meals a day, counting snacks. Cars have cupholders, but they arguably need trays, too. Americans eat 30 meals a year in their vehicles. "That's the average. I'm sure it's higher when it comes to people driving to work," said Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm that tracks how Americans eat. "Look at our cars. They look like restaurants."
Riddled with anxiety, we take our meals with equal parts pleasure and guilt. We might say an internal no a dozen times a day, then give in to the Krispy Kreme near the bus stop on the way home. Or if we pass up the doughnut shop, we get home only to find that the latest issue of Cooking Light has arrived in the mail--with a cover photo of pecan pie. We have few common rituals around dining but a common hurried pace through eating. All of these triggers and gustatory seductions play into an obesity epidemic--even as the messages manipulate the national obsession with health.