The Simple, Yet Unknown Reason Why Americans Have Gotten So Fat

Flickr / Joe 13
Flickr / Joe 13

Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: Why didn’t junk food cause obesity in the olden days? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.


I am 60-years-old.  In my life I have seen the invention of junk food.  I recall eating at McDonalds not long after the chain went national. Burgers were $.15.  So junk food was pretty much invented in the 1960s and onward.

It might come to shock to you, but what we eat, underwent a profound and irrevocable change in the 1960s.  You would in a million years never guess what singular event changed it.  It had nothing to do with the food industry, or the FDA.  It had to do with the Federal Highway Authority.  It was the beginning of the construction of the Interstate Highway system.

Before that transportation arterial system was built the different regions of the US had their own cuisine and food heritage, because the US developed from a subsistence farm culture.  Each family in each region, grew, hunted, fished or picked their own food and fed themselves.  There were no national supermarket chains or chains of restaurants.

The government in an effort to capture a history of these regional eating habits and employ out-of-work writers, undertook a program during the Great Depression.  Writers were sent out to gather information and write on the subject, documenting the eating habits and customs of some arbitrarily drawn regional areas.

The project was never completed (like so many other things undertake by the government) because something called World War II happened along.

So the manuscripts were placed in the National Archives until an enterprising food writer called Mark Kurlansky found out about it. He edited the manuscripts into a shorter version and had it published.  It is called Food From A Former World: How America Ate Before The Interstate Highway System.   It is an interesting read, some parts are better than others.  It contains old recipes, documents things like the New England Clam Bake, the Texas Beef Barbecue, Deep South cornmeal-based dishes, Pacific Northwest Salmon dishes and others.

The thing is it will enlighten you to the diversity of cuisine, a lot of which still exists but is on the verge of extinction due to the deluge of fast food travesties of chain restaurants, and fusion cooking with other styles.

One man’s junk food is another man’s meat.  I call just about everything not cooked in my own kitchen by me or my wife, junk food.  Don’t think that just because you buy it at a “reputable” chain restaurant or food purveyor like Boston Market, that it isn’t junk food.   They all make it as cheap as they can, and cut as many corners as they can to maximize profit.

I ran a catering business and know what the large national food suppliers sell.  Their prepackaged stuff is inexpensive…why?  Because they use the most expensive ingredients?  Hardly. I recall getting cheesecakes for under $6 a pop in cartons of two.  The markup on chain restaurant food is mind boggling.  It’s the labor that is expensive.

However if you are talking about “junk food” as in candy, chips, sodas, basically everything you can get in convenience store, then I have a few things to say about why kids are obese today.

  1. We had PE in school through high school.
  2. We played outside till dark.  Summers it was from sun up till after sundown.  Usually till 10pm.  We played things like Kick the Can.  Even as teenagers we went places, walked or biked.  We did not sit on our cell phones or in front of a computer.
  3. Our parents did not restrict our movements out of fear.  Some kind of national hysteria has sprung up about kids and abduction. Either we were a lot smarter or kids have gotten a lot dumber about strangers and places they should or should not go.
  4. Sodas were a treat, not a replacement for water.  The average can of soda contains the equivalent of about 3/4 of a cup of sugar.  It does not take a genius to know what that means if you drink 3-4 of those a day.  This alone probably explains why diabetes is at epidemic proportions.
  5. Our mothers fed us, not major corporations or other strangers.  Our mothers fed us like their mothers fed them.  Usually wholesome nutritious food, made with their hands, or at least cooked with their hands.  I recall my grandmother making all of her own bread.  We had fresh fruit, strawberries, grapes, peaches, pears, apples, or pastries made by mom or grandmother from then for dessert.   That was our junk food.   My mother made my lunch or I ate cafeteria all through school.
  6. Intake of fast food was minimal.  I recall eating McDonald’s or other chain fast food when we were on the road between military duty stations Only.   The only exception was going to the Tasty Freeze to get soft served ice cream cones.  Most store bought sweets were a treat, not a staple.

Bottom line.  We as kids were active, and we were not allowed to eat a lot of crap.

Case in point.  In high school at 6’0″, I weighed 160 lbs and it was only when I started working out and running that I put on muscular weight.  My brother, who was 15 years younger than me was only 5’0″ when my father retired from the military and settled down.  My brother, when he graduated high school weighed in excess of 300lbs at 6’1″.  The only difference between the two of us was that he was born in 1970, and I was born in 1955. He lived his life in the midst of the junk food revolution.  Chips, sodas, candy, and other crap was readily available.  He got a lot of it at home, things we could not afford on the family budget back when I was a kid, were readily available at home for him.  Ice cream every night, sodas when he wanted them.  Fast food just down the street.

Last word is Americans are too trusting of the food industry by far.  The recent Bluebell Ice Cream debacle is evidence of that.  They trust doctors the same way, and neither are deserving of it.  They are all driven by the same thing: Money.  Americans trust that everything they put in their mouths is wholesome, nourishing and good for them.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The mantra of the food makers is, cheaper, faster, more profitable.  Why replace sugar with high fructose corn syrup?  It’s less expensive and tastes more intensely sweet than sugar.  No matter that it has been proven more harmful to your health.  Why push grains, grains, grains, and more grains?  Because our national economy depends on it and we pay millions in farm subsidies to grow all that grain.

America started getting fatter the moment we started pushing more carbs, carbs in its many forms, down our collective throats.

Do this little check:  Take a look at your chain restaurant plate, or fast food bag.  Bet you will see this: bread, potatoes in one form or another, flour breading, and noodles.  You will see them all or part of them, in every serving.  How much fresh fruit, or vegetables do you see if you don’t order it special?  Of course that salad will contain bread croutons, and you’ll get all the breadsticks or warm baked bread you can stuff down.  Carbs, carbs, carbs.

Don’t get me wrong, I love bread and carbs in the form of vegetables, I just do not like my meals made up of 70% white starchy carbs.

So the reasons are pretty clear.  It is a problem today because of personal choices on the one hand and the food industry on the other. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

This answer originally appeared at Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and get insider knowledge.

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