by Roxanne Tellier
If you have recently gone from having a little trouble getting into your skinny jeans, to contemplating buying your whole new summer wardrobe from Omar the Tentmaker, you may have fallen prey to that other pandemic within the pandemic known as “The Pandemic 15,” fifteen pounds being the median amount of weight that many of us have piled on in the last year.
It’s not your imagination; you HAVE gained weight, and most of it is sitting uncomfortably around your middle. A year of uncertainty, stress, and endless lonely hours when food seemed as good a companion as any, has broadened our behinds more than it has our minds.
Surveys have shown that the average adult has unwillingly gained weight since the onset of COVID 19, up to more than 50 lbs in some cases. You can chalk a lot of that gain up to mindless grazing, with 1 in 4 adults also reporting that they’ve been drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress. Two in three people say they’ve had unwanted changes in their sleep patterns, either sleeping more or less than usual.
The majority of essential workers have told surveyors that they’ve been uncharacteristically indulgent in their food and drink consumption, simply to cope with long term stress, while the incidence of those seeking treatment for mental health disorders has risen about threefold.
For those of us who haven’t had much social contact in the last 14 months, personal habits have also changed, with people being less likely to ‘make an effort’ to be showered, made up, and properly dressed when the likelihood of coming into physical contact with other humans has become nearly non-existent. There’s a fortune waiting to be made by the company that properly markets “Pyjama Power Suits.”
It’s not about will power. The epidemic of obesity that hit the planet around the late eighties, and which has soared over the last 40 years, wasn’t a sudden drop in mental strength that led to everyone over-indulging, rather, it was attributable to many different ideas and habits coinciding in this new century, but fully attributable to corruption and greed beginning in the last.
You came by that junk in your trunk honestly; and if you’re American, you paid for it with your tax dollars. You own it, baby.
So what changed? Oh, so very much, and so insidiously.
Remember when ‘healthy snacks’ suddenly became a thing? All of a sudden, we were encouraging our kids and each other to avoid hunger pangs by adding a couple more meals to our day. Instead of breakfast, lunch and dinner, we were now enjoying breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, snack. And – I hate to break it to you, but most of the snacks just weren’t as healthy as suggested. In fact, they were more likely to be indulgences that packed on the calories, carbs and sugars.
What was also breaking down was the amount of time in which our bodies were able to process those calories and sugars. If there was traditionally 4 to 5 hours between meals, we’d now shortened that to about two and a half, or three hours. The mean number of minutes between eating forced our digestive systems to work harder, with less down time to get the body ready for its next feeding.
Some call this way of eating ‘grazing,’ but what it actually does is create a state in which the body is constantly awaiting more material to process internally, without pause. And that’s not the way the human body was meant to consume and digest comestibles.
If anything, it’s more akin to the way geese are overfed to produce foie gras, with a very similar result developing in the human liver.
This and other changes to when we anticipated a sweet or salty treat sprang from clever marketing and merchandising that taught our brains to expect certain things when combined with external events. We’ve been programmed.
When you go to the movies, you probably feel like the experience will be poorer if it’s not accompanied by popcorn and a large drink. Maybe some chocolate as well. Hmm… I wonder why that is?
The average adult female needs between 1600 and 2400 calories PER DAY, while men can eat about 2000 to 3000 calories.
Assuming you are likely to grab the large fountain soda (370 calories) and one large buttered popcorn (1200 calories, 120 mg of salt, and 60 grams of fat) you will have consumed not only the equivalent of a day’s caloric intake, but have also blown out your fat intake for the day by a factor of four. (The Mayo Clinic advises that people aim for around 15 grams of fat in their diet on a daily basis.)
Multiply that indulgence by all the other little moments in the day that are linked in your brain to ‘treating’ yourself. Mid-morning break calls for a little something to keep you going until lunch – a coffee and a danish sounds nice! And how about a little break in the afternoon? Gonna need a snack to tide you over til dinner!
And then, later that night, relaxing in front of the tv or computer, it seems only fair, after the day you’ve had, to reach for a couple of cold ones, to wash down the Doritos.
By that point, all those little treats have added up to about 6000 calories, or the equivalent of eating for three or four.
And you wonder why you just can’t lose weight? There are billions spent on getting you to buy this junk food, and even more billions to be made on the other side, when you try to lose the weight you gained while you filled your boots and bootie with ‘fun’ foods.
I won’t go into a huge song and dance about the evils of Big Agriculture, Big Dairy, and Big Junk Food, but if you’ve got an interest in the subject, I can highly recommend a new book written by Mark Bittman, American food journalist and fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, From Sustainable to Suicidal, Bittman outlines how junk food, aka engineered edible substances, have created a “public health crisis that diminishes the lives of perhaps half of all humans.” Dependence on agriculture that “concentrates on maximizing the yield of the most profitable crops, “it has done “more damage to the earth than strip mining, urbanization, even fossil fuel extraction.”
Worse still, taxpayers in the U.S. subsidize the growing of these products.
“Congress and the Department of Agriculture are spending more than $1.28 billion annually to subsidize the crops that are used as additives in manufacturing cookies, candies, soda pop and other highly popular junk food that arguably are among the primary contributors to childhood obesity. The sweet, fatty and calorie-rich Hostess Twinkies alone contain 14 ingredients made with highly subsidized processed ingredients, including corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and vegetable shortening.” (Business Insider, 2012)
That was in 2012. So, how we doing these days, after the trump trade wars?
“Farmers got more than $22 billion in government payments in 2019 — and most of the money came through a program that Congress never approved. It’s the highest level of farm subsidies in 14 years” (Whitehouse archives.gov)
All of which brings us back to Bittman’s book, and his words on how all of this jiggery pokery has stolen the dollars from tax payer wallets, and repaid them in blubber.
“The ability to produce massive quantities of a few commodities—wheat, corn, and corn syrup—has enriched not farmers but a few giant middlemen (companies like Archer-Daniels-Midland and Cargill) and implement dealers (John Deere makes four times as much money providing credit to struggling farmers as it does selling tractors). And it has created a new problem: what to do with the massive amount of calories that this commodity-focused agriculture produces. “The system,” Bittman explains, now “delivers a nearly uninterruptible stream of food, regardless of season,” and in the process it has created junk: the processed food that now dominates the Western diet and, increasingly, many other diets around the world. “Junk made it possible to encourage people to—really, [made] it difficult for them not to—eat too much non-nourishing food over a prolonged period.”
As Bittman notes, “the calories have to go somewhere, and—thanks in no small part to the advertising industry, which attached itself to the food industry like a remora to a shark—they went inside us; we look the way we do because of the need for the Krafts and Heinzes of the world to keep their profit margins growing by finding new ways to get us to consume their limited line of basic commodities. “Global sugar consumption has nearly tripled in the past half-century,” he writes, and so has obesity; the number of people worldwide living with diabetes has quadrupled since 1980. “Two thirds of the world’s population,” Bittman tells us, “lives in countries where more people die from diseases linked to being overweight than ones linked to being underweight.”“
Scientific studies of the US in the 90s showed a rate of about 10-14% of obesity. By 2019, the average rate of obesity was anywhere from 30 to 40%. And a lot of those suffering, physically, and emotionally, from being overweight – are kids.
“As of 2019 it is estimated that over 150 million children in the world are obese and that this will increase to 206 million by 2025. Without intervention, overweight infants and young children will likely continue to be overweight during childhood, adolescence and adulthood.”
As I slide into my later years, I feel the literal weight of all the wrong food and drink choices I made in my own health care over the years. While I can’t turn back the clock, I can go forward with better options for what I consume, and try and relieve some of the strain my choices put on my body.
Cutting out the junk food and the carbs will go a long way towards lightening the load all that grazing assembled. After all, we’re gonna want to look our best when we can finally gather together again!
Great article. and a great shot of you and Barbette in the market.
You might be interested in my old friend Barry Estabrook’s recently published book “Just Eat”. He examines why we eat and the rise of the diet industry. He also wrote Tomatoland and Pig Tales. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/557043/just-eat-by-barry-estabrook/
Thanks for all your thoughtful and well researched posts.
thanks Jocelyn! I’ve gotten very interested in how diet affects health in the last while …mostly because my health demands it! 😉