For the first time in recent history, our children will die sooner than we do. Modern medicine has managed to increase the life span of each generation. But modern medicine has failed to find a cure for obesity or an answer to the puzzle of why we are eating ourselves to death. We know we eat too much of the wrong things and exercise too little, but that insight hasn’t saved us.
Part of the problem is that modern food is too good for our own good. Along with the essentials of air and water, we are hard-wired to seek and consume food. Not only is eating essential, it is enjoyable. How many other basic needs can be fulfilled so easily? We love to eat. And delicious, high calorie food is plentiful and relatively cheap.
The complications of obesity are going to prematurely kill the next generation and we are helpless. It used to be called adult-onset diabetes because it was a problem for mature adults. Now it’s called type 2 diabetes because it’s affecting younger people.
Our health care system will be hit by two generations. Aging baby boomers will be requiring medical attention about the same time as their obese children. Obesity is already costing us billions of dollars a year and that number will skyrocket.
The price of obesity will be paid by all of us but low income families will bear the greatest burden. Low income families already have poorer health. They will also suffer the most from obesity.
Harvey Levenstein is a social historian who has studied two centuries of North American eating habits. “Normally an epidemic hits a huge swath of people, and to call the obesity rise an epidemic implies that everyone is being affected by it. But much of it is concentrated among lower income people, that it’s very much class related,” Levenstein says.
The fast food industry can hardly be blamed for making delicious food. Health is not their mandate, marketing and profits are. Hamburgers, shakes and fries are wonderful. We will go a long way to get them. The Bushman of the Shuswap (aka John Bjornstrom) would walk 35 km for a Big Mac. Even the good life of living in the Shuswap gets a bit tiresome. Bjornstrom hunted squirrels and gathered cans of beans from the cabins that he pillaged but eventually he succumbed to the lure of fast food.
Our prehistoric ancestors hunted and gathered food as well. Just getting enough to eat was a constant challenge. They didn’t have the luxury of raiding nearby cabins or a McDonalds restaurant to take the kids. They ate mostly high-fiber, low calorie food. Their digestive systems are designed for processing a large volume of food. Even when hunters brought down a mastodon, it was with the great expenditure of effort. And without refrigerators, you better barbecue those steaks pretty fast or you’ll have a smelly mess on your hands.
We have the same high capacity digestive systems as our ancestors and we have the same grazing instincts. The problem is that we are not grazing on roots, seeds, and berries. Our food is a mismatch for our guts. It’s high in calories and low in fiber. So we eat and eat because of a biological imperative. Primitive urges kick in.
We want to blame someone else – – fast food restaurants for making cheap delicious food, our kids for sitting in front of the TV or computer too much, our parents for not passing on their good eating habits.
We imagine that there was a time when families ate right and that we just need to return to the good old days. Rena Mendelson, one of Canada’s leading nutritionists, says, “You know, if we look back to the golden days of the 50s and think about what people actually ate. People deep-fried their own French fries in those days, they even deep-fried doughnuts. The table had large servings of meat. So sometimes we glamorize the past.”
Faced with possible government regulations, the fast food industry is reacting. In a series of highly publicized moves, they’ve announced new labeling and new lower fat choices.
We know what we should be eating, and we know we should exercise more, but will we? Primitive instincts and the marketing of high-calorie food will probably win over reason.