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Why are Americans so Fat?

Living on the farm was tough work.

The last 100 years have been devastating to the American waistline. Engineering breakthroughs, the push for convenience, the emancipation from physical labor and the quest for increasing corporate profits have laid the foundation for Americans becoming one of the fattest nations in history.

To see how it evolved, we have to go back to the year 1900.

In 1900, there were few labor saving devices and over 60% of Americans lived in rural communities. Taking care of farm animals and crops was extremely physical work that burned hundreds of calories a day.

Household chores like cooking, washing clothes and cleaning were done without the benefit of food processors, dishwashers, washing machines or vacuum cleaners. Factory workers had to cut, hammer and weld things by hand and most people worked 6 days a week.

One of the first big revolutions in the American diet started in 1922, when Clarence Birdseye began experimenting with cooling food to the freezing point. Refrigeration was finally becoming common around the country, but there weren't really any companies exploiting that freezer space in local grocery stores. Mr. Birdseye developed a process of freezing vegetables while retaining their flavor, and the frozen food market was born.

Over the years, labor saving devices started becoming more widespread and affordable. Washing machines went from an oddity to a common household appliance. Affordable refrigeration and the availability of frozen foods meant people could shop for food once a week instead of every day. As farm equipment became more efficient, fewer people were needed to bring the crops in and they began migrating to larger cities for work. By 1940 the number of Americans living in rural communities had dropped to about 43%.

Without as much physical labor, Americans started to put on weight.

The television made us even more sedentary. Leisure time became more important. Televisions started appearing in households across the country. Instead of going on walks, playing games or socializing with neighbors, we began to sit in front of the TV watching all those exciting things happening somewhere else.

Food companies responded and in 1953 Swanson TV Dinners were introduced. They were a sensation. In 50 years we had gone from eating food fresh from the fields or market to having an entire dinner on a tray that just had to be heated up.

For the sake of convenience, some nutritional sacrifices had to be made. Salt was added preserve food while sugars and fats were added to enhance the taste.

By the 1980s America was in the information revolution. Only 26% of Americans were still living in rural communities. Fewer and fewer jobs required physical labor and the average American waistline had ballooned. The amount of fat that people were eating was recognized as a serious health threat and corporations were encouraged to do something about it.

Corporations responded. Over the next 15 years recipes were re-done and fat was taken out of hundreds of everyday foods. We still wanted things to taste good though, so sugars were put in place of the fat. Products started advertising that they were now fat free. We could indulge without the guilt! Unfortunately they still had all the calories except now it was in the form of sugar. Americans ate even more, our jobs kept us behind desks and we didn't burn off all the sugars we were eating. The sugars turned to fat and we kept growing bigger.

In the meantime fast food restaurants started offering healthier alternatives to combat the perception they didn't care about their customers health. In 1991 McDonald's introduced the McLean (a healthier burger.) In 1995 Taco Bell introduced it's Border Lights menu with 20% fewer calories than the core menu.

The problem is that people like to talk about being healthy, but they don't put their money where their mouths are. The McLean was a financial flop and Taco Bell eventually killed the Border Light menu because of low sales. Your health was important to them, just not more important than profits.

Since lean wasn't working, fast food restaurants decided to go in the other direction. McDonald's introduced the McGriddles breakfast sandwiches that have between 420 and 560 calories per sandwich. Not to be outdone, Burger King successfully launched the Triple Whopper with Cheese and 1,230 calories per sandwich. After the introduction of those gut-busting options, the financial results of both Burger King and McDonalds improved significantly.

Our physical shape today is a result of all those forces coming together.

We do far less physical labor at home because of all our modern labor saving devices. Our jobs don't require much physical exertion with the majority of people now sitting at a desk 8 hours a day. We don't have many healthy fast food choices because when we're given that option, we won't spend our money on them. The extra weight we're carrying around makes us tired, so when we get home we don't want to do anything except sit in front of the TV or play on the computer.

It might be tough, but there are things we can do about it.

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UPDATE 8/9/2014: When we first wrote this article, there were no concrete studies showing the connection between reduced activity and weight gain. Now there are.

Researchers from the Stanford Medical School found that adult women who had no physical activity in their spare time, increased from 19% in 1994 to 52% in 2010. The number of adult men who had no physical activity in their spare time jumped from 11% in 1994 to 44% in 2010.

In that same time period, the average BMI for women increased .37% per year, even though there was no evidence they ate more calories.

Long term studies show that obesity can shorten life expectancy by 6.5 to 14 years, while also decreasing the quality of the life you have.

Get off your behind and start to move!

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.

2/4/2007