There are lots of theories about what’s causing the epidemic of obesity in America. Already, two in three Americans are overweight or obese. If current trends continue, some people believe a majority of Americans will be obese in another decade or so.
A few years ago we teamed up to crunch the data looking for possible policy solutions. We used national studies and government databases to search for ways to combat the epidemic. To do that we needed to look for evidence of what was driving Americans’ weight gain. Was it neighborhood “food deserts” where it was hard to find healthy food? Is healthy food just too expensive? Are Americans exercising too little? Drinking too much sugary soda?
Along the way, we found out that the data don’t support many of the popular theories about what’s causing obesity to increase so dramatically. And we reached one indisputable conclusion: We’re all getting fatter.
Here are a few misconceptions our study disproved.
Americans with less education and lower social status are the ones getting obese.
Truth: Americans of all education and income levels are getting fatter. While obesity is more prevalent at lower education levels, Americans at all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder have been gaining weight at about the same rate since the 1980s.
Myth No. 2: Blacks and Hispanics are gaining weight at a faster rate than other racial groups.
Truth: While at any point in time, a higher percentage of blacks and Hispanics may qualify as obese, the trend line for all racial groups is pretty much the same.
Myth No. 3: Obesity is mostly a problem in southern states like Mississippi.
Truth: The populations of all states have been getting fatter at similar rates. Colorado, which has the lowest obesity rate of any state, currently has as many obese residents as Mississippi, the fattest state, had about a decade ago.
Myth No. 4: Americans are exercising less, in part because they are working longer hours and have less free time.
Truth: Leisure time has increased over the past few decades, paid work hours have gone down and self-reported exercise has increased (even though a majority of Americans fall short of physical activity recommendations).
Myth No. 5: Obesity is caused by lack of access to healthy food, primarily fruits, and vegetables. This is because healthy food is too expensive or people live in “food deserts” where stores don’t sell fruits and vegetables.
Truth: Americans have been eating more fruits and vegetables, not less. What they haven’t done is reduce their consumption of unhealthy foods at the same time. All types of food are more affordable and available than ever.