Talkin’ ‘Bout My G-generation

One day back in the mid eighties, a terrifying fact was discovered: America was getting fatter. Nobody knew quite why, though theories abounded. Fast food, soft drinks, computer games, viruses… everybody had a clear and obvious reason why it had happened. And there was an equally obvious cure. After all, never mind the fact that every single long term study of dieting since the first ones in the nineteen fifties had shown that no matter the structure of the diet, no matter the behavior of the dieter, while most lost weight in the short term, well over ninety per cent would wind up as fat as or fatter than when they started dieting within five years. It was what could be done. Therefore, no matter the futility, no matter the well-documented health issues of repeated cycles of dieting and gaining weight back, we must diet.

Funnily enough, the years of yo yo dieting did not result in a thinner America. We kept getting fatter overall. Then, one day in 1998, the BMI chart got fiddled with to make millions of Americans ‘fatter’ without gaining a single ounce. The rhetoric of fear of fat grew exponentially. It became impossible to turn on the television, read a magazine, or even log onto Yahoo mail without being subjected to fat hate, fat fear, and an increasing number of diet ads.

Today the panic is so ingrained that people honestly believe this level of hate against the fat is simply the standard human nature dating back before the Stone Age, all evidence to the contrary aside.

But a funny thing happened in 2002 that hasn’t been so widely publicized: obesity rates in America leveled off. What’s more, they’ve remained roughly level ever since.

Again, nobody seems able to explain it. All the interventions have proved ineffective, and yet obesity rates are no longer growing.

I have a theory about how and why this is happening. I also predict that sometime in the next oooh, ten to twenty years obesity rates in America will begin to fall.

You see, after years of the Great Depression followed by WWII, young soldiers, sailors, and marines coming back from Europe and Japan and the middle of the Pacific Ocean (where my father spent most of the war) and started starting families. Big families. Between 1946 and 1964 (two years after my auspicious birth!) more than seventy seven million new Americans were born – the largest generation on record. And in a world with better medicines, better access to those medicines, great advances in surgery, and unprecedented prosperity, the vast majority of us survived infancy and childhood.

Funny thing, though: as much as we as a generation have fought the concept, we still age pretty much the way our parents and grandparents did. And that means that when we started hitting our late thirties in the mid-eighties… we started gaining weight, the way most human beings do.

Another funny thing, just as the last of us started hitting forty… obesity rates leveled off.

Time – or better research – may prove me wrong. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that happened! But I do find it interesting that the growth, development, and leveling off of the ‘obesity epidemic’ coincides so strongly with the aging of my generation.

We’ve always had a disproportionate effect on social and economic trends. It seems only logical to me that we would have a similarly disproportionate effect on other statistics.

I’ll be interested to see how much water my theory holds in another ten years.

12 Responses to “Talkin’ ‘Bout My G-generation”

  1. katie February 19, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    Interesting topic!
    I’ve always felt that the introduction of processed foods played a big role in increased obesity… Then we couldn’t just be be happy with plain old sugar – along came HFCS which has not done wonders for our health collectively.. Also portion sizes becoming HUGE in america – we’re not happy unless we get 2.3 pounds of pasta for $11.99 – anything less people feel like the restaurant doesn’t serve “good” portion sizes.
    I like your theory too.

  2. Big Liberty February 19, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    I agree. I’ve been saying for a while that as the population ages we’re going to see an increase in weights until the greater number of people are 65 or older (after which wasting, and not weight gain, is the norm). The middle of the boomer generation is 1955 (and more were born early on than later), so starting 8 – 10 years from now obesity rates will start to fall, if not sooner.

    Interesting thing is, have you heard what some of the health pundits are saying about the obesity level-off? They’re saying it proves that without anti-obesity public health initiatives and the culture of fat-shaming obesity levels would be much higher than they are. They’re attributing the level-off to shaming and intervention. Ya can’t make this stuff up! And you better bet that when obesity rates start to fall they’ll say it proves we need to intervene and shame *more*. Moral panics are so ridiculously self-fueling. 20 years of weight gain related to an aging population = fat people will eat and ruin the world! Le sigh.

  3. Patsy Nevins February 19, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    I am sorry, but I just don’t hold with the whole ‘blame the HFCS” thing & I do agree with the size of my generation & our aging process, as well as, of course, the strong heritability of body size & shape, body size & shape being about 80%. I have many relatives, mostly long-lived relatives, who go back WAY before my generation, WAY before HFCS or the extreme popularity of eating out (&, btw, I & most people I know, are capable of either leaving food on the plate or asking for a doggy bag to get another meal out of my restaurant meal if the restaurant portions are too big), who are or have been fat. And, yes, they mostly start to lose some weight in their 60’s, but most of us still have been reaching our 80’s noticeably fat. I am 62, have always been a very active person & have spent less time under the care of doctors than most people of all sizes I know, less than 10% as much as my 33-year-old granddaughter, who is not fat, & who has battled various cancers, hypothyroidism, then gall bladder disease, digestive issues, & who knows what next for over 10 years. I suspect that my weight will gradually fall as I age, but watching my own family, I also suspect that if I live into my 90’s, like my nana & several other close relatives, I will still be somewhat fat or at least plump, & I am okay with that, since somewhat plump/fat old people generally do better, heal faster from surgeries, recover better from illness, & live longer than their very thin agemates.

    Another point to consider…if it WERE the fast food & the evil HFCS, ‘obesity’ (sorry, I HATE that made-up word) rates would not have leveled off, they would still be increasing, because we Americans, certainly the lower middle class/working class folks I know best here in Maine, still love our fast food, desserts, or whatever else you care to blame. And I have gotten fatter as I have aged despite being able to say ‘no’ when I am not hungry & always being active, not having a license or a car, having worn out two exercise machines after putting over 4000 miles on each, having lifted weights for years, & after having walked over 60,000 miles in my life, NOT counting the walking around doing housework/childcare/laundry & all the things that the dear folks who yap about this stuff refuse to count as activity. Mine is a generation of fat people at this stage of our lives & at this stage in our culture’s obsession with dieting; some of us will get a lot thinner in time, some not so much. One thing is certain, though…there have always been fat people & there always will be. Lowering the bar for who is considered fat makes more fat people & the increasing population itself ensures that there will be more fat people.

    And despite the number of us ‘waddling’ around, despite the epipanic & all the marketing, people are overall healthier than we have ever been & the average life expectancy increases every year. Too bad we are not well-financed enough to defeat the fat hate campaign once & for all & help everyone feel comfortable & at home in his or her body & able to own his/her own life & turn a deaf ear to ‘experts’, who actually know remarkably little.

  4. Patsy Nevins February 19, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    That was my 33-year-old daughter-in-law, btw, the MOTHER of my granddaughter. I need to learn to proofread more carefully.

  5. ZaftigWendy February 20, 2012 at 12:43 am #

    I have my own theory about the rise and leveling of obesity.

    Smoking.

    Think about it. Nicotine is known to lower people’s weight. When I was born, in 1966, the majority of adults smoked, including both of my parents. During the 60s and 70s, cigarettes were everywhere, and many kids born then were born to moms who smoked. Babies were born with lower birthweights, kids grew up in a miasma of smoke.

    Then, by the time the 80s came around, cigarettes were finally proved to cause lung cancer. And people (quite rightly!) gave up smoking in favor of healthy lungs. And more and more young people refused to even start smoking. And obesity rates climbed a bit.

    In the 90s, cigarettes became THE DEVIL and smoking became an evil dirty nasty thing. Smoking began to be banned in more an more places – workplaces first, then gradually all public areas, except for restaurants and bars. And even FEWER kids took up smoking and even more adults gave it up. And weights went up.

    In the 00s, smoking was finally banned even in most restaurants and bars and now we hardly ever see people smoking. And weights leveled off.

    Correlation? Causation? You decide.

  6. Anne February 20, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

    How would your theory acount for the rise in weight in children? There are now about 15% of children that fall above the 95% on the pediatric growth charts for weight (these charts are based on weight data from children in the 1950s)

  7. ZaftigWendy February 21, 2012 at 4:34 am #

    My theory accounts for the rise in weight of children. Kids born to moms who smoke and kids who grow up surrounded by smokers don’t grow as well. Since our growth charts are all based on averages from the time when almost all adults smoked, they reflect that smaller stature.

    Nowadays the vast majority of kids are born to non-smoking moms and raised in non-smoking households. They are BOTH taller and heavier. And healthier!

    It also explains why, despite the obesity epi-panic, people continue to live longer and longer.

  8. Big Liberty February 21, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    Also, @Anne, the nations seeing the increase in BMI have gotten markedly healthier over the past 30 years. Children have also gotten 2 inches taller. It would make sense that healthier children, despite the rhetoric equating thinness with health, would max out their weight potential as weight as their height potential.

    And we can’t forget that more children than ever are being prescribed psychiatric drugs that tend to have weight gain as a side effect.

    The changing norm of children inside playing video games vs. playing outside probably contributes a couple percentage points, but certainly is no kind of ‘epidemic.’

  9. Anne February 22, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

    children’s BMI has also gone up, and that takes into account the increase in height.

  10. Big Liberty February 22, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    @Anne,

    Reading comprehension = fail. Panic and hair-pull about the fat children. Trolls are tiresome.

  11. Stacey February 26, 2012 at 1:53 am #

    I see your point about the demographic effect on national weight statistics. I also think we have changed our relationship to food, and not all for the better. I work in a school that serves low income families and there are problems with affording good food, over consumption of sweets and fast food as well as major dental issues from bottle mouth. I had one parent who was putting kool-aid in her baby’s bottle! The other trend I see is families don’t sit down to meals together. The children don’t know how to sit at the table for a shared meal and the table manners! Oy vey! The rise of our car culture is also part of the problem imho..if we had walkable towns it would benefit all of us in terms of health and happiness. A funny BMI story, one mom was upset to get a letter from her child’s pediatrician telling her that her child was overweight… mother told me was Michelle Obama’s fault for “making that BMI thing!”

  12. Kath February 27, 2012 at 5:04 am #

    I think you might be on to something there Twistie