The term obesity is defined as a count of 30 or above on a mathematical scale (called BMI, or Body Mass Index) that combines weight and height measurements of individuals. The term overweight is used to describe the BMI of people who fall in between obese and normal.
Over the past three decades, the obesity rate in America has by all accounts climbed to astronomical proportions. Over a third of Americans are officially overweight and another 35.7 percent are obese, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Conventional experts blame the “wrong food,” bad genes, lack of exercise, chemicals in food, and this or that hormone for the problem.
If these factors play any role at all in stoking the epidemic of fat in American, they are themselves only transmission agents and facilitators for the deeper causes. Over the past 30 years, the standard prescription of diet, exercise and increased nutritional education haven’t solved the problem. In fact, it hasn’t even slowed it down and could even be contributing to the difficulties.
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To really beat it, we have to ask why and when. To discern the fundamental causes of the obesity epidemic in the United States, we will need to go back in history and unearth its beginnings, to find out exactly when it all started. Then we can ask it why.
When we do, we will discover that the obesity epidemic in America is essentially a mental health problem, whose underlying causes are economic and political.
Let us begin by examining the chart below, which was compiled in 2006 by the US Center for Disease Control.
Overweight and Obesity, by Age: United States, 1960-2004
Back when it all started
The chart shows that the obesity and overweight numbers held steady until the period 1976-1980. Something important changed between the Carter administration and the Reagan administration, something that drove American adults and children to dramatically increase their calorie intake and consequent body fat. Whatever that change was, it’s still with us because American waistlines since that time have continuously grown bigger.
Remember when Reagan was elected in 1980? He came in just at the beginning of the recession of 1981, when thousands of Americans suddenly found their incomes slashed or eliminated. His administration soon took on the unions, with the aim of breaking them. The first famous victim was PATCO – the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.
On August 3, 1981, the union declared a strike, seeking better working conditions, better pay and a 32-hour workweek. On August 5, following the PATCO workers’ refusal to return to work, Reagan fired the 11,345 striking air traffic controllers who had ignored the order and banned them from federal service for life. PATCO was decertified from its right to represent workers by the Federal Labor Relations Authority on October 22, 1981.
From that time onwards, American unions have taken a savage beating to the point where only 7 percent of private enterprises are unionized today, and public service union employees – teachers, nurses, office workers, firefighters – are fighting everywhere to keep their jobs and unions.
It was during Reagan’s first term that the phrase bean counter came into prominent usage. These were the efficiency experts whose job it was to increase profits for the major corporations, mainly by introducing speedups, job consolidations, forced overtime, the hiring of part-time workers – along with artful and ruthless union-busting.
This was also the beginning of the “War on Iran,” the “War on Drugs,” the war against the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador (all of them Marxists doubtless bent on rampaging through the streets of US cities) and a dangerous escalation of threats against the Soviet Union/Evil Empire.
As social fear and insecurity rise, mental health declines.
Apparently, so does physical health. According to a new study from Rice University and the University Colorado at Boulder in Social Science Quarterly, despite modest gains in lifespan over the past century, the United States still trails many of the world’s countries when it comes to life expectancy, and its poorest citizens live approximately five years less than more affluent people. The United States, which spends far more money on medical care than other advanced industrialized countries, has the sickest residents in every category of unwellness.
The American Syndrome – A Mental Health Problem
The result of all of this hysteria and whip-cracking on the backs of the American workforce is that we feel harried and harassed, with little reward to show for it. Mental health has been worsening for a long time in the United States, and this mental decline has been the culprit behind so many – probably the majority – of physical health problems as well. One of them, as we shall see later, is obesity.
Chinese medicine can help to make sense of most mental and physical problems in the United States and organize them into three main categories: those of chronic tension, excessive interior heat and excess weight. Together, they form a super-syndrome some would call the American Syndrome, since it seems to be a universal phenomenon.
Chronic tension is caused by worrying, and all its avatars – anxiety, fear, guilt, remorse, dread. Excessive interior heat results from the friction caused by it hurrying and worrying, while excess weight – which can manifest as obesity – is the result of habitual overeating.
These three inappropriate and harmful activities – worrying, hurrying, and overeating – are daily choices that Americans make, and these choices are driving them crazy. Mental health in the country is going to hell in a hand basket.
Given the rapid changes in diagnosis and treatment methods in the last two decades, reliable statistical evidence on the increased incidence of mental disorders is difficult to ascertain. With that caveat, we do know the following to be true.
- US spending on mental illness is soaring at a faster pace than spending on any other health care category.
- One in five American adults aged 18 or older, or 45.6 million people, had mental illness (as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in the past year, according to a November 2012 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- According to the American Psychological Association, the use of psychotropic drugs by adult Americans increased 22 percent from 2001 to 2010, with one in five adults now taking at least one psychotropic medication. In 2010, Americans spent more than $16 billion on anti-psychotics, $11 billion on antidepressants and $7 billion for drugs to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The rapid growth of all three classes of drugs has reportedly alarmed many mental health professionals.
- The use of illicit drugs and alcohol for the purpose of mood control continues to enjoy enormous popularity, in spite of the US government’s decades-long “War on Drugs” and a high number of incarcerated drug offenders. Witness the recent legalization of recreational marijuana use in Colorado and Washington State. And according to CNNMoney in 2012, alcohol sales climbed with little interruption throughout the Crash of 2008 and continued to expand in 2011. “These numbers grew almost in spite of the recession,” said Sageworks analyst Sam Zippin, noting medical care was the only other industry to maintain growth through the recession.
- According to the NAACP, the United States holds the world record for number of miserable residents locked up behind bars, in terms both of imprisoned per capita and total numbers. From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. Today, the United States contains 5 percent of the world population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. One in every 31 American adults is under some form of correctional control (prison, parole or probation).
- From a study covering 2004 through 2009, suicide passed motor vehicle traffic crashes as the leading cause of injury deaths in the United States.
As we shall see, the use of food and stored body fat as mood enhancers, especially among politically and economically disadvantaged groups, is widespread in obesity-plagued America.
Americans worry a lot. Many admit to worrying all the time.
Analyzing the past and planning for the future are useful activities, but worrying about them is neither helpful nor healthy. Worry causes people to tighten specific muscles in the body and keep them tight, leading to a long list of physical and mental disorders, referred to as “liver qi stagnation” in Chinese medicine.
Chronic fear, worry, anxiety, stress, insecurity, guilt, obsessive thinking and all forms of neurosis are behavioral choices. American culture, even more than Western Europe’s, promotes the desire to control everything, including the uncontrollable, especially the past, the future and the actions and opinions of other people.
As American workers have lost more and more control over their worsening material existence, their fear and insecurity have risen. This fear reveals itself physically as a conscious, and in most cases unconscious, tightening or a constricting of muscles – a continuous decrease in circulation – as part of a fight or flight response to a perceived emergency. Literally any organ or tissue can become strangled and diseased in this manner.
A sample list of fear-based disorders in America would include colitis, Crohn’s disease, urinary incontinence, sexual impotence, painful intercourse, irritated bowel syndrome, asthma, gastro-intestinal ulcers, heart attacks, growths, fibromyalgia, headaches and any disorder that responds well to the trust imparted by placebo treatments and faith healing.
While fear-based disorders do occur in other parts of the world, most international health practitioners will affirm the fact that fear-based disorders manifest at the highest levels in war zones and in the cities and towns of the United States.
The typical American scurries around like a mouse on double espresso. The daily habits of so many Americans now include fast driving and tailgating, fast walking, rapid speech, rapid continuous working without breaks, multitasking, constant productivity during waking hours that includes paid and unpaid work, working impossibly long hours, and most important, going without sleep.
According to the International Labour Organization, since the beginning of the new millennium, Americans (who still have jobs) now work more hours than workers in any other industrialized country. In just 20 years from 1981 to 2001, Americans with jobs added an hour and a half per week – or over a week of extra work per year. The average full-time worker in the United States worked 1,979 hours in 2001, compared to the notoriously busy Japanese worker who worked 1,842 hours – the difference being that the Japanese worker took more vacation time.
Keeping busy, achieving goals, earning money, competing for promotion, disparaging leisure, denigrating underachievers, and describing sleep as a waste of time have gradually become the Prime Directive since the workplace speedup of the early Reagan years.
The science of physics tells us that movement creates friction, which creates heat. Excess friction-heat in the body causes inflammation. Too much movement creates too much heat, which easily finds its way to the heart, the body’s headquarters for friction and movement. Excessive movement in both duration and velocity create the chronic excess known in Chinese medicine as heart heat.
Friction and heat also build up at a barrier that stops a flow. A stream of energy, blood or other fluid will furiously pound against the barrier, creating a hot situation. We would call this liver heat.
Inflammatory disorders, including what are termed autoimmune disorders and diseases with “itis” on the end, are at record levels in the United States, and rising. Andrew Weil M.D., the popular author of Healthy Aging, states “In recent years, scientists have begun to recognize that misplaced, unnecessary and prolonged inflammation may be a common root of many chronic, degenerative diseases that until now have appeared to have nothing in common.”
It is likely that a majority of Americans carry with them their whole lives a low level of inflammation, in this inflammation nation. A sample list of disorders brought about by this hurrying could include mania, hyperactivity, irritability, rage, insomnia, sinusitis, conjunctivitis, cystitis, lupus, autism, hyperthyroid, stroke, aneurism, herpes zoster and a thousand other similar problems.
Next, we will see how obesity slows all this hurrying down.
The Evolutionary Purpose of Overeating and Obesity
For at least 100,000 years, obesity gave homo sapiens an evolutionary advantage. During our long Stone Age, some of our ancestors needed to store and conserve large amounts of nutrition to survive six months of winter, when temperatures were below freezing and food was scarce or nonexistent. During these hibernation periods, strong emotions and high levels of mental and physical activity would have been counterproductive for survival. Any feelings of hunger would also have been self-defeating.
Greatly enlarged fat cells would have served other purposes as well. Fat insulates against freezing temperatures and also protects organs and blood vessels from injuries and bleeding.
This kind of survival strategy will allow primitive people to live and reproduce in very cold climates, but will not help Americans who wish to live into their 70s and beyond. Excess body fat has been proven to shorten chromosomal telomeres (not a good thing!), thus accelerating the expression of age-related disease genes, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and dementia. This is partly why excess body fat is statistically associated with a long list of common medical conditions.
As more and more Americans have seen their standard of living sink and their stress factors increase, they have taken to the all-purpose, all-American sedative – food – in a big way. All of the many disorders connected with the over-consumption of food are part of a Chinese medical syndrome called spleen damp.
Adam Drewnowski, the director of the Nutrition Sciences Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, said in 2009, “Things are going to get worse. Obesity is a toxic result of a failing economic environment.” Drewnowski’s own research has highlighted the link between income levels and obesity.
In Seattle, he and his team found that there are five-fold differences in obesity rates depending on zip code – low-income zip codes have a much higher proportion of overweight and obese people than high-income zips.
Studies in California suggested that a 10 percent rise in poverty translates to about a six percent increase in obesity among adults. And nine of the 10 states with the highest rates of new cases of diabetes 2 – a disease closely associated with excess body fat – were in the US South, a region with huge pockets of poverty and glaring income disparities. Unlike all other periods in human history, today excess body fat is no longer associated with the affluent, but rather with those of lower economic status.
A team of American scientists who performed brain scans on seven overweight people found that the regions of the brain that controlled satiety of food were the same regions that light up for drug addicts after a fix. This means that the addictive payoff for eating a meal, especially for overweight people, is similar to taking a euphoria-producing drug. The larger the meal, the bigger the mental reward.
Another study, this one by the US Government’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY, provides evidence that dopamine – a brain chemical associated with reward, pleasure, movement and motivation – plays a strong role in the development and maintenance of obesity.
Fat cells themselves secrete estriol, a form of the hormone estrogen. Estrogen encourages the body’s production of serotonin and endorphins – powerful calming agents – as well as reduces heat in the brain by dilating blood vessels. The bigger the fat cells, the calmer the mind.
In 2009, researchers from the University of Arkansas and the National Taiwan University studied the eating and mental habits of 2,366 children between 2 and 12 years old. They found that the fatter the kids were, the less subject they were to bouts of sadness, anger and depression.
Obesity creates docile “citizens of the Empire.” A study by researchers at NYU School of Medicine, which appears online in the September 3, 2012, issue of Pediatrics, reveals that obesity is associated with cognitive and brain impairments in adolescents and calls for pediatricians to take this into account when considering the early treatment of childhood obesity.
Even the genes tilt this way. Scientists at McMaster University have discovered that the obese have a genetic variation in common that also gives them an 8 percent edge in protection from depression over nonobese people.
Another recent study confirms that obese people have an impaired sense of taste. They also never feel hunger (an empty feeling in the stomach area that motivates and empowers animals and humans to go to work to find food). Fat bodies are choked with food and don’t want any more, although researchers, doctors and nutritionists usually miss this fact, since hunger is simply a healthy message from the body and doesn’t show up on any scientific testing. They commonly confuse appetite – the mental desire for food, with hunger – the physical feeling that indicates a need for food.
The Current Crisis Seen as the Great Depression Redux
In 1970, the quarter century of economic expansion created by World War II finally started to peter out. It was the war, after all, that caused the massive destruction of factories and inventories all over Europe and Asia and the consequent mobilization of productive forces to fight the war and then rebuild Western Europe and Japan.
But by the early 1970s, the rate of profit for the US investor class was in decline again. This reduction in profit-taking was signaled by the Nixon administration’s removal of the dollar from the gold standard in 1971, to prevent a run on the gold reserves by nervous investors and to be able to print more money to pay the government’s bills.
The capitalist system must continually expand, because capitalists must relentlessly compete against each other for sales. Expansion is built into its genetic code. And yet the world of humans is finite. Just as in the late 1920s and throughout the 30s, the need for investors to make profit is outstripping the ability of the majority of people to pay for commodities, spiraling the human economy into a global economic contraction. The difference this time around is that the whole world of humans is dependent on the global economy and the things it produces.
Because supply far outpaces demand, the profit-taking by the investor class has to come from somewhere besides the failing markets. This has led to the “privatization of everything” so that profit can be squeezed from every cubic centimeter in, above, and below the earth’s biosphere. The last three decades have also witnessed the stagnation of wages and benefits for working people, as well as the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of humanity – from the have-nots, the working class and the entrepreneurial classes – to the haves, the billionaires, bankers and other powerful players. According to Mother Jones, since 1979, the productivity of American capitalism grew over 80 percent, while US wages grew around 12 percent.
As sales continued to drop in the 1970s, advertising increased to the point where now-bloated advertising budgets contribute significantly to reduced profits, while the sheer volume and shrillness of advertising propaganda add to the burgeoning worry-hurry-overeat mental health problem in the United States.
Obesity, Capitalism’s Little Helper
Over the last three decades, harried Americans have essentially transferred their favorite addiction from tobacco to excess food. While tobacco addiction has been thoroughly vilified by the major media, food is still lauded and celebrated in every corner of the country. And food calories remain relatively cheap – one can still buy a McDonald’s hamburger for a dollar in most places.
The obesity epidemic helps American capitalism in two ways. On one side of the coin, it creates a population that is more compliant, tired, sick, self-hating and resigned to its misery. The last thing those sitting at the top want to see is a lean, clean and mean population.
On the other side of the coin, obese and overweight Americans bring in enormous profits for many vital industries – agribusiness, food processing and transportation, food stores, restaurants, the medical industry, the diet industry and the pharmaceutical industry. If the 70 percent of Americans who are overweight or obese were to seriously back off of food until a healthy state of leanness were achieved, it’s easy to imagine the economic catastrophe that would follow.
The End of American Obesity
The complete cure for American obesity – getting it off and keeping it off – is elusive for most obese Americans. Some individuals can rid themselves of this condition if they recognize that obesity is primarily a mental health issue – an eating disorder. People can fix this problem by greatly reducing or eliminating hurry and worry from their lives – while simultaneously re-establishing mental calmness and self-trust.
In the meantime, the American obesity epidemic will continue to spread until a political solution is found for this political problem.