The Obesity Epidemic in America: Investigating the Causes and Solutions

Leo Mahe ’26 in Opinions | May 12, 2023

Americans often view obesity as a personal issue that people must resolve for themselves. While it’s all too common nowadays to blame overweight individuals for their weight gain, obesity rates are increasing on a societal scale. While only 13 percent of adults were considered obese in 1960, around 42 percent are obese today and 70 percent of adults are overweight. Obesity has become a societal issue. Accordingly, the factors that most significantly contribute to obesity are societal rather than individual.
The amount of sugar in modern-day foods represents the largest contributing factor to Americans’ weight gain. Excess sugars in the human body transform into fat, directly linking sugar consumption to weight gain and increasing the risk for diabetes and obesity. With these health effects, the rise in annual added sugar consumption from just four pounds per capita in the 1800s to well over 180 pounds-per-capita today has become extremely concerning. Sugars increase people’s appetites, their food consumption, and weight gain. Despite the known risks of added sugars in processed foods, sugary foods are both inexpensive and highly addictive, leading food and beverage companies to use them as much as possible in their products from cereals to salad dressings.
Furthermore, high-fructose corn syrup has a stronger correlation to obesity and diabetes than other sugars. Annually, Americans consume around 42 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup, commonly through popular drinks like Coke and food items like bread and sauces. While the evidence is not fully conclusive, several studies have found that high-fructose corn syrup increases consumers’ appetites and thus contributes to obesity far more than typical sugars. Though harmful to humans in excess, High-fructose corn syrup is cheaper than other sugar bases, leading many food producers to take advantage of this economic benefit.
Sugars are not the only substances added to foods at the expense of human health. Foods often contain pesticides that enter the bodies of consumers, and although pesticides used today have been cleared to be safe for  human consumption, there have been multiple cases in the past when supposedly “safe” pesticides have been found dangerous. Some foods include obesogens (chemicals that significantly contribute to weight gain) like Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and food contaminants from farms like Bisphenol A (BPA). BHA, a food preservative which moonlights as a carcinogen, has been banned almost everywhere in the world but in the United States–Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand all restrict BHA from consumer foods. To reduce obesity and just overall promote public health, the United States government must heavily regulate known unhealthy additives and further investigate chemicals used on farms. 
However, Americans themselves can take advantage of unhealthy and sugary product alternatives. Buying foods that are proven to be grown without dangerous pesticides and buying grass-fed meats is much healthier. But these alternatives aren’t solutions; for one, dangerous pesticides from surrounding farms can travel into these organic farms, and the ‘harmless’ pesticides currently used may be the next highly carcinogenic pesticide waiting to be discovered. Sadly, corporations often don’t check for safety in products like DDT, which were considered so safe that people would stay outside and feel the chemicals on their bodies before later discovering just how carcinogenic and unhealthy it was. 
However, there are major cost issues relating to choosing healthier foods. Organic foods are around 50 percent more expensive than their nonorganic counterparts, and that’s only when looking at unprocessed food products. Processed foods, like bread and sausages, are far more affordable for low-income individuals and families who must keep food costs low to save money for other necessities like housing or raising children.
Furthermore, foods like frozen pizza are easier to cook, and fast food chains like McDonald’s are much more convenient than making a healthy meal at home. Grabbing burgers off takeout counters is much easier than spending hours cooking with unprocessed ingredients, organic or not. Snack products, like potato chips or candy, are delicious and can be consumed on-the-go. Simply put, pre-packaged food products are simply far too enticing for people to avoid, and even though some people both can afford and have the mental fortitude to avoid processed food, relying on an individualistic approach to address obesity will not remove the real problem–the prevalence of processed food products.
Naturally, several other issues have contributed to increased obesity in recent years, including a decline in exercise due to less physically intense labor. In an era of desk jobs and cars, exercise has become optional. People still need to exercise more and maintain their health, and going on walks or to the gym is certainly helpful. But changes can be made on a national scale. Legislatively, the US government can take several relatively simple measures to reduce obesity and improve health in the country. Through increased funding for food programs, subsidizing healthier food manufacturing, and regulating high-fructose corn syrup and other added sugars within food and beverage products, the American government can help limit obesity rates. The government should work to subsidize health-conscious food products and tastier, healthy alternatives to the sugary snacks of today. An added sugar tax, similar to proposed carbon taxes, could dissuade companies from using cheap sugars and instead incentivise them to use government-subsidized fruits and vegetables to create these healthier alternatives. Furthermore, labels should be required to display the amount of added ingredients in their items without misleading names like agave nectar or evaporated cane juice. Measures resembling the EU’s food safety regulations would significantly improve Americans’ health and lower obesity rates. Furthermore, stricter regulations on chemicals like BHA will improve the health of average Americans and lower obesity.
There are also some more personal actions to take while waiting for legislative action. While health-conscious food choices nowadays mean making grocery trips more expensive, there is a middle ground. Homemade meals with nonorganic but unprocessed ingredients and healthier snack options are still useful solutions when financially feasible. As previously mentioned, exercising several times a week and moving around during the day will be greatly beneficial, especially as most jobs now involve sitting and looking at a screen all day. While many of these choices will not solve the problem completely, they are small steps to personally take while advocating for more significant legislative action.
 It is important to advocate for changes to the food industry that are possible–from decreasing the use of more harmful added sugars to increasing funding for healthier, natural food programs–which can lower obesity rates in America. The rapid increase in obesity over the past decades has only occurred with changes in society: the increase of immobile desk jobs and the overload of unhealthy additives. America must address the root of its obesity epidemic–profiteering on food production at the expense of public health–instead of blaming individuals for obesity on a societal scale.