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How America cultivated a generation of obesity

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In 1972, a Las Vegas businessman named Len Frederick introduced a new kind of lunch to cash-strapped schools eager to see their cafeterias turn a profit. Instead of chicken or meatloaf, carrots and a carton of milk, students could eat hamburgers, hot dogs and French fries, and drink milkshakes or soda. All Frederick had to do to square his “combo meals” with national nutrition standards was fortify them with vitamins and add a sprinkle of wheat germ to the buns. Pickles counted as a required vegetable.

As historian Susan Levine recounts in her 2008 book “School Lunch Politics,” Las Vegas students lined up eagerly for the new fast-food-style menu, and the schools made money. But in 1978, a food critic found that given the freedom to pick and choose, most children weren’t getting the technically nutritious combo — they ended up with a lunch more like “two cinnamon buns and a Coke . . . four sugar cookies and a Sprite, or two bags of French fries and a milk shake.”

In hindsight, it’s easy to see the Las Vegas innovation as a harbinger of today’s fast-food-saturated environment and the nation’s childhood obesity problem — now so severe that some doctors predict that today’s kids will be the first in two centuries to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.

But back then, American policymakers were more concerned about undernourishing children than with overfeeding them. “Historically, the concern had always been lack of availability of food,” said historian Peter Stearns of George Mason University, “and work activities that were physically demanding.” As Levine notes, right up until the 1980s government standards set minimums on calories, protein and vitamins in school lunches. But they put no upper limits on calories or fat or sugar or salt.

The widespread alarm about childhood obesity is a relatively recent phenomenon, historians agree. But what’s not new is that political and economic interests time and again have trumped science and health concerns in shaping what we feed our kids and, consequently, in shaping our kids’ bodies.

In 1933, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins told the country that one-fifth of all preschool and school-age children were “showing signs of poor nutrition” — practically a mirror image of today’s warnings that more than 18 percent of children in the United States are obese. Parents had been fretting over undernourishing their children from the start of the century, said Harvey Levenstein, author of “Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in America.” “People used to think if your child was chubby it meant they were healthy,” he said.

Although U.S. children’s health improved through the first half of the century — even during the Great Depression — fear of malnutrition persisted. It was reinforced, Levine said, by reports that “some huge proportion of the young recruits were rejected for service” during World War I because they were too skinny, too weak or otherwise too poorly fed. Scientists began calling attention to vitamins in the 1940s, adding the worry that even those who got enough food could suffer deficiencies in invisible but essential elements.

When the United States entered World War II, the idea spread that with so many women in the workforce, schools needed to take more responsibility for childhood nutrition. Leaders in the new science called home economics worked out the required calories and nutrients for military rations and school lunches.

The first national school lunch program began in 1946, and its chief purpose was to get enough nutrients into American kids. The meals “contained high levels of fat, in order to bump up the calorie content,” Levine wrote. They were required to include a serving of butter and to include whole milk and a pudding or other dessert.

The Cold War fostered a renewed and somewhat different drive to make American children strong, said Chin Jou, a Harvard University historian. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness and Sports, an idea endorsed by his famously active successor, John F. Kennedy. The effort to have students run, long-jump, and perform pull-ups and other calisthenics continued through the 1970s. The idea was “to make sure kids were vigorous and healthy,” Jou said. “It was a symbol of American democracy wrapped up in how the population looked.”

Little did Americans know that their children’s fitness would soon face new threats on multiple fronts. One stealthy enemy was created in a government laboratory in Japan, where, around 1970, scientists figured out how to mass produce a new sweetener: high-fructose corn syrup, often abbreviated HFCS.

Because U.S.-subsidized corn was cheap, Jou said, HFCS was less expensive than sugar, and manufacturers were able to sell enormous servings of soft drinks and other sweetened foods for modest prices. To consumers, she said, it looked like a “great deal.”

One reason the consumers may not have realized that it was a bad deal health-wise was that the public health community was focused not on sugar but on fats — warning Americans against eggs, cheese, cream and meat. In 1977, Sen. George McGovern’s Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs issued guidelines urging a major reduction in fats and an increase in complex carbohydrates.Industry responded with an array of low-fat and fat-free products: cake, cookies, bread, ice cream and beverages.

Americans did cut down proportionally on fats but, ironically, they started to get fatter — ” much fatter. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that rates of obesity in children and adults, which had been climbing through the ’70s, started to shoot upward around 1980. For children, obesity tripled from about 5 percent in 1980 to about 15 percent in 2000.

Although Harvard’s Jou noted that there was “no one culprit or explanation” for the startling rise, Gary Taubes, author of “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” emphasizes the effect of the anti-fat campaign. With eggs and bacon off the menu, he argued, many Americans ate more cereal and other foods high in carbohydrates. Furthermore, the new low-fat substitutes were often laden with high-fructose corn syrup and starch. Portion sizes grew.

At the same time, schools all over the country were allowing vending machines into their hallways, and cafeterias were coming to resemble shopping-mall food courts. Part of the reason was financial: They attracted paying students. Fast-food and soda companies also offered funding in exchange for adding their logos to, say, football scoreboards. But such contracts “turned out to be a bargain with the devil,” said Kelly Brownell, a Duke University expert on obesity. Add in the aggressive food advertising on television and online, he said, and kids of the 1980s and ’90s faced a “toxic food environment.”

Behind all the food issues was another threat to fitness: Children were getting less exercise. For reasons including suburban sprawl and safety concerns, fewer students were walking and biking to school. Many schools cut out physical education and reduced recess time. “Atari and Nintendo and the Internet exacerbated that,” Jou said.

By the time first lady Michelle Obama launched her “Let’s Move” campaign in 2010, it was almost impossible for anyone paying attention to be unaware of the crisis. The attention has had some effect, with recent studies showing the first signs of a leveling off of childhood obesity. But the battle is far from over.

On the bright side, Brownell said, public opinion has turned against industry’s marketing of unhealthy foods to children — and that’s now clearly understood to include those loaded with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. “The country has agreed that schools should not be a place where predatory food activity should take place,” he said.

Changing children’s body images

Views of what healthy kids should look like have evolved from fear of malnutrition to awareness of an obesity epidemic:


Chubby-cheeked stars: The Depression-era “Little Rascals” was an example of the chubby Hollywood ideal at a time when parents’ biggest worry about children’s weight was undernourishment.


Keeping up with the Russians: School exercises were encouraged with a Cold War-era goal of physical fitness.


Skinny ideals: Ultra-thin fashion models strutted runways at the same time American children were growing heavier. The nation’s beauty ideal was getting skinnier, and eating disorders became more common.


A new focus: Public health officials began to focus on childhood obesity as a serious problem.

By Faye Flam
The Washington Post

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  • comment avatar Karen October 12, 2013

    I tell you why we “cultivated a generation of childhood obesity?” Rarely in this day and age do you see kids not only playing outside much you rarely see them working anymore during the summer months. There was a time in this country if you were from about 12-17 years old you were actually outside working, from bailing hay, chopping wood, busting rocks, cutting grass (to lazy to cut grass) picking vegetables and fruits, kids now a days don’t even have calluses on their hands. Now we have outsourced all of our work for comfort, steadily turning our kids into meat bags of fat!
    But not only that, “Gary Taubes, author of “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” emphasizes the effect of the anti-fat campaign. With eggs and bacon off the menu, he argued, many Americans ate more cereal and other foods high in carbohydrates.” Parents have been brainwashed that feeding their kids bread, oats, grits and any other high-carbohydrate food is healthy, which is just not the case. We have lost the battle of child hood obesity, from Peyton Manning peddling pizza on TV commercials to sending your kids out the door with a belly full of gluten and high fructose corn syrup.

  • comment avatar Mara October 12, 2013

    Is it any wonder kids struggle with weight when the adults have similar issues?

  • comment avatar MomofFour October 12, 2013

    It’s true that America is fat and our kids suffer from it. Many people just don’t know what healthy food is and how to take care of themselves and their kids. As favor to a couple of friends I agreed to help them put together a health plan. I’m not a pro or anything, but I’ve always taken my health and fitness seriously.

    I’m just shocked at what people put in their bodies and doubly-shocked at the amounts.

    If you are overweight, try keeping a food journal Publish it on Facebook or show it to your doctor and ask for suggestions. As they say, you can’t exercise enough to overcome a really bad diet.

    Pack your kid’s lunch and not with lunchables or other pre-packedged foods!

  • comment avatar Michelle October 12, 2013

    Yup, and they’ve been told that calories in should be less than calories out, and fat makes you fat, all which is not based in ANY scientific fact, and it was just basically made up at the time since the government needed something to tell people. Drop the carbs and sugar, eat more protein and higher fat food, and you’re good to go. And yes, get off the computer and get outside!

  • comment avatar Jessie October 12, 2013

    The best description of lunchables that I ever saw was from someone that worked full-time and went to school at night right after work. They were looking for something to eat that was quick and would get them through the night classes. Tried lunchables and said, “It tasted like instant regret.”

  • comment avatar HealthyMama October 12, 2013

    Ag policies are oriented towards massive production of indistinguishable commodities (one kernel of corn in a rail car is just the same as every other); during harvest season there are literally mountains of this stuff laying around. Corn in particular becomes an industrial feedstock used for all kinds of purposes, many of them unrelated to nutrition, which is secondary. Small producers of real food are ignored at best, more typically hampered by bad policies and regulation.

    So we have high-fructose corn syrup sodas, sugary cereals that consist of ground mush, foods deep fried in processed vegetable oils and conglomerations of dissassembled meats and grains masquerading as food. Ever read about what’s in a chicken nugget or a McRib? You don’t want to know, and it’s all provided courtesy of Big Ag in partnership with the USDA. “It’s all chicken, from the beak to the butthole!”

    This industry doesn’t care about real food, to them it’s all just raw materials looking for applications as “food-like products”. And as we move away from the whole-food diets of our parents’ generation, we keep getting sicker and sicker.

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