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How the Modern World Makes Us Heavier

October 02, 2012 By Aaron Sinner, Policy Associate

Trust for America’s Health is out with its annual report, F as in Fat, and the numbers aren’t pretty. Minnesota’s obesity rate climbed to 25.7% in 2011, joining 38 other states where more than a quarter of the population is obese. It’s a 15% uptick from 1990. The report also includes a forecast of obesity rates in 2030, and those numbers are even uglier. If there are no public policy changes and current trends continue, Minnesota would face a 54.7% obesity rate just 18 years from now.

Obesity rates began their upward trajectory in the U.S. roughly 35 years ago. And while it might seem counter-intuitive, technology bares a significant portion of the blame. Technological advances over the last half-century have done much to improve the quality of life across the U.S., but that added comfort has brought with it unintended consequences. The trend toward obesity is one of those unintended consequences.

One technological culprit, it turns out, is air conditioning.

In the book Losing Our Cool, author Stan Cox points to a body of research demonstrating people eat more in lower temperatures. He quotes one 1970s researcher as saying, “Cattle, swine, rats, goats, and U.S. Army men all eat more when the temperature is low than when it is high.” A greater appetite when we’re cold shouldn’t come as a surprise; it’s a nifty biological trait that helps us layer on fat to keep warm in the winter. Unfortunately, in the age of A/C, it’s leading to permanently rounder people.

Cox also points to the air conditioner as promoting sedentary lifestyles. He writes, “Perhaps the most significant, if hard to quantify, link between air conditioning and obesity is through lack of exercise. The decline in the outdoor life… has meant a decline in physical activity as well. Even without air-conditioning, children and adults would almost certainly watch TV and sit at the computer in summer, but probably not for hours at a time.” We’re dealing with a machine that causes people to eat more and move around less. That’s a recipe for obesity.

Data from the National Institutes of Health indicates the national obesity trend began in the late 1970s, accelerating around 1990. Childhood obesity has more than doubled since the start of the obesity trend. And while the pervasiveness of A/C might not correlate perfectly with the growth in obesity, the trend lines do match. Though air conditioning for comfort began in the 1920s, the idea didn’t really catch on until the post-WWII economic boom. According to the American Housing Survey, the number of homes with air conditioning has climbed steadily since 1973, from 46.8% then to 84.7% in 2009.

Along with the increase in prevalence of air conditioning came a population shift toward the Sunbelt, which also began with the post-war boom. A/C has allowed Americans to move into hotter parts of the country in greater numbers, where individuals then spend their time indoors near the air conditioner rather than battling the sweltering heat outside. It can’t be a coincidence that the most obese segments of the nation are also the hottest segments that have seen the most population growth since the advent of the air conditioner.

So what about the acceleration in obesity rates beginning around 1990? For that, we turn to our next culprit: information technology.

In their 2012 study Waistlines of the World, the Milken Institute isolated variables from many different countries to see how much moving toward an information- or knowledge-based economy affects obesity rates. The study found a 10% increase in Information Communications Technology results in a 1.4% increase in obesity rates, making IT and its direct and indirect effects the “main culprit” behind growing obesity rates across the world.

Perhaps such a finding is unsurprising; after all, “We used to be paid to exercise: It was called work.” In a knowledge-based society, we’re paid to sit still.

And while the U.S. leads the obesity pack, “As the world becomes flatter, it also grows fatter; obesity, once contained within advanced countries, is spreading to emerging nations.” The U.S. is home to 20% of the world’s obese population, but that’s likely to change as individuals in other nations swell in size, too.

Acknowledging the significant role the modern, technological world has in making us heavier doesn’t mean throwing up our hands in defeat. But it does mean realizing old strategies, like simply cheering on dietary discipline and exercise, won’t work. Technology has created a problem bigger than any of one us, and it’s time for smart policy solutions that think big, too. Our ideas must grow to match the size of our enlarged bodies.

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