Adult women enjoying a playground
Our Culture Makes Us Fat (and what to do about it)

Imagine you’re a wise being from another galaxy, and a starship full of humans is on the way to your planet. Your job is to design a welcoming, comfortable habitat for them, where they can be as happy and healthy as possible. 

What would your design be like?

You’ve studied humans, and you know that they are highly social beings who use language and share stories and ideas. They walk on two legs and use their hands to make things. They’re pretty good at running, climbing, throwing, and swimming.

Habitat for humans? My great “Fierce in the Forest” group sometimes uses the nearby playground

They also tend to enjoy making art and crafts, singing, dancing, and making music. Rituals are an important part of most of their societies. And they enjoy being around plants, animals, natural landscapes and water.

Would your design be more like a Las Vegas hotel or a really good kindergarten?

It seems that we know how to design an environment that is healthy for little kids (although we VERY often fall short in that). But the way we actually live as adults seems in many ways to work against our optimal health and well-being.

Am I talking just about the United States, the trailblazer in rising obesity rates, and the source of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola? Certainly my country and its products have something to do with the problem. But the phenomenon is now global, with rising rates of obesity and lifestyle diseases in places like Mexico, Argentina, Egypt and even Iran.  Here’s a world map noting the percentages of women living with obesity around 1960 (only the U.S. shows up): and here is the same map with the latest data: Yikes, over 30% obesity among women in Argentina, Panama, Portugal, Libya (!), Egypt, Romania, South Africa, Russia, China (very recently), Australia, and many more places.

Me in 2012, one of the statistics (being silly while visiting Ireland)

Most alarming is the continuing rise in childhood obesity. According to the WHO, 43.8% of Mexican adolescents aged 12-19 were overweight or obese in 2007. When I lived in Nuevo Laredo, the U.S. Consulate organized a friendly soccer match for its staff and families, and I was shocked and saddened to see that the teens were in significantly poorer physical shape than their parents. But of course they were. They experience gang warfare in their neighborhoods along with temperatures regularly above 90 degrees, while enjoying plenty of entertainment and learning opportunities in their air-conditioned homes, with delicious fried food and soft drinks within easy reach.

How did we get here? Of course I don’t pretend to know what’s happening in Libya, and I know that obesity is a complex phenomenon. It is biopsychosocial: it is influenced by biological factors (not only our genes, but things like poor sleep, the medications we take, and the types of microbes in our gut), psychological factors (including stress), and social factors. Some of the obvious trends that have led to more obesity as the world has become wealthier include:

Beware of monkeys when taking a walk in Delhi (Photo by Susan Shirley)
  • We use cars rather than walking or biking, and understandably so — for instance in Delhi, India, where a friend of mine lives, the weather is usually hot, air pollution is dangerously high, and there are aggressive monkeys in the neighborhoods ? ? ?
  • Packaged and fast foods are cheap and available everywhere (and engineered to be delicious), while fresh foods are usually more expensive and harder to find (and require work to prepare, and spoil quickly).
  • We sit for many hours, for both work and leisure activities. Computers, smartphones, Netflix and online games are nearly everywhere now.
  • Foods that used to be “special” (meat, cake) are now available every day (and 24 hours) for many people.
  • Across many national cultures, there is an assumption that when people get together, they will eat “special” foods and/or drink alcohol, and these are more available than ever before.
  • TV, computers, smartphones and 24-hour businesses affect our sleep quality, raising the risk of obesity.
  • We experience daily stress from the news, our work, and other sources without a built-in physical outlet for our natural fight-or-flight response.
  • Opportunities for physical activity and time in nature are often difficult to access and/or expensive.

Whose fault is all this? Not so much scheming corporations or clueless governments, although these certainly play a role.

And definitely not the individuals themselves (certainly not the children). So often, we see an overweight or obese person (perhaps in the mirror) and stigmatizing, blaming thoughts come to mind. But is it really likely that people around the globe are coincidentally developing the same personal flaws? These are the same humans who have powered the economy, cared for family members, and done incredible work in technology, health care and many more fields, requiring plenty of willpower and discipline.

Fun physical activity together (5K walk/run)

I think the underlying cause amid all this complexity is a deep-rooted (and understandable) preference for what is easy and pleasant, which is not always what is best for us long-term. (Before this provokes despair, remember that we CAN find great pleasure in doing what is better for us long-term; it is just not the easy, default path. The moving stories of members of the National Weight Control Registry who have successfully recovered from obesity show this. And think of a happy and relieved former smoker — although of course residual cravings may be part of her experience.

Before the modern era, we had to do physical labor to survive, and we depended on scarce foods that were available locally. So of course our bodies are adapted to those conditions, and we naturally seek to conserve energy when we aren’t doing physical labor, and we are highly attracted to high-calorie foods when they’re available. 

As wealth has accumulated since the Industrial Revolution, our modern culture has found more and more ways to indulge these tendencies. We have also created concentrated stimuli which are more intense than anything found in our ancestral environment, such as social media, online gambling, games on our phones, pornography, opioids, and processed foods loaded with sugar and fat. The human brain can easily be overwhelmed by these stimuli and have trouble setting limits. If we eat plain honey with a spoon, or fatty pork all by itself, we will soon willingly stop. But somehow, pork ribs with a sweet barbecue sauce get past these mechanisms, and it’s so much harder to consume only the right amount for our bodies (totally talking about myself here).

Maybe this is all OK? As adults, we can consume what we choose, and the market is just helpfully giving us what we desire. And there should be no shame in carrying additional fat on our bodies.

Some healthier food choices for my guests in Mexico, including a chocolate mousse based on silken tofu, thank you Jan for the recipe!

But this phenomenon produces consequences for health and well-being that I think we need to be concerned about, individually and collectively. Not only overweight and obesity have risen, but deadly “lifestyle” diseases of all kinds.

As mentioned on Wikipedia, the diseases that appear to increase in frequency as countries become more industrialized and people live longer include Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, atherosclerosis, asthma, cancer, chronic liver disease or cirrhosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, chronic kidney failure, osteoporosis, PCOD, stroke, depression, obesity and vascular dementia. I would add anxiety, depression, and opioid addiction as conditions exacerbated by our unsuitable habitat.

So, our culture makes us fat and less healthy (and shames us for it). What can we do?

I want to propose five steps we all can take. Let me know in the comments what you think, and what you are doing!

Let’s stop shaming and stigmatizing (including ourselves!). Just stop. Right now. It isn’t justified, and it isn’t helpful. People fighting cancer are viewed as brave, and their loved ones sometimes even shave their heads in solidarity. Let’s find that kind of solidarity for people living with obesity.
Let’s question our shared culture, our assumptions and default actions. Can we get together with people for a walk in nature instead of a meal? Is it OK to serve fruit to guests instead of baked goods? Can we push back when schools reduce or abolish recess? How can we be more inclusive and welcoming to people of all sizes in gyms and sports? Why are restaurant portions so large? Why are there no Super Bowl commercials for broccoli? Why don’t adults play on playgrounds? Why do we eat breakfast cereals containing little or no fiber? Is it good that meals in fast-food restaurants and college cafeterias come with unlimited soft drinks? Cultures don’t change overnight, but they do change — look at the way smoking has moved from ubiquitous to rare (I remember how awful it was in airplanes ?????).
Let’s take on a sense of shared responsibility for each other’s well-being not as a burden, but in a spirit of community. During the pandemic, many of us have worn masks to protect others as well as ourselves. As we clear snow from the sidewalk in front of our house, we can think about our neighbors gaining the benefits of a winter walk. This doesn’t mean interfering with others or telling them what to do, just doing our small part in making our world a healthier habitat for humans. And we can keep in mind that measures that help with obesity recovery — anything from cooking and serving more fresh vegetables to inviting friends for a hike — benefit everyone, not just those affected by overweight.
Let’s advocate for public and private measures to help create a more human-friendly habitat. Many governments subsidize grain production and factory farming; are these the best choices? Sidewalks and bike paths promote safety and the environment as well as health. How about playgrounds for adults in parks; stairs in buildings that are inviting and accessible? I’m sure you can think of many more and better examples. I believe these measures should take the form of “nudges” that make the healthier option easier and more automatic for people, rather than forced choices.
Let’s (gradually) shift the culture of our own homes, families and social circles. What fun physical activities can we make part of our shared routines? Would your friends come to an exotic fruit tasting party? If you love to bake, can you turn your skills to creative vegetable dishes? Can we let go of counterproductive shame and call it out when we see it?

Why don’t more adults do this?

Doing the default thing isn’t working very well for us modern humans. Let’s think more like that wise extraterrestrial and see if we can create a healthier habitat for ourselves and each other little by little, in our societies and in our own homes. Together, I think we have more power than we might imagine.

Thank you for reading this, and I appreciate your feedback and comments! If you received this as an email, it’s a no-reply address, so please write to me at, thank you!

And if you’re looking for ways to create a better habitat for yourself without suffering, schedule a free Tuneup with me here . It’s not a sales call I’ll just show you what I can do to support you in shifting to a healthier lifestyle and feeling great! Take care and hope to see you soon!

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