Between 1980 and 2013, Americans put on the pounds, but it wasn't because prosperity and technology made us sedentary. The cause is much simpler than that, according to consumer activist and author Marion Nestle: We're eating too much.
Several factors are contributing to Americans' current overindulgence, ranging from federal agricultural policies that promote overproduction of foods, to profit-driven food producers, to the increased availability of food in nontraditional locales, Nestle said.
"Eating less is very, very bad for business," she told a Franklin & Marshall College audience at Common Hour on Thursday in F&M's Mayser Gymnasium. Held on Thursdays throughout the academic year, Common Hour brings the F&M community together for culturally and intellectually enriching events.
Nestle -- the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and professor of sociology at New York University -- specializes in the politics of food and dietary choice.
"When I started as a nutritionist, I really didn't understand how agriculture related to what people ate," said Nestle, who has spent a career examining the scientific, economic, and social influences on food choice and obesity, as well as the role food marketing plays in consumption and health.
What happened in the last 30 years that has resulted in a near epidemic of obesity in children as well as adults? One element, Nestle said, is a change in the federal policy of paying farmers not to produce too much food to a policy of paying farmers to produce too much food. She referred to a program of government farm subsidies that began in the early 1920s.
"The second reason has to do with Wall Street," Nestle said. "Wall Street requires companies to meet growth targets every 90 days." Investors demanding higher returns compel food companies to sell more products. They increase sales by pouring billions of dollars into marketing campaigns, many aimed at children, she said.
In addition, food companies have branched beyond grocery stores and started putting their products in drugstores, sporting goods stores, and other retailers. "Food companies put food everywhere," Nestle said. "The more food is available, the more people buy it."
Nestle used a slideshow with charts and images, including one of a poster with an obese Uncle Sam eating a giant burger and the words "I Want You to Eat More." The charts showed a correlation between American's caloric intake and their overweight condition. In 1980, Americans on average consumed 3,200 calories per day, versus 3,900 calories a day in 2013.
She said it takes eating less, eating better and moving more to lose weight and stay healthy, but government policies and industry advertising campaigns, make that difficult.
Yet, Nestle said the "food movement," which promotes the consumption of healthy, sustainable foods, is helping to educate more and more people. She also praised the whole, local foods available each Wednesday at F&M's Fair Trade Café at the Wohlsen Center for the Sustainable Environment on campus.
"It's so much easier to eat healthier now," Nestle said.
Several students interviewed afterward said they had long been aware of many of the points Nestle discussed. They said they had grown up in households where their families conscientiously ate less and ate better.
"Growing up I wasn't lied to about calories," said Brielle Stander, a first-year student. "We always went for the fruits and vegetables."
Monica Chenier, a first-year student considering environmental science as a major, said she was "surprised to learn there are 800 calories in a [64-ounce] drink. I probably won't be drinking those."
After the lecture, junior Russell Sechzer, a business, organizations and society major, stood at the back of the gym with his book bag strapped to his back and a pizza box under one arm. He was more impressed by Nestle's description of the link between government policies and the food people consumed than the health implications of those policies.
"I've always been a bit of a health nut, despite what this pizza under my arm says," Sechzer said. "My parents pretty much shielded me from the evils she described."
Nestle's books include "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health"; "Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety," which explores the effects of food production on food safety, and the access to food and nutrition; and "What to Eat." Her most recent book, with Cornell University nutritionist Malden Nesheim, is "Why Calories Count: from Science to Politics."