America’s Obesity Epidemic: How Comfortable Diets Can Kill

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Comfort Crisis" by Michael Easter. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you eat even when you’re not hungry? Do you tend to reach for a pizza instead of a salad?

One of the consequences of our modern lifestyles is obesity. Michael Easter discusses some of the harmful effects that comfortable diets have on health, and he points the finger at several causes.

Read more to learn about some of the causes of America’s obesity epidemic, including an ancient one.

The American Obesity Epidemic

Providing evidence for the obesity epidemic in America, Easter says 38% of the US population is obese and 32% is overweight. This is a big problem because obesity is a major risk factor for conditions like heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. In fact, obesity decreases your lifespan by an average of five to 20 years.

(Shortform note: Research shows that obesity is also one of the most common comorbidities for Covid-19. In some studies, obesity was found to be the leading comorbidity. This is because obesity weakens your immune system and compresses your lungs, which exacerbates the respiratory symptoms of Covid.)

Easter explains that our evolutionary instincts make us dangerously susceptible to obesity in modern America. This is because humans evolved to take advantage of opportunities to gorge on food and stockpile calories whenever it was possible. Hunting and gathering weren’t as surefire for producing food as our trips to the grocery store today. So, it was important for ancient humans to capitalize on calories whenever they were available to build fat reserves as insurance for the uncertain future. The problem is, we’re now constantly surrounded by food, but we’re still programmed with the same evolutionary instinct to gorge.

(Shortform note: Experts say our instinct to gorge ourselves intensifies during the fall and winter seasons. One expert explains that day length seems to influence our calorie consumption. One study found that participants consumed 200 more calories each day when days began to shorten in the fall. Another explanation is that food opportunities increase during the fall and winter holidays. As Easter explains, we capitalize on food when it’s available, and there tend to be more feasts during the holiday season.)

On top of this, many of the processed foods available today are specially designed to be calorie dense and more delicious than anything found in nature. Our brains are wired to release dopamine (the feel-good chemical) when we consume anything sugary, salty, or fatty because these tastes indicate that the food we’re eating is calorie-dense. Today, foods such as pizza and ice cream present an unnatural, carb-fat combination that releases more dopamine than anything we can pluck off a tree, which amplifies our cravings.

(Shortform note: Additional addictive components of highly-processed foods include the fact that many foods are processed to digest and absorb into our bloodstream more quickly by removing their fiber and water content. This enhances the quickness and intensity of the feel-good response we experience when eating and keeps us coming back from more. Foods are also engineered for pleasurable texture. Experts say that when foods feel good in our mouths, their addictive quality increases.)

Another major cause of obesity is stress eating. As we discussed earlier, chronic stress is increasing in the developed world, and eating comfort foods to cope with it is a recipe for disaster. Easter cites one study that found that 40% of people overeat when they’re stressed and the quality of food consumed during stress eating tends to be poor. We reach for junk food when we’re stressed because it quickly releases dopamine, which improves our mood and gives us temporary relief from chronic stress. This is why we might feel tempted to overeat at lunch if we’re having a stressful day at work.

(Shortform note: Another reason we might overeat when we’re stressed is that our bodies crave extra calories to help fuel and replenish calories for our fight-or-flight response. Whether we stress eat to cope or to fuel our stress responses, overeating isn’t the only way stress contributes to obesity. One study found that elevated stress levels slow down our metabolism, which makes all of the extra food we stress eat harder to burn off.)

America’s Obesity Epidemic: How Comfortable Diets Can Kill

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michael Easter's "The Comfort Crisis" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Comfort Crisis summary:

  • Why a modern, comfortable lifestyle is bad for health and happiness
  • Why discomforts such as being in nature, fasting, and exercising are important
  • Tips on how to make discomfort your friend

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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