How the End of World War II Made Us Fat

The American economy took off following the end of World War II, fattening both our wallets and our waistlines. In this video, Academic Earth examines the post-war boom that busted our seams.

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About the Video

American waistlines are expanding – this isn’t news. And really, the cause isn’t revelatory either – people expend fewer calories than they consume – simple math. We’ve been trending this way for the last sixty years, and for very good reason. The post-ware era ushered in suburban living and the techno-age of food. This relatively sedentary life of car-centric neighborhoods, television, and television dinners gave rise to the modern obesity epidemic.1

Following WWII, America saw a suburban construction boom. As men came home, ready to settle down and raise families, they hopped in their Chevrolets and left the overcrowded cities and isolated farming towns for comfortable living within a short commute to work.2 The suburbs were not designed for walking. The active lifestyles of city and farm living were sacrificed for the sprawling cinderblock landscapes of supermarkets and shopping malls.

The advent of processed, pre-packaged food coincided nicely with suburban living. Supermarkets boasted expansive aisles of neatly packaged, easy to prepare, high-calorie foods. Where families once locally sourced their food, production became centralized at large factories. Food was abundant, cheap, and non-perishable welcoming the opportunity to stock-up and indulge.

And here we are, mired in a cultural legacy left by post-war abundance. The question to ask ourselves is – how do we get out of this mess?


1 Cutler, David M., Edward L. Glaeser, and Jesse M. Shapiro. “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 17.3 (2003): 93-118.Chicagobooth.edu. The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Web. 1 May 2013.

2 Galyean, Crystal. “Levittown: The Imperfect Rise of the American Suburbs.Ushistoryscene.com. US History Scene, 13 Aug. 2012. Web. 01 May 2013.

 

Transcript

Today, three out of five Americans are overweight, and one in five is obese—that is, a body mass index over 30.  And as obesity rates continue to rise, especially among American children, this health crisis has never felt more urgent.

But it’s important to know our collective fattening didn’t happen overnight.

The adult obesity rate in the U.S. increased by 214 percent between 1950 and 2000, in large part due to the unprecedented economic, technological, and cultural shifts rippling through America in the wake of World War II.1 The war was over, the allies won. We all got fat.

Emerging from a period of patriotic scrimping and sacrificing, the U.S. post-war era became an age of total expansion—there was an economic boom, a baby boom, and a hungry consumer class driving it. It wasn’t much of a shock when the American waistline expanded right along with everything else.

Between 1940 and 1950, the country’s GDP rose from $100 billion to $288 billion. By 1960, it had reached $515 billion; Americans were experiencing the largest expansion in the nation’s history.2

Soon there was a car in nearly every middle-class driveway, drastically reducing our daily amounts of physical activity; labor-saving appliances like washing machines and microwaves turned into middle-class staples; television sets found their way into the nation’s living rooms.

And then there was the food itself. Postwar tech and economic changes meant a whole new kind of diet. WWII left the government with a large quantity of unused ammonium nitrate and poison gases – what became America’s fertilizer and pesticides.3 These chemicals were a pivotal part of creating a huge food surplus and a market for cheap, high-calorie foods—especially anything with corn.  Consider the potato chip: in 1945 per capita consumption was at 1.91 pounds, in 1955 it was at 2.56 pounds of chips.

TV shows and the ads swarming around them promoted easy, unhealthy foods like popcorn, pork rinds, and cheese crackers. Soon supermarkets – the suburb’s food hub – stocked their shelves with everything salty, fried or sweet.4

But these ads weren’t simply selling junk food. They were marketing the entire suburban way of life. Stuffed refrigerators and snack-bearing moms with oversized smiles became the symbols of domestic well-being. And once the taste was acquired, it stuck – and the weight stuck too. Overexposed to fast and cheap junk food, obesity became the problem we all know so well. Today the infrastructure and appetites that make us overweight are firmly in place with little to no sign of their origins.5


1 Bird, Beverly. “How Much Have Obesity Rates Risen Since 1950?” LiveStrong.com. Demand Media, Inc., 26 May 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

2The U.S. Economy: Key Data.” The Public Perspective Nov.-Dec. 1992: 22-27. The Public Perspective. Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

3 Will, George F. “Corn as a Health Issue.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 08 Mar. 2009. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

4 Crum, Madeleine. “How World War II Changed The Way Americans Ate.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 03 Apr. 2012. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

5 McKenzie, Richard B. “Free to Be Fat.” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC, 23 Nov. 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

 

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