From 1990 to 2017, the average percentage of obese adults increased from 11.1 percent (for the 44 states and DC for which 1990 data are available) to 30.6 percent, according to statistics by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In Pennsylvania, specifically, the same statistics suggest an increase of 130.7 percent in obesity cases between 1990 and 2017.
The reasons for that increase, however, vary.
“Our society is driven by food — just look at advertising and the fast food industry that offers highly processed options with high calories and that are high in fats and carbohydrates. This all leads to weight gain, and you can get it cheaper than many of the healthier alternatives,” said Dr. Christopher Motto, of Evangelical.
He added that our regional culture can add to the problem.
“That traditional Pennsylvania Dutch cooking is so high in carbohydrate — the shoo fly pies, pot pies and other dishes that aren’t exactly healthy,” he said.
Tasha Dershem, a dietitian with Geisinger, agreed.
“There is an overall lack of vegetables and fruit in the diet for this region — central Pennsylvania features a meat-and-potato mentality, and if people do eat vegetables, it tends to be the starchier corn and potato,” she said.
“Growing up, my family had potatoes and bread at almost every meal — the greens typically didn’t make it to the table until our gardens were in season,” added Elizabeth Swartz, of Danville, who has lost 109 pounds over the past year since undergoing bariatric surgery. “Plus, the cost has been a factor — you can spend $50 getting all the healthier options for a good salad, or pick up a few boxes of processed macaroni and cheese for like $3. That is why my family loves Aldi’s, which offers good produce at a good price.”
The psychology of how food makes us feel, combined with additional stressors over time, also adds to the growing issues of obesity, according to Dr. Steven Barrows, of UPMC Susquehanna.
“One of my mantras is that exercise is the most under-used antidepressants — while food is the most over-used. For some it offers an escape from boredom or trauma or major stressors — and the food industry has preyed upon those trends,” he said. “Typically, the foods people get the most pleasure from are high-calorie options that light up the same parts of the brain that are triggered by cocaine — it can actually light up a pleasure response stronger than cocaine.”
That addiction and the food industry’s efforts to cater to it have led to a drastic increase in portion size in our country, Barrows added.
“When my wife and I honeymooned in the Caribbean, the portion size of the dinners we were served was half of what we were used to here,” he said.
“Research has shown over the years that the average size of a dinner plate — even a wine glass — has increased quite a bit,” added Dershem. “When you see a plate that represents the size of portions we should be consuming, it almost looks funny how small it seems.”
According to Motto, another contributing factor to the obesity epidemic involves the region’s growing sedentary lifestyle.
“Our society in general has seen a de-emphasizing of exercise — things are quicker, more convenient, but also require less exercise to accomplish,” he said.