The Side-Effects of Obesity: “Overweight Is The New Norm”

The Side-Effects of Obesity: “Overweight Is The New Norm”

I could just as easily call this blog post ‘The Case Against Auto Pilot,” because that’s basically what this is. This article, titled “Overweight Is The New Norm,” has a couple of things I want to highlight:

Americans are living large. Extra large. As in XXXXL large. As in baby-powdered-thighs large. As in wheezing, heaving, bust-the-car-suspension large.

Overweight has become the new normal, and society is straining to accommodate our ever-expanding waistlines. We plant plush bottoms on wider seats in theaters and toilet stalls, drape ourselves in plus-sized clothing, even go to our eternal rest in broader coffins.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and a third, some 72 million people, are considered obese. From 1980 to 2008, obesity rates doubled for adults and tripled for children, with 17 percent, or 9 million children over 6, classified as obese.

The average American is 23 pounds heavier than the ideal body weight. Experts blame the usual bugaboos: lack of exercise and side-splitting food consumption.

“There’s definitely a new norm,” said Dr. Robert Kushner, clinical director of the Northwestern Comprehensive Center on Obesity at Northwestern University in Illinois. “It’s a norm that, ‘My entire family and my community is overweight, and that’s what I am.’ “

Businesses, eyes on the bottom line, are adapting to the physical requirements of the heftier among us.

Revolving doors, for example, have widened from 10 feet to 12 feet in recent years. Scales, which seldom went over 300 pounds, now go up to 400 or 500 pounds.

Here are a few other areas in which the super-sized generation is changing our culture.

Feeding frenzy

Food portions, ever bigger, continue to grow to meet yawning appetites. New York nutritionist Lisa R. Young estimates fast-food servings are two to five times what they were in the 1950s. When it debuted 40 years ago, the Big Mac was but a wee patty of 3-ounce meat. Today, fast-food chains serve up 12-ounce burgers loaded with 1,000 calories.

When it first opened, a McDonald’s soda was 7 ounces. Now a small soft drink is 16 ounces, and convenience stores pitch a 64-ounce bucket of soda — a full half-gallon. The result: In the 1970s, an American gulped down an average of 27 gallons of soda a year. Today that figure is 44 gallons.

And sweets? Cookies today, Young says, are 700 percent larger than USDA standards. A brownie recipe from the 1960s called for 30 servings. The same recipe today calls for 16.

Garbing the girth

Clothing outlets have expanded plus-sized inventories. Bulky clothes are available for children as young as 3, and Target and Forever 21 offer plus-sized fashions for teens. Quadruple-extra-large shirts are on the rack for men with 60-inch waists.

“Vanity sizing,” in which manufacturers adjust apparel size downward so it’s more palatable for women, is spreading. A size 4 today was, 20 years ago, a size 8. Some 62 percent of American women wear a size 14 or larger.

But full-size fashion has its price: Plus-sized clothing, which uses more material, costs 10 to 15 percent more than regular apparel.

High-volume cargo

Federal officials have increased the average passenger weight for buses and commercial boats, from 150 pounds to 175 pounds for bus passengers and from 160 pounds to 185 pounds for boat passengers. Buses must be stronger and bigger to handle folks of amplitude, and boats must trim their passenger lists.

Government regulations for car seat belts, set in the 1960s, require them to fit a 215-pound man with a hip circumference of 47 inches. In 2003, however, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that more than 38 million people, or 19 percent of Americans, were too large for their seat belts. To accommodate heftier drivers, some car manufacturers include seat belts that are 18 to 20 inches longer, or offer seat belt extenders.

Most airlines, where economy-class seat widths range from 17 to 18 inches, make portly passengers buy an extra seat if they can’t sit with both armrests down, or can’t fasten their seat belts.

Ample seating

Many theme-park rides are featuring larger seats, with sample seats situated so heavier riders can test their capacity. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Islands of Adventure near Orlando recently added larger seats to its Forbidden Journey ride.

Also in Orlando, a new downtown arena has installed seats 19 to 24 inches wide, as compared to the 18-inch spread in an older facility. The New York City Center is replacing seats of 17-to-20-inch width with 19 to 22 inches.

The Olive Garden is among restaurants that now provide sturdier, armless chairs for pudgy diners. Movie theater seats have broadened along with their patrons’ bottoms. In the 1980s they were around 20 inches wide. Now many movie chains have seats as large as 26 inches wide. More buttered popcorn, anyone?

Hefty health care

Hospitals, committed to treating folks of all sizes, have adjusted to a porkier population with larger, reinforced beds, walkers, examining tables and special lifts to move overweight patients. New magnetic-resonance-imaging machines hold patients of up to 500 pounds. Surgical instruments are extra long to reach into deeper body cavities. Even blood pressure cuffs are larger, to fit around chubby arms.

Wheelchairs, too, are wider. The average wheelchair was designed to hold people of 200 to 300 pounds, but new ones are capable of bearing the approximately 4 million Americans who are heavier than the old weight standard.

Toilets can handle bigger bottoms. Manufacturer Big John is marketing a toilet that is 19 inches wide and 2 inches taller than the average 14-inch-wide seat. They have a weight capacity of 1,200 pounds.

Some manufacturers are shipping 54-inch-wide coffins, broader than the standard 24 inch, which can hold 700 pounds.

Not enough

But such adjustments don’t go far enough, said Peggy Howell, public relations director for the Oakland, Calif.-based National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, an advocacy group with “fattitude.”

“We are, of course, always happy to see when a company tries to make a product that will accommodate people of size,” she said. “But we don’t feel that this is giving us a place at the table.”

Attitudes, not products, need to change, Howell said. “Stopping the discrimination and the bias and the prejudice would make life a lot better for fat people.”

I really don’t care for the snark in the article – porkier, chubbier and the like – but there’s something really interesting happening, here.

For starters, I love how this has such a cyclical effect. Places like McDonalds are offering larger portions in their value meals to feed increasingly larger customers, and increasingly larger customers are  becoming increasingly larger because all they know is “they’ve always ordered the same thing,” all while every other cue around them is increasing in size, too.

A while back, I read a long book about how our environments and habits make it easy for our minds to operate on auto-pilot, and that auto-pilot is what makes it so hard for us to change our lifestyles. Basically, it’s the things we rarely think about that make the largest difference.

If you never think about how driving in front of Fast Food Avenue on the way home from work plays a huge part in the fact that you even eat fast food at all, then you’ll never consider driving a different route. If you never think about the role that the size of your cereal bowl plays in how much milk and cereal you put in it, then you’ll never consider whether or not you could be satisfied by a smaller amount.

If clothing manufacturers are vanity sizing – moving sizes up so that a size 10 can happily purchase a size 8 and fit it well – and you never think about that, you’ll never stop to think about whether or not you’re gaining weight. If you’ve always ordered the same burger, and never been aware of the fact that your favorite burger has tripled in size since you first start ordering it, you’ll never think about whether or not that burger is contributing more to your weight gain than you thought.

If society is pressuring companies and service providers to accommodate larger patrons – which, don’t get me wrong, they should – then it changes the cues we use to live our lives. That is, if we’re operating on auto-pilot.

One of the most difficult things i’ve had to learn – and keep re-learning, as a matter of fact – is the fact that its not simply the habits that I obviously take notice of while I’m going on about my day. It’s the things that I’ve taken for granted that have always been the greatest contributors… the stuff I deal with while mentally on auto-pilot. In the beginning of my conversion away from processed food, I was going nuts – I was eating whatever I wanted because, as I had so much weight to lose, even in eating “as much as I wanted,” I still had a stopping point that still allowed me to have “calories to spare” and resulted in my losing anyhow. That became my new auto-pilot. Being able to eat whatever clean foods I wanted, and still lose. However, the smaller I became, the less my new “auto-pilot” helped… and, actually, became a hindrance. I had to re-learn all over again – not just new calorie counts or new exercises, but new habits.

I don’t know if that’s an argument for constant awareness, or simply reminding myself that it’s time to assess my “auto-pilot,” but I’m rooting for the auto-pilot.

I wanted to write about this article because I feel, strongly, that as our society becomes more accommodating of those of us who choose different sizes (which it should), it’s going to require a much more vigilant push on our own parts to not let these altered cues interfere with how we look at ourselves. A willingness to assess the fine details is important – because you can’t avoid going on auto-pilot, and nothing’s worse than having to battle what you can’t even identify.


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By | 2017-06-10T11:22:04+00:00 November 26th, 2014|It's All Mental|29 Comments

About the Author:

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes food and fitness, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is also certified in sports nutrition by Precision Nutrition. She now lives in New York with her husband and children, and is working on her 6th and 7th certifications because she likes having alphabet soup at the end of her name.


  1. Heidi September 2, 2011 at 3:53 PM - Reply

    “I feel, strongly, that as our society becomes more accommodating of those of us who choose different sizes (which it should), it’s going to require a much more vigilant push on our own parts to not let these altered cues interfere with how we look at ourselves.”

    I agree. This is a challenging issue because, although it may seem to lack compassion, retaining those old style seats/chairs/clothing sizes provides a pretty stark reality check and can signal that the booty is expanding.

    One funny old school thing that I came across – in my adoption papers, my father was listed as “175 pounds (slightly overweight)” at 5’8. Ohh, how things have changed…

    • Erika Nicole Kendall September 2, 2011 at 4:09 PM - Reply

      I think it’s interesting – is it a matter of lacking compassion to keep ourselves aware? I mean, maybe just in my mind.. but it’s one thing to be aware of the bodily changes; it’s another thing entirely in regards to how you handle, treat yourself and solve the issue once you’re aware.

      It’s not a bad thing to notice that you’re having difficulty, but it is an awful thing to beat yourself up and call yourself names in the mirror because of it, y’know?

  2. Gabrielle September 3, 2011 at 2:22 AM - Reply

    I had mixed feeling about that article. I was thinking yes the author is somehow right why should soociety adapt to our bad habits and somehow encourage it. And at the same time, I am like well society have to cater to ALL of it’s’members even the heavier ones. I live in France and we do not have the same accomodation right now but it is slowly startinmg as french people are bigger and taller (not necessarily overweight though) and I was teling my mum how I hate that it is impossible for me to dress up fancily like I used to when in the state because here plus size fashion is almost non existant too expansive and UGLY my mum’ s’reply was then LOSE weight why should they have to do something for you when all you can do it lose weight. She is right and wrong. Ok I am losing weight changing my living lifestyle since I came back to france. However does that mean in the meantime that I can’t go see a movie because I am still larger? Or have to wear grand ma clothes because I am still larger? I know i am losing weight but i never was skinny ever and was always slightly overweight (and healthy and superactive we walk a looooooot in paris most of the train station do not have lift so carrying a stroller is my workout lol) and probably will still be And what about the ones for who it is a medical condition (even if it is a small portion) do they have to be ignored? No.
    However, we have to think of it as a business. They do it because they getting money from it not for our convenience.

  3. Spiderlgs September 3, 2011 at 2:29 PM - Reply

    I do think that our society is on autopilot and that is why it is difficult for people to make lifestyle changes. It wasn’t until I started working out and really thinking about what I was putting into my body that it dawned on me that the medium drink at a fast food restaurant is the same amount of calories as my meal. A lot of people think medium.. that’s a healthier choice.

    It also disturbs me that at 145 , I can fit into x-small shirts at some stores. I mean.. I’m not extra small.. I’m not attached to a size so it doesnt make me feel great, but for a lot of people that is validation that they are doing okay, when secretly the pounds are adding up. I keep 2 outfits that are my “control” outfits. I try them only every so often to see if they fit, are too tight.. This is my gauge that despite fluctuations in my scale, body fat, muscle mass in general… I’m where I want to be.

    As a teacher, I have students who can barely fit into their desks, and some who sit at tables to accommodate their weight. I wish that was a sign for the child or their parent to make those lifestyle changes, but it’s not. In the meantime, I don’t think the humiliation of struggling in and out of a seat 7 times a day is worth it. It’s a double edged sword..

    But I wish most people knew that a kids meal at most restaurants is generally more than enough…

  4. Starry September 4, 2011 at 7:03 AM - Reply

    I’m new to your website and started by gently reading through some of the articles and have now found myself something of an avid reader. I’m slowly making changes to my lifestyle to become healthier and your website is a real help and moral booster – thank you so much!

    This was a really thought-provoking post for me too. I agree with the other commentators that this situation is something of a double-edged sword and a pretty difficult one at that. I guess it is when enough people demand smaller portions of better quality food that those supplying the plates of food will listen and do something about it. I live in London and was recently very surprised to come across a non-bread sandwich among all the standard sandwiches in Waitrose (an increasingly prominent supermarket chain). It was a large lettuce leaf stuffed with grilled chicken, mango and a little healthy dressing. I tried it and it was gooood so I’ll definitely be a repeat customer. Hopefully others will too.

    I’ll be honest and say that it is only recently that I have been paying more attention to food – I was one of those on total auto-pilot and without a clue. As a newcomer to the pursuit of health through eating in particular I have noticed that there seems to be a (growing?) separation between healthy and more natural food and unhealthy food – in terms of the companies providing it and the people going to the different places to buy it and eat it. There seem to be fewer people of ‘average’ weight and increasing numbers of fitter and overweight individuals. This is hardly a scientific study, just something that I am seeing more and more where I live. I wondered if that was something others are noticing too…?

  5. Daphne September 6, 2011 at 10:06 AM - Reply

    Being constantly aware is doable, but also exhausting. I think it’s more effective to change the culture around you than it is for an individual to be hyper-aware of everything (or most things) than can be detrimental to diet. If your environment reinforces healthy living, you’re more likely to be successful. And by environment, I don’t just mean your home. I mean your workplace, your friends, your family, the general infrastructure of the town or city in which you live, etc.

    I think I’ve read here and elsewhere how women take a trip to another country, and find themselves losing weight, even though they may eat well. There’s a reason for that – they’re likely eating fresh, locally grown food that isn’t processed within a inch of its life, and they’re getting more exercise out of necessity and/or desire to see the sights.

    I’d be interested in reading the effects of a study in which a group of obese patients are sent to live (temporarily) to various countries, and then return to the US. I’m willing to bet that they would start to lose weight without a concentrated effort.

    • Erika Nicole Kendall September 6, 2011 at 11:10 AM - Reply

      It has to, actually, be a combination of both – it’s one thing to rearrange your personal environment, but if you’re someone who has to participate in shared environments often, you’re going to need that awareness. And, really, you need to be in the habit of being aware regardless, because as you slowly start to introduce new things or new versions of things to your life you have to assess how they affect your way of life.

      It can absolutely be more effective, but its an unrealistic approach, especially in terms of how you mentioned testing it (leaving the country.) You’ve got to make the best out of what you’ve got, and awareness is most effective with that, IMO.

  6. Stefanie September 23, 2011 at 11:54 AM - Reply

    Ooh, this one is tough. I have a lot of thoughts on this subject, but the only thing I’ll say is that just because overweight has become normal, it doesn’t mean it is good. Just because ‘society’ is accomodating the larger appetite and the wider waistline doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for us to stay overweight because we are being catered to. But to each its own. I say that because lately I have seen and met many overweight people who do not have a problem with their size and are proud of it and all of that good stuff. But for me and people like me who desire and are working toward healthier way of life, I don’t want to be considered the ‘norm’. I want to be considered healthy.

  7. Dani P September 26, 2011 at 11:49 AM - Reply

    I didn’t notice the size shift until I got involved in lending out historic Girl Scout uniforms. We had to force people to come try the uniforms on because the 1930 size 10 was very different than the 2007 size ten girl. It was an eye opener for all.

    I’m a little shocked about the fast food sizes sneaking up. Yikes! Thanks for this insight. I haven’t been losing weight as fast as I thought I should. I think I may have found part of the reason why.

  8. Allhoney May 14, 2012 at 10:23 PM - Reply

    Love this! I can buy and wear a 16 and even some 14’s, but when I make my clothes I have to get a size 22 pattern (!). I try not to lie to myself, and I know that the pattern size is closer to the truth.

  9. Angel June 5, 2012 at 11:52 AM - Reply

    So this article is great! I applaud your commentary as well. Sunday I was at Six Flags with family and it was so sad to see that more than half of the people at the amusement park were overweight or obese from children to adults. I am concerned that people are unaware of the health risk this poses and do not seem to understand that eating volumes of processed foods with or without exercising is detrimental to your well being and quality of life. The answer isn’t to accommodate poor choices so people can continue down this road of inevitable sickness and disease, but the answer is to educate and be honest about the overall implications of relying on a diet that is loaded with processed foods.

  10. pam June 5, 2012 at 12:16 PM - Reply

    Reading this again Erika, and having additional comments to share. You are 100% correct when you speak of the need to be hypervigilant when working to improve one’s health and fitness. It calls for nothing less than a complete lifestyle change. The food piece alone is mind boggling because not only do you have to eliminate and restrict foods but you also have to educate yourself on what you are really eating. I loved the chart you posted on Facebook some months back; the one that told you how to determine if what you have in your hand is actually food.
    after you determine what food is and is not, then you have to deal with the attitudes of friends and loved ones and all of the social and familial rituals that around food. When I first became a hardcore vegan my mother ’bout lost her mind. She felt like I was rejecting her. Dealing with being a hard core vegan was easy for many years because I only associated with and dated other hard core vegans (except for a few long standing friends from college who all lived out of town). But then I started teaching middle school and my food plan started going to hell, along with my waistline. Auto pilot indeed. I had a baby, became a single mother, had to work two jobs, blood pressure went up, more auto pilot. I never went back to beef and pork, and my son was raised more vegetarian than not (to the point where he’s embarrassed when I have a lot of fish and turkey in the grocery cart. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on autopilot, how many years I’ve operated on autopilot when it comes to food. I’ve had to ban Starbucks (their politics makes that easy), stop bringing Sesame Blue corn chips in the house, completely and totally divorce Soy Dream and Silk, banish both garden burgers and Boca Burgers. When I cook it’s back to building meals around beans, grains, and green veggies. Total food consciousness requires hypervigilance. I’m willing to make the effort and do the work because I refuse to have high blood pressure any longer. I refuse to continue being 50-60 lbs overweight. I refuse to continue to have arthritis and joint discomfort. I remember feeling sleek muscles under my hands when I bathed, showered, and applied lotion. I want that look and feel again. I want to be healthy and strong. So I am once again becoming hypervigilant.

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