In the words of Ursula Bauer, American society is designed for disease.

As director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion – a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Bauer helps oversee the federal efforts to understand why Americans have over-sized themselves over the past half century.

That they have done so is clear. Among adults, obesity rates have doubled; for children, they have tripled. State by state, in 1994, no state had a prevalence of obesity greater than 20 percent; now, most states do, and a few are tipping the scales above 35 percent.

Describing the changes over time, Bauer led fellows at a National Press Foundation training session on obesity through the societal transformation of the past several decades. Among the most significant changes, she said, are the time-saving devices that have the side-effect of also saving energy – meaning, a person’s expenditure of energy.

As she noted: “A drive-through bank was a big deal when I got my first paycheck. Now you can basically drive through anything.” In the past, she added, there were opportunities all day long to expend energy. But no more: Devices such as electric can-openers, automatic transmissions, remote controls and riding lawnmowers all have an impact on whether people burn calories, bit-by-bit, throughout the day.

Overall, she said:

  • Calories consumed increased more than 300 per day from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s, and then decreased slightly for adults.
  • Fewer than three in 10 high school students get 60 minutes each day of physical activity.
  • And the expenditure of work energy decreased by more than 100 calories per day.

“We weren’t trying to create the obesity epidemic,” she said. “But if we were, it’s hard to believe we could have done a better job.”