February 25, 2012
What happened? How, why, when did W.Va. pack on the pounds?
Kate Long
Beginning in the 1980s, things changed. West Virginia and the rest of the country were overtaken by a perfect storm of less physical jobs, processed food, soda pop, fast food, reduced physical education and hours of video games and texting. The percentage of West Virginians who are obese almost tripled between 1960 (13.4 percent) and 2008 (34.3 percent). Click more media to see a few of the things that led us here and to view more photos from W.Va.'s history.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than 30 years ago, Ric McDowell helped start a Lincoln County summer camp for low-income kids. "When we first started," he said, "we had skinny campers. We were always trying to find ways to get food into them."

Then in the early '90s, "we started getting heavier campers," he said. "We weren't sure what to make of that." By the mid-'90s, almost all their campers were heavy.

McDowell was watching the national obesity epidemic happen. It began in the mid-1980s, about the time those heavier campers were born.

"I'm sure it's more complicated than this, but convenience food and fast food appeared in Lincoln County in the early '90s," he said.

"Pizza came first," he said. "Now, when people have the choice of McDonald's or cooking at home, it's McDonald's."

Then along came No Child Left Behind, the federal education law. Teachers were pressured to get kids ready for achievement tests, and "schools cut back on phys ed," McDowell said. They also stopped offering home-ec classes. "Kids don't learn to cook anymore."

Many parents also quit cooking, he said. "When we were trying to raise money for the camp, I suggested a potluck dinner, and people said, 'That won't work. People don't cook anymore. They pick up stuff.'

"Sometimes when I stop for gas at a convenience store, I watch people picking up what I assume is their breakfast. Cookies and chips and wrapped doughnut sticks, and I think of the chemical ingredients in that food. Who knows what we're taking into our bodies? Who really knows why this is happening?"

Have we always been this way?

Have West Virginians always been heavy? Is it our culture?

"That's just not historically accurate," said Ron Lewis, a longtime West Virginia University professor who specializes in early West Virginia history. "It's been the opposite."

In the early 1900s, magazine writers traveling through the Appalachian Mountains used words like "lean," "slab-sided" and "stomachless" to describe people they met there, Lewis said.

"They all said, 'Here is your prototypical mountaineer: long, lean, lanky, high endurance.'"

"A fat mountaineer is a curiosity," Horace Kephart wrote in 1913. "The hill folk even seem to affect a slender type of comeliness."

"A hundred years ago, life was hard and punishing for most people," Lewis said. Men worked the fields and ranged the hillsides, hunting and trapping. "Food was a full-time job."

"Today, doctors urge us to get our bodies moving," he said. "A hundred years ago, nobody needed to urge people to be active. If they weren't active, they didn't eat.

"Now they tell us not to eat processed food so we won't have a heart attack. Processed food didn't exist back then. They burnt up every calorie they ate."

Until the 1980s, few West Virginians are overweight in archival photos. In the 1960s and 1970s, during the poverty war, Americans got used to seeing pictures of bone-thin West Virginians on the evening news.

Only 13.4 percent of Americans were obese then. Nobody was measuring obesity in West Virginia. There seemed no need to do so.

Now, one in three West Virginians is obese, at higher risk of diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and other conditions their ancestors didn't worry about.

The price is huge. In 2009, in "The Future Costs of Obesity," health care economist Ken Thorpe reported that obesity-related diseases cost West Virginia $668 million in 2008. That number will rise to $2.4 billion by 2018, conservatively, he said, if nothing changes.

How did this happen?

In the late 1970s, Dr. Bob Walker -- now state Health Sciences chancellor --worked as a primary care doctor in rural, mountainous Lincoln County. "Families tend to pass a diet down through generations, he said, "and historically, our diet was geared to hard work. Work caused people to burn a lot of calories, timbering, farm work, coal mining, labor of different kinds.

"Rural people often got up early and ate an enormous meal, generally biscuits, gravy, eggs, bacon. They'd pack a high-carbohydrate, high-fat lunch in a pail to take with them, to sustain them through the day.

"So our diet has definite historical roots. The problem is, those kinds of jobs have disappeared, and we haven't changed the way we eat. So now we take in a lot of calories and fat that don't get burned off."

In the mid-1980s, Americans -- including West Virginians -- started gaining weight. On the national obesity chart, the rate stays steady until the late '80s, then the line zooms upward. Between 1980 and 2000, national obesity doubled.

Why? Nationwide, scientists and researchers say that, starting in the 1980s, Americans were overtaken by a perfect storm of:


  • Processed food: Manufacturers developed cheap calorie-dense, microwavable foods.


  • Food marketing: Food advertising saturated the airwaves.


  • Soda pop: In 1997, the average American consumed 53 gallons of soda pop, a 51 percent increase over 1980.


  • Extra calories: From 1971 to 1974, the average American man took in 2,450 calories a day. By 1999-2000, it was 2,618.


  • Eating out: In 1977-78, people ate 18 percent of their food away from home. By 1994, that was 32 percent.


  • Fast food: Portion sizes kept growing


  • Microwaves: Families and schools quit cooking.

    At the same time, Americans became less active:


  • Twenty six percent of Americans -- and 32 percent of West Virginians -- now get no exercise at all off the job.

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