Is 2010 Making Me Fat?

05/18/2010 02:04 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In 2008, there seemed to be a razor thin ray of hope shining on the obesity epidemic in America -- we had reached a plateau. Since 67 percent of the country was overweight or obese, this was no cause for celebration, but it was something. But now it appears that we are once again headed in the wrong direction.

The first quarter 2010 statistical data of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index (based on telephone interviews with a random sample of more than 677,000 adults 18-years or older) reveals that "fewer Americans are maintaining a 'normal' weight by Body Mass Index (BMI) standards," and "obesity within each demographic is more likely to be trending upward than downward since 2008."

BMI is based on Belgian mathematician and statistician Adolphe Quetelet's 1835 formula correlating height and weight to body size. A "normal weight," as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), is a BMI between 20 and 25; "obese" is a BMI of more than 30. (You can calculate your BMI here). Ironically, when WHO first implemented the BMI scale in the 1980s, it was used as an indicator for at-risk underweight populations in developing nations. In 1980 America, only about one third of the population had a BMI above 25. That was an uptick from 25 percent just five years earlier, and now acknowledged as a turning point. The uphill climb had continued steadily until 2008. And then, as mentioned, it appeared to have leveled off.

But now the bad news: In spite of the Action for Healthy Kids initiative, calorie counts listed on many menus, sugary soda unavailable in public schools, a focus on improved school lunches, the ban on trans fats, and so much readily available good information about nutrition and health, it appears that obesity may be on the ascent once more.

Bizarre fad diets seem to be on the rise too. I'm talking about the really dangerously punishing plans. For example, the Internet is currently flooded with articles about (and advertisements for) The Maple Syrup Diet, aka Master Cleanse or Lemon Juice Diet. This is a grim concoction of cayenne pepper, lemon juice, maple syrup and water. Weight loss is guaranteed as long as you drink six to 12 glasses of the stuff a day, and have nothing else to eat except laxatives. As a bonus your digestive system will now be scrubbed clean, as if your kidneys and liver can't manage well enough on their own. Naomi Campbell, Gwyenth Paltrow and Beyonce Knowles are all said to be masochistically cleansing. Another awful diet making a big comeback is cabbage soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Jennifer Anniston is reported to be replacing two meals a day with baby food.

Odd weight loss schemes flourished in the 1930s during the Great Depression, too. A plan sponsored by the United Fruit Company involving only bananas and skim milk was endorsed by the American Medical Association and Johns Hopkins University. The Hollywood 18-Day Diet (California Citrus Growers Association) was 585 calories of grapefruits and oranges. Raw tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs, baked potatoes and buttermilk, pineapples and lamb chops -- diets based on nothing except hyperbole, false hope, and punishment for the sins of gluttony.

Although we are certainly not experiencing another Great Depression, we are in difficult, frightening and frustrating times. There are so many villains it is difficult to keep track of them all, and the list keeps on getting longer. As in the 1930s, our economic lives are spinning out of control, and there is little most of us can do about it. There can be comfort in knowing what to do about something; even it's just what to have for lunch. And so, unfortunately, fad diets and obesity are both trending upward once more.