The Origins of the Obesity Epidemic in the USA–Lessons for Today

Norman J. Temple

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal Articlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


The obesity epidemic appeared in the USA in 1976–1980 and then spread across Westernized countries. This paper examines the most likely causes of the epidemic in the USA. An explanation must be consistent with the emergence of the epidemic in both genders and in all age groups and ethnicities at about the same time, and with a steady rise in the prevalence of obesity until at least 2016. The cause is closely related to changes in the American diet. There is little association with changes in the intake of fat and carbohydrate. This paper presents the opinion that the factor most closely linked to the epidemic is ultra-processed foods (UPFs) (i.e., foods with a high content of calories, salt, sugar, and fat but with very little whole foods). Of particular importance is sugar intake, especially sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). There is strong evidence that consumption of SSBs leads to higher energy intake and more weight gain. A similar pattern is also seen with other UPFs. Factors that probably contributed to the increased intake of UPFs include their relatively low price and the increased popularity of fast-food restaurants. Other related topics discussed include: (1) the possible importance of Farm Bills implemented by the US Department of Agriculture; (2) areas where further research is needed; (3) health hazards linked to UPFs; and (4) the need for public health measures to reduce intake of UPFs.

Original languageEnglish
Article number4253
Issue number20
Publication statusPublished - Oct. 2022


  • fast foods
  • food prices
  • obesity
  • sugar
  • sugar-sweetened beverages


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