Many health officials criticize the modern American diet, suggesting that our grandparents’ nutrition was notably superior. In reality, most people in the ‘50s and ‘60s ate a high-fat, high-cholesterol and high-sugar diet. Local grocers sold only full-fat versions of dairy products. Most recipe books listed lard—a solid block of pig fat—as a cooking staple. And dinner in many households consisted of the standard meat and potatoes. Few of these dietary habits meet today’s threshold for “healthy.”

Sure, there have been some changes between our meals and those of our grandparents. But the most radical transitions over the past decades have transpired not in our cooking, but in other pastimes. At home, in the office, and on the road, technology’s influence on our waistlines is undeniable. But the food-only focus adopted by nostalgic health officials and radical
nutrition activists distracts the public from a larger issue—our
activity-free lifestyles.

Suburbia, appliances and thousands of TV channels: these and other largely overlooked factors play a big role in our weight gain.
Car travel is already considered one of the biggest contributors to weight gain, but the car itself—not just the trips—also adds to the problem. Power steering, power windows and other modern technologies have made driving even more sedentary than it used to be. One study found that every additional hour spent in the car increases a person’s risk of obesity by 6 percent. It may sound trivial. Yet, even a small convenience that keeps us from burning 50 calories each day—like e-mailing a co-worker instead of walking to her office—can tack on more than 5 pounds annually.

And these little changes with big consequences aren’t limited to
the workplace.

Gifts, movies and even groceries are available online. Though physically browsing the DVD selection at a local rental store doesn’t demand a ton of energy, updating your Netflix “queue” takes even less. The energy we burn during the day can vary by as much as 2,000 calories, depending on the type of activities we choose (excluding exercise). Internet chores rank at the low end of that spectrum.

Inactivity doesn’t just make us fat. It’s deadly too. According to researchers at the University of Missouri, people who exercise live 3.5 years longer than sedentary people. And a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that being out of shape increases our risk of early death more than our weight. In fact, being obese and physically fit is a better bet than being slender and sedentary.

The growing epidemic of physical inactivity and its related diseases are such a significant problem that U.S. doctors have coined a new term: Sedentary Death Syndrome. As the third leading cause of death, it claims the lives of 250,000 Americans each year. Basically, your couch is more likely to kill you than either a stroke or an accident.

Most Americans remain unaware of this threat. Why? Because caution about our sedentary lifestyles has been drowned out by endless warnings about America’s “killer” diet.

Restaurants menus and grocery aisles bear the brunt of these meritless attacks by health officials and food cops. From the state to the federal level, politicians are considering “sin” taxes on our comfort foods, government-caps on salt in our diets and mandated calorie-counts for our date-night dinner menus. All the while, greedy trial lawyers are working overtime to paint the food industry as the next “Big Tobacco.” Food may not be the right target. But it’s a convenient one if you’re in need of headlines or lawsuits.

From moving sidewalks to power lawnmowers, the way we live impacts our well being, at least as much as the way we eat. If the facts were all that mattered, John Deere would be fending off mandatory mower-labeling proposals. After all, it’s easy for activists to convince people that takeout is to blame for their love handles. Personal responsibility is a much harder pill to swallow.