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10 Things Your Grandparents Did That We Now Know Are Bad For You

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Rebecca Harrington

Guest Author


We sure have discovered a lot of things that are bad for us over the last 50 years.

When our grandparents were growing up, the world was a Wild West of unhealthy choices.


You could smoke, drink, and eat with abandon.

These days, we have a lot more laws designed to nudge Americans to live their lives in a healthier way.

Here are 10 things our grandparents probably did back in their day — some of which you're likely still doing — before science figured out they were bad for us:

  1. Smoked

  2. In 1950, almost half of Americans smoked.

Cigarette companies advertised that doctors smoked, and a majority of them did.


But over the decades, scientists realized that smoking was causing cancer (most notably lung cancer) and heart disease. It can also cause birth defects if women smoke while they're pregnant.

Today, one in five American adults still use tobacco products. But now they probably know about all the risks. 

Ate processed meats

While the health effects of eating unprocessed red meat like fresh beef and pork in moderation are contested, scientists have found that processed red meat is not good for us.


Hot dogs, ham, salami, bacon, and sausage are delicious, but researchers have found eating them is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.

This is likely because processed meat contains a lot of salt, which can raise your blood pressure and cholesterol, eventually leading to heart problems.

Heart disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death in the US, and we still haven't kicked the carnivorous habit. In fact, we've gotten worse.

In 1950, an average American ate 138* pounds of meat per year. Today, that number's risen to over 195 pounds.


*Correction: A previous version of this post said an average American ate 57 pounds of meat in 1950; it’s actually 57 pounds less than a modern American.

Drove drunk

While the overall drinking rate has steadily increased in the US since the 1930s, drunk driving fatalities have plummeted.

That's thanks to driving under the influence laws across the country. New York passed the first one in 1910, and the rest of the states soon followed, but the laws didn't get specific enough to really make a difference until the '70s.


Raising the drinking age to 21 in the 1980s and '90s helped, too.

Since 1982, drunk driving fatalities have declined 53%, though today around 10,000 people still die every year in crashes caused by a drunk driver.

Ate lots of sugar

Research has found that diets high in added sugars are associated with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and cavities.


Americans now eat over 22 teaspoons of sugar a day — almost four times the World Health Organization's recommended limit.

That number has been creeping up over the last century, as sugars are added to more and more processed foods and Americans drink a disturbing amount of soda. That's all in spite of the fact that we should really know better by now.

Celebrated processed foods

The middle of the 20th Century was all about convenience. How could we make everything in our lives cheaper and easier with science?


This was especially apparent in the food industry. Companies were coming up with ways to extend shelf lives and freeze anything they could so consumers could have access to food anytime they wanted.

Processed foods like bread, sweets, and soda now make up over half of Americans' calories, a study published this year in BMJ Open found.

This startling reliance on ultra processed foods is making us "overfed and undernourished," the researchers wrote, because they're often high in added sugars and low in nutrients. It's why people call them "empty calories."

Ultra-processed foods account for 90% of the added sugars in Americans' diets, and we know how bad those are.


Drank soda

Today, Americans consume over 152 pounds of sweeteners per year. That's 43 more pounds than in the 1950s.

The main culprit is soda. In 2000, soft drinks made up over a fifth of the added sugars in the entire food supply, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Drinking less soda may be the quickest way to cut sugar from your diet, and avoid its negative health effects.


Ate trans fats

Even small amounts of trans fats can be bad for your health, scientists have found.

Crisco, and other manufactured fats like it, was an unbelievable invention in 1911. Trans fats were cheap, they made food delicious, and they could even extend shelf life.

But they can also raise your cholesterol, increasing your risk for heart disease.


That's why the US Food and Drug Administration decided in 2015 to try to eliminate trans fats from the food supply. They now have their own spot on nutrition labels, too.

Didn't wear seat belts

In 2014, 87% of people used seat belts, but half of the people who died in car crashes weren't wearing them.

Seat belts save 13,000 lives a year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.


New cars didn't even get seat belts until the 1960s, and state laws didn't require people use them until the '80s.

The first car to start obnoxiously dinging when you don't buckle up came out in 1998, to give the final push for people to wear their seat belt.

Biked around without a helmet

Some bike advocates argue that the benefits of biking outweigh the protection of wearing a helmet, and that states requiring them by law reduces the number of people who will ride bikes.


But public health experts insist that wearing a helmet really does reduce injuries and deaths.

A majority of biking deaths involve the head and face. Studies have found that helmets can reduce head injuries by 65%.

But fewer than half of American kids wear bike helmets. If only they were considered cooler.

Tanned without sunscreen


Our grandparents were told to go play outside in the sun as kids.

And while that's still great advice, the problem was that they probably didn't wear sunscreen.

An interesting confluence of factors has contributed to the rise in skin cancer, especially deadly melanoma, over the last several decades.

Sunscreen was invented in the 1940s. The FDA started regulating their effectiveness in the 1970s. The first tanning salons opened in the US in 1979.


Scientists started linking UV exposure to skin cancer in the 1970s, and confirmed the risk in the following decades.

Yet only 14% of men and 30% of women said in 2013 they wear sunscreen when they're outside for more than an hour.

We've figured out that these things are bad for our health, but it's taking a lot longer to actually stop doing them.

Read the original article on Business Insider. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Copyright 2018.


Read next on Business Insider: These are the US states where people live the longest, healthiest lives — and the shortest


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