Instead of the traditional headless obese person, I am showing a picture of a cute baby panda. It is just as informative and as attention-grabbing.
Between HBO’s Weight of the Nation special (which is excellent, and one of the few times internet video is worth the time sink) and New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to ban large cup soda sales, obesity is once again in the news. At it’s most reductionist, obesity is a problem of too many calories in, too little exercise to burn those calories off. This is not to deny that different people’s metabolisms vary (life is unfair in that) or that what is an unhealthy weight (and BMI and body fat count, etc.) for one person isn’t so bad for another. But the last thirty years have seen a massive increase in obesity along with its attendant health problems (again, in the statistical aggregate).
So I was going to write how this is largely a food intake issue: unless you move from ‘couch potato’ to active, on-duty light infantry commando, you’re simply not going to burn off enough calories without serious dietary changes (and most people who have successfully lost weight and kept it off including me anecdotally would support this). Cheap calories are just too easy to come by. Two Oreo cookies are 140 calories. This is called one serving but who ever eats just two cookies? Much of the food that is the worst for you is engineered to be virtually addictive–it’s a business model. Mind you, exercise does help, and it is good for you on its own account for all sorts of reasons, especially as you get older. But your body is really good at figuring out ways of getting you to slack off in other areas (e.g., you bike in the morning, and then are tired at your desk later on, so you don’t get up and walk around).
And the spike in caloric intake (equivalent to about nine Oreos per day):
While U.S.ians have become more sedentary, Kenworty notes that has been a slow and gradual decline in physical activity–there is no sharp decline in the early eighties spike (and there is additional evidence that decreasing exercise has lead to the rapid surge, although the trend could account for the slow increase in BMI between 1880 and 1980).
This doesn’t mean physical activity plays no role in determining which persons become obese. And it doesn’t mean an increase in activity won’t help reduce obesity’s prevalence. But it does suggest that a strategy focused on increasing activity — and The Weight of the Nation leans in this direction — may not get us as far as we’d like. To make serious progress in reducing obesity, we need to significantly reduce the number of calories many of us consume.
We really do need to make it far more difficult to consume so many cheap calories. It’s just too easy. In this light, the concerns that increasing the minimum wage for restaurant workers will force restaurants to raise prices or cut back on food quantity seem overblown, while the subsidies for corn (and corn syrup) are horrible.