Supply-Side Obesity

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).

So, if this were the case, what would we expect to see with rising BMI? Lane Kenworthy has two figures from the CDC that are consistent with a food intake problem. First, the spike in obesity:


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).

Kenworthy concludes:

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.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Supply-Side Obesity

  1. Excellent post, though I would suggest that you lengthen the left side of the charts to make it more clear that it’s a new phenomenon.

    While I’m here, I’d also note some of the problem, as Gary Taubes points out in “Good Calories, Bad Calories”, is that because of over-concern about the dangers of fat, we’ve swung away from animal fat toward plant based carbohydrates, and all calories are not equal. Frankly his point is that we have the worst of both worlds – the refined sugars increase insulin output which in turn encourages the body to store fats of any kind.

    Anyway, whether you find his theories/journalism flawed or not, it is a worthy read for thought.

  2. dr2chase says:

    On the exercise compensation, at least for me it is all about increased eating, and not so much about reduced other activity. I accumulate 50 miles per week on a bicycle, and I don’t perceive much in the way of increased sloth on those days that I ride. On the other hand, when the miles go up (summer weeks when it’s NOT RAINING, argh), I get very hungry. That said, the compensation works remarkably well — after starting the 50/week (some years ago) I rapidly lost about 15-20 pounds, and since then not one pound more. If I push the miles up for several consecutive weeks, I lose a little more, but it comes right back when the miles return to their norm.

  3. Vivien says:

    Look, I am constantly astonished by the crap that the people around me eat, and also the fact that most of them seem to think that stuffing a chicken with some herbs and a half an onion and sticking it in the oven is beyond their culinary skill level.

    I’ve been wondering lately (every time I eat at the company cafeteria, as a matter of fact) how people can stand to have everything they eat be sweet, greasy and/or bland. When did this happen? I’m not old enough to know if its a recent thing, or if American cuisine was always like that, or if if happened because of rationing during WWII or what. The endless basket of mini chocolate bars that seems to be a permanent fixture of office life, normally kept filled (in my experience) by a rather large and passive aggressive woman has GOT to be new. Or so I assume.

    Is it just that portions are larger, or is it that we’re just constantly surrounded by easy, fattening food? Trapped in my suburban office park, unable to leave during my half hour lunch, I dream of my days working downtown, and being able to walk over to Chinatown and buy three spring rolls from the Vietnamese sandwich place on the corner, and eat them in the park.

    Strange, how almost no one in that office was overweight…

  4. eNeMeE says:

    Whenever I’m in the States, I usually boggle at the portion sizes in restaurants. They often serve enough food to make me vomit if I tried to eat it all…

  5. Lindsay says:

    Can anyone watch “Weight of the Nation”, or only HBO subscribers?

  6. Misaki says:

    Someone I know (female) lost weight from playing an MMO. Clearly though, since the increase in obesity started in 1979, it is due to the same factors that have lead to higher income inequality and median wages being flat since the same period.

    In The Road to Wiggan Pier it is said that a rich person may eat a carrot and orange juice for breakfast but poor people eat less healthily.

    Of course, it is difficult for most people to avoid being poor if they are not employed. Job creation without higher government spending, inflation, or trade barriers:

Comments are closed.