Magical explanations of the rise in obesity?

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The obesity epidemic is not just one of the greatest (mental) health problems of our time, set to become a more prevalent problem than hunger and more expensive to health systems than smoking, but it is also spawning new magical beliefs. Given that nearly a third of the elderly population of Anglo-Saxon is obese, or close to it, there is a large constituency of voters and pundits out there who want to believe their obesity is not of their own choosing. Let us look at the modern forms of magical stories that cater for this wish, just as in an earlier age people believed in ancestor spirits and witchcraft which also explained bad things in their lives as due to something unrelated to their own behaviour.

The most prevalent ‘magic’ story surrounding obesity is that it is not the result of eating too much and exercising too little, but rather a result of ‘improved metabolism’ whereby people get more out of the food they consume and thus get fat more quickly.

There are many variants of the metabolism story, and, like ancient stories of magic before them, use the labels their audience expect and respect, which in modern times means the labels of modern science.

One goes by the name of ‘insulin signalling’ and notes that the form of calories that we ingest has other effects than merely getting food into our bodies. It is noted that alcohol, trans-fats and sugars don’t quite have the same effects on how quickly we feel full as other forms of calories, like protein. In the same vein, the ‘processed food’ story holds that food that is more processed, ie chopped into smaller bits and cooked so that its content is more easily absorbed by the stomach, similarly leads us to more quickly be ready to eat more and also means that we use less calories to digest our food. Both hence are stories that boil down to saying that the type of food we eat makes us feel full less quickly and make us work less hard ‘internally’ than alternative foods also available. Stories in this vein often include techy-sounding phrases like ‘leptin receptor pathways’ and ‘stomach enzymes’.

What is wrong with these stories, you may ask? Won’t there truly be insulin-related effects of food and isn’t there bound to be a difference in what kind of food makes us feel full?

The issue is not the biological mechanisms themselves, but rather the idea that they ‘explain’ the obesity increase as an outcome of something no longer involving personal choices. It is the sleight of hand that quite plausible micro-mechanisms give an ‘alternative’ theory of obesity increases that involves an implicit use of magic. It requires the audience to look away at the crucial moment.

Take the idea that sugars and trans-fats make us feel less full than proteins and thus lead us to stop eating only after ingesting more net calories than we would get if we ate more meat. This in no way explains why people choose to eat more sugary foods and transfats rather than more proteins. Indeed, the ‘scientific discovery’ of the mechanisms via which people feel full has not made the slightest dent in the steady increase in obesity! Hence individuals with full knowledge of how they could make themselves feel full without eating as many calories nevertheless ignore this knowledge and instead eat more cakes, hamburgers, chips, tacos, cheese, chocolate, etc.

Do you thus see the sleight of hand perpetrated by the ‘insulin signal’ pushers? And I am here not talking about the individual lab-scientist who is working through a particular mechanism, but rather the ‘popular scientists’ who point to such studies and perform the sleight of hand with it, like David Berreby here, pushing the quote by Atkinson that ‘The previous belief of many lay people and health professionals that obesity is simply the result of a lack of willpower and an inability to discipline eating habits is no longer defensible’.

The sleight of hand is to go from ‘some foods make you feel less full’ to ‘obesity is not a choice’. Whilst the first half of the statement is true, the second part in no way follows at all.

Just ask yourself: have our ancestors not lived under different food circumstances in different centuries, some with diets rich in protein, others rich in trans-fats, others rich in sugars, nevertheless all with much lower obesity rates than today? Of course they have. The Northern Europeans, using their genetic advantage of lactose-tolerance, for centuries had diets with lots of milk-fats and milk-proteins (butter and cheese). The staple diets of Latin America on the other hand were notoriously protein-poor, and the main sources of concentrated sugar (honey, sugar cane, and sugar beet) were not available to whole populations (like the Innuits whose diet is notoriously heavily meat-based). Yet in all these populations, obesity is believed to have been a fringe-problem compared to now.

Think a level deeper: did rich 1950s Americans and Europeans not already have access to as much processed trans-fats and sugars as they needed to become obese? Of course they had. But they chose not to eat them in the same quantities. And was 19th century Victorian England not already awash with recipes for very fatty pies, sugary tarts, and protein-rich roasts? Of course it was. Again, the sub-populations who could afford to eat as much as they wanted (the rich) chose not to.

So think again about that sleight of hand: by concentrating on a seemingly interesting tit-bit of biological information, such as a feedback mechanisms between the feeling of hunger and the composition of food, you are subtly seduced into no longer critically asking yourself whether it really ‘explains’ obesity increases. You are invited to go along with the implicit thought bubble that obesity is not really a result of somewhat knowledgeably stuffing yourself more than you know is good for you, but rather being the unwitting victim of the magical accident of what happens to be put in your food. Those poor victims of food processing! How easy it is to forget that people choose to leave the salad on their plate (which would make them feel full and that would cost them more calories to process than it would give them) and instead choose another processed cake and some creamy pasta!

Once you realise that human food history is of course awash with different diets and that no magical diet on offer in the self-help shops has yet managed to turn the obesity tide and hence that you really can’t pretend that obesity is due to foods being available now which were unavailable in earlier times, you should easily be able to spot the logical fallacies in the many other magical explanations on offer. And there are many of those.

Take this beauty: it turns out that obese people have more plastic-related substances in their pee than others. One such substance is called ‘bisphenol-A’. It is in many foods and other things we get into contact with (like the cans we store some drinks in). It too might have some effect on our ‘metabolism’, effectively lowering it down a little, thereby becoming an ‘obesogen’. Maybe the obesity increase is just the result of more plastic in the food-chain? Sounds plausible, no? Indeed, you have to give credit to the inventiveness of the explanation.

Where is the sleight of hand? Again, ask yourself why obese people, once they ‘discover’ this potential avenue via which they have been ‘fooled’ into having a lower metabolism and thus getting fat more easily, do not en masse change their diet? Why dont you see other substances used to line the cans in our diets if the effect truly was substantial? Ask yourself whether bisphenol-A type substances would not occur naturally and have been part of the food chain for hundreds of years without ‘causing’ obesity before? Ask yourself whether there wouldn’t be obvious ways to increase metabolism via other foods and activities that would completely trump the fairly weak effects of ‘bisphenol-A’? Ask yourself if the official Food authorities would be unaware of the effects of such substances and would allow anything but miniscule and ineffective trace amounts of ‘bisphenol-A’ in the human food-chain?

I am not even going to give you the answers to these questions for by now you should realise that if the ‘obesogen’ explanation sounded plausible to you, then you were again seduced by the lure of magic: of course ‘bisphenol-A’ is just another red herring. You indeed were once again invited to stare blindly at the words ‘metabolism’ and ‘obesogens’, conveniently forgetting the role of choice and history in terms of whether or not you have truly been an unwitting recent victim of those evil ‘obesogens’.

Take another beauty, by Professor Jonathan Wells, who spins a tale of truly breath-taking magical proportions. His essential contention is that obesity is the result of a capitalist conspiracy. The conspiracy first created hunger about a century ago, by having nasty capitalists rob poor ignorant (and previously not-starving) peasants of their own food sources. We, the descendants of that wave of hungry peasants now find ourselves in a world of plenty where the capitalists offer all that tempting food to us. Having deep memories of our hunger, passed on in uteris (in the womb) for generations via all sorts of ‘gene receptor’ mechanisms and ‘epi-genetic’ mechanisms, we react as if we are still hungry and binge-up.

The story is as ridiculous as it is beautiful. The sleights of hand are so many that one could write a book on a debunking of it. Where to start? Shall we start with the myth that the pre-capitalist world was a food-abundant place wherein farmers were not on the brink of starvation, suppressed by the land-owning nobility? Or the counter-observation to the causal mechanisms, in that income-mobility is such that those are who rich now are also the descendants of these poor hungry farmers, but yet, despite being able to more easily afford to be fat, choose not to be? The bold contentions of this guy (a professor at UCL no less) are really breathtaking. This particular claim could have come straight out of the old USSR: “capitalism contributed to the under-nutrition of many populations through demand for cheap labor”. Wow. Lenin, eat your heart out!

The list of ‘magical explanations’ that along the way cater for whatever other chip on your shoulder you may have (anti-capitalism or anti-modernism, or whatever ‘ism’ you wish to subscribe to) that explains obesity goes on and on, each more fantastical than the others. Obesity has thus been blamed on too much artificial light, particular viruses, air conditioning, and genetic factors. The scientific-sounding labels include such exotic specimen as ‘organotonics’. Personally, I find myself laughing out loud when working through the supposed causal mechanisms of how these ‘external biological’ factors are supposed to explain the recent increases in obesity and abscond us from considering the role of our individual choices, but there seems to be an eager audience out there ready to believe the next feel-good story along these lines.

All this is not to say that the causes of obesity are easily understood or that an understanding of biological mechanisms might not help us find that elusive diet pill, but center stage in an understanding of the problem must be our own choices: despite all our current knowledge of what makes us fat we keep choosing to eat more than we should and to exercise less than we should. We fail to adjust our habits, to avoid temptations and to surround ourselves with cues that would help us exercise more and eat less. We in full knowledge of what we could be doing, choose not to. Understanding why large groups in our populations ignore decades of dietary advice and choose to have clogged arteries, lower libidos, increased risks of diabetes, reduced mobility, lowered social status, and a generally lower quality of life in return for the instant gratification of that next juicy bite is surely a more promising avenue for understanding the causes of obesity than indulging in the next ‘its all magic’ story.

36 Responses to "Magical explanations of the rise in obesity?"
  1. I am saving Richard mckenzie’s book ‘Heavy; The Surprising Reasons America Is the Home of the Free – And Land of the Fat? ‘ until the holiday break.

  2. Paul, modern rates of sugar consumption – especially via sugary drinks – are a key driver of global obesity and diabetes, together the greatest public-health challenge of our times: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20693348

    In an effort to counter these disturbing trends – especially amongst young people and Indigenous peoples – I am calling for a ban on all sugary drinks in all schools in all nations: http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/Sugary-Drinks-Ban.pdf

    Readers, if after assessing the facts you think this proposal has merit, please forward my piece in the link above to parents, students, teachers, principals and heads of schools, nurses, doctors, dentists and others involved in public health and education.

  3. Paul, it sounds like you are applying something like the efficient market hypothesis to food consumption – people with all of today’s modern knowledge wouldn’t eat the way they do unless they wanted to get fat, so therefore people must be knowingly choosing to get fat.

    Just because there is a scientific journal article on some property of food, it doesn’t mean that 100% of the population fully understands it. So it isn’t surprising to see a portion of the population get fat despite the discovery of some fat enhancing property of particular foods. And people getting fat doesn’t mean that the discovery is wrong, or is just a side issue and not something key to the problem. A proportion of people simply don’t understand, and companies make money from providing a diet that makes people eat a lot. You’d expect companies to be better able to take advantage of discoveries related to fattening food, or consumption of food, than many consumers. How come you don’t apply your efficient market ideas to companies selling food? Surely with all of today’s knowledge, rational profit driven companies should be exploiting unknowledgeable people, and even if they don’t conciously do it, the “invisible hand” will ensure that those that happen to will survive and prosper. What’s magic about that? It’s just standard economics isn’t it? No conspiracy needed, or perhaps market forces are a magic conspiracy theory.

    Despite this, I don’t think that people not knowing the details really exhonorates them. As you say, people have been able to eat reasonably under a variety of environments throughout history, and even today a large proportion of the population isn’t fat. It isn’t that complicated to not get fat. Something as simple as just eating enough fruit and veggies every day can pretty much solve it.

  4. The argument that Paul is making also pre-supposes that suddenly, the general population has become a bunch of morally deficient gluttonous sloths. Whilst this might be a personally satisfying belief, there’s not any compelling evidence to support it.

    It might be a fruitful endeavour to see how various food types are priced and where they are available. You may find that the bad food is often the cheapest, and quite often the only food available to people of limited means.

    Research also suggests that the internal flora of our guts has a lot to do with obesity – see

    http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2013/04/gut-microbiome-bacteria-weight-loss?page=1

    • I am not all that interested in being moralistic about obesity, and hence dont agree with the label ‘a bunch of morally deficient gluttonous sloths’. As personal choices go, its one that has limited effects on others, primarily via public health expenditures that disproportionately go to high BMI, thus entailing a subsidy from the rest. I already in 2006 said it would be good if health premiums took account of BMI so as to stop the cross-subsidy, but ultimately it is a societal choice whether or not to subsidise it. Apart from that public money angle I don’t see why one should be moralistic about it.

      I am interested though in understanding what is going on (see my previous posts on the subject: clubtroppo.com.au/2013/06/11/the-mental-health-puzzle-part-iv-the-economic-hypothesis/), finding it now and then humorous, now and then a nuisance to have to wade through all the self-serving magic stories.

      I find the issue of self-restraint an interesting avenue and one that clearly is not constant throughout time or cultures at all. Self-restraint is something taught. It is indeed an interesting question why that would have changed in recent times and places and not other times or places. Anglo-Saxon societies now probably see more self-restraint on sexual and criminal matters than at almost any other point in time, but clearly the same is not true for the temptations of food. And its not just Anglo-Saxon countries. A decidedly non-Anglo Saxon country like Mexico has the same obesity issue. Its a genuine puzzle.

      • I am not sure about the self-restraint issue.

        This is a medieval list of the ways to commit gluttony:

        Praepropere – eating too soon
        Laute – eating too expensively
        Nimis – eating too much
        Ardenter – eating too eagerly
        Studiose – eating too daintily
        Forente – eating wildly

        I lot of the concern there is with waste (Studiose , Laute ) or other unfairness with respect to fixed food resources (Praepropere , Ardenter and maybe even Nimis).

    • I agree. Genetically people are pretty much the same now as they were before. Any explanation that deals with decreased will power is probably bullshit. Why would people suddenly have less willpower? If you are hungry your body wants you to eat.

      The intestinal flora explanation is interesting to me because it suggests that antibiotics is the cause of the obesity epidemic (as well as saving countless lives).

  5. Again, the sub-populations who could afford to eat as much as they wanted (the rich) chose not to.

    I don’t believe that that’s true – the rich were commonly lampooned as portly in Victorian times.

  6. Hi team,

    The move to a global food supply full of processed foods and sugary drinks is likely to be a bigger part of the explanation of global obesity and diabetes. Have a read of “Salt Sugar Fat” by Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Moss (available now in Australia in paperback); he fleshes out the important point that the food industry is adding sugar, salt and fat – with scary calculated precision – to promote overconsumption.

    Emma Alberici had MM on the ABC’s Lateline a while back: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2013/s3747871.htm

    I can’t prove it of course but it seems clear to me that added sugar/HFCS is the single-biggest driver of global obesity and diabetes. There’s certainly plenty of evidence in that direction, in my opinion. For example, Gary Taubes’s five-year survey of over 100 years’ worth of scientific evidence concluded:

    1. Dietary fat “is not a cause” of obesity, heart disease, T2 diabetes, etc;

    2. The problem is excessive carbs, via “their effect on insulin secretion”;

    3. Sugar and HFCS are the most damaging carbs; and

    4., etc: http://www.australianparadox.com/part-2

    One obvious problem is that added sugar for many has addictive properties. It does something very bad to appetite control. It does plenty of other bad things as well: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17Sugar-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Given that backdrop, in an effort to start to counter the disturbing Australian and global trends to obesity and type 2 diabetes – together the greatest public-health challenge of our times – I am calling for a ban on all sugary drinks in all schools in all nations: http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/Sugary-Drinks-Ban.pdf

    • This is the ‘it’s all a conspiracy’ theory wherein individuals are the unwitting victims of what is in the food they buy. Magic again! Some choose not to drink sugary stuff, others do. Whole countries that are rich nevertheless have far lower rates of sugary drink consumption. You are implicitly treating the obese as imbeciles here, mere victims. It’s a soothing lullaby.
      Having said that, I am not against a ban on sugary drinks in schools, mainly as an attempt to form early life habits by means of social signalling of what is deemed desirable. I fear it won’t have much effect though. Habits are hard to change with a mere ban on something. I would expect more from letting health insurance costs be dependent on BMI. The effects of strong economic incentives on habits can be amazing.

      • If you are hungry, your body wants you to eat. This worked just fine for millions of years until 30 years ago. What happened? Do people just like being fat now?

        The “magic” explanations have the advantage of explaining why things went so crazy so fast. My bet is that one of them is true.

        The ability of smart people with good impulse control to stay/get thin don’t explain why for the last 30 you needed to have good impulse control to stay thin, when that was not true for all of human history up to about 30 years ago.

      • Paul, you are not going to get very far explaining any social phenomena without letting go of the idea of an informed individual optimising their decisions in order to satisfy some know utility function.

        Surely we are mere products of our environment. Our utility functions don’t drop from the sky – they are generated by interactions with our environment.

        Hence, by manipulating the environment you can get behavioural responses in your favour.

        By not letting go of this mentality that every decision by every human is some rationally informed choice you are inherently saying that marketing is useless, people optimally choose to have ‘mental diseases’, people optimally choose to be religious or not, etc.

        If this really is an useful approach, why do ecologist and biologist construct utility functions for ant, baboons, or any other creature to determine the ‘fundamental’ cause of their behaviour? Surely if humans are optimising agents, so are all animals?

        I know you love your economics and your utility functions, but really, they don’t aggregate well and can essentially be dropped once you let go of the representative agent-type approach to macro-level phenomena – meaning that if we have a utility function that incorporates some relative measure to other people, once the others in that environment interact, their relative measures change, leading to changes in the original decisions. It is the ongoing interaction between agents that leads to culture, fas, fashions, religion etc.

        Is it foolish to adopt behaviours like those around you? Or is it the type of innate behaviour most animals posses?

        Finally, I’d be really careful not to get fat in the future if I was you, else you will have a crowd of people ready to call you an imbecile! 🙂

      • Paul insists “This is the ‘it’s all a conspiracy’ theory wherein individuals are the unwitting victims of what is in the food they buy. Magic again! ”

        No, it’s not a conspiracy. It’s just a realistic description of what is going on. Sugar is addictive for many – starting as children – because it it really yummy. That’s why food companies – naturally seeking to maximise sales – have added it to many/most of the processed foods in the world.

        Readers, let me give you a recent example. New “healthier” Multi-grain Weetbix is 9.9% sugar, three times the just 3.3% in the original (a popular breakfast cereal for decades). Run a “taste test” with your kids or those of someone else, and watch the new, healthier version get hoovered. But how many people will be aware that the new version is a health hazard?

        Paul, you massively over-rate the extent of knowledge on what makes us fat and sick, both in the general population and amongst professionals in the public-health space. Most people in the world couldn’t tell you what type 2 diabetes is, let alone know that it is processed foods and sugary drinks that already have them on the slow-track to that personal disaster.

        Even today, at the University of Sydney, famous nutritionists apparently are unaware of the role of added sugar as a key driver of obesity and diabetes – http://www.australianparadox.com/ – so why would you expect the general population to be well informed?

        Speaking of the stock of knowledge being smaller than you realise, Paul, when was the last time you read that giant-sized serves of sugar – alongside alcohol and tobacco – are a major driver of the unacceptable “gap” in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians? That is a fact, but it is a fact that is not widely known.

        Readers, check out the bottom row of Box 2/Table 2 and “Comments” at https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2013/198/7/characteristicscommunity-level-diet-aboriginal-people-remote-northern-australia ; alongside
        http://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/subscriber.nsf/0/A46F7399BED6C9DFCA25759200166452/$File/4724055001_2004-05.pdf

        Accordingly, the proposed ban on all sugary drinks in all schools everywhere – http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/Sugary-Drinks-Ban.pdf – has the potential to provide – in part via an educational role – a major fillip to Indigenous health in Australia and elsewhere.

        Paul, you wrote “Whole countries that are rich nevertheless have far lower rates of sugary drink consumption.” And then you stopped. What are you talking about? My guess is that, in fact, most countries across the world are drinking in per-capita terms multiples more sugary drinks today than 50 years ago. And are fatter and sicker as a result: http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/33/11/2477.full.pdf

        The history of the modern world, Paul, is that as peoples have moved from being poor to being rich – as they have moved from subsistence economies to developing economies to developed economies – they have eaten multiples more sugar and have got fatter and sicker. Check out this chart from the RBA: http://www.australianparadox.com/part-2

        Yes, a big hello to today’s India and China and Africa. A massive public-health disaster is unfolding as we speak! http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-07-23/obesity-produces-diabetes-epidemic-in-india/4148616

        Readers, the average human has no idea that most of the things found in front of our faces – most of the yummy things in the modern food supply – are quite unhealthy. The default is that we eat and drink them, day after day, decade after decade. And we get fat and sit.

        Part of the problem is the ongoing incompetence in modern nutrition science and the resulting official dietary advice that has been provided to us plebs. Here are two discussions on that matter: http://www.australianparadox.com and http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/07/magazine/what-if-it-s-all-been-a-big-fat-lie.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

  7. Paul,

    It’s not a conspiracy. It’s just a realistic description of what is going on. Sugar is addictive for many – especially children – because it is really yummy. That’s why food companies – naturally seeking to maximise sales – have added sugar to many/most of the processed foods in the world. To give you a recent example, new Multi-grain Weetbix for kids has 9.9% sugar versus 3.3% still in the original. Readers, do a “taste test” with your kids or those of someone else – old verses new – and watch the new, “healthier” Multi-grain Weetbix get hoovered!

    Paul, famous Australian nutritionists are clueless on the role of added sugar as a key driver of obesity and type 2 diabetes – http://www.australianparadox.com/ – so why would you expect the general population to be well informed? Most people in the world couldn’t tell you what type 2 diabetes is, let alone know that it is processed foods and sugary drinks that have them on the slow-track to personal disaster.

    The truth is that most people have little idea on the links between the yummy things we find in front of us each day – and so put in our mouths – and chronic diseases. Importantly, the proposed ban on all sugary drinks in all schools has the potential – in part via the education involved – to provide a major fillip to Indigenous health in Australia and elsewhere, given that giant-sized serves of sugar – alongside alcohol and tobacco – are a major driver of the unacceptable “gap” in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians: http://www.australianparadox.com/pdf/Sugary-Drinks-Ban.pdf

    Paul, check out the bottom row of Box 2/Table 2 and “Comments” at https://www.mja.com.au/journal/2013/198/7/characteristicscommunity-level-diet-aboriginal-people-remote-northern-australia ; and
    http://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/subscriber.nsf/0/A46F7399BED6C9DFCA25759200166452/$File/4724055001_2004-05.pdf

    I don’t know about you, readers, but I find those facts rather compelling.

    Finally, Paul, you wrote, “Whole countries that are rich nevertheless have far lower rates of sugary drink consumption [ huh?]”. Was there more to come after that sentence? If not, what are you talking about? My guess is that pretty well every nation in the world is drinking multiples more sugary drinks than they were 50 years ago. Disturbingly, as countries moved from poor to rich – from subsistence to developing to developed economies – they have consumed more and more sugar, and got fatter and sicker. It wasn’t a conspiracy, Paul. It’s just what happened.

    Check out the RBA’s chart at http://www.australianparadox.com/part-2

    Hello China and India and Arfica. What a disaster!

  8. Cameron, Rory,

    We differ on two issues: rationality and ‘real choice’. If I look at other countries who are just as rich as ours but have far lower rates of obesity (Japan/Korea/Scandinavia) I cannot but conclude that people do have a choice and are not ‘destined’ to be fat as soon as they can afford to be so. The destined-to-be-fat story is just intellectually lazy, ignorant of cross-country data and the pervasive finding that the rich are thinner than the poor even though it is always cheaper to eat less (whatever your diet), something that should be more important for the poor than the rich.

    Then rationality. You know perfectly well Cameron that I am not an adherent of the full rationality model of human behaviour. But there are limits to how dumb you think people can be, particularly in repeated situations.

    Think about the choice to be obese: it is not a one-off choice but rather a whole collection of choices, sustained over decades. Thousands of choices, day after day. Not just will the individual get lots of information directly from every health magazine at his dentist, health adds by the government, his teacher at school who tells him about nutrition, and an endless supply of movies in which it is made quite clear why some people are fat and others not. No, when it comes to such important things affecting ones health to that degree, one gets the involvement of family, friends, and doctors, who by and large will all say the same thing: eat less sugar, get a more active life-style, etc. Some listen, others do not. But the idea that after 30 years of continuous messages one ‘just doesnt know’ is idiotic. That people dont want to know and rather consume a fantasy in which they are the victims than the reality of their own choice, will be quite common, but that is another matter.

    Does this mean I think people when young would rationally sign up to the package that comes with obesity? No, but their choices on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis are informed. It seems that the ability of individuals, particularly poor people in Anglo-Saxon countries, to ‘stick’ to good intentions when it comes to food is low at the moment. Maybe they have more temptations than people in other countries, maybe they are low on self-esteem for some reason, maybe they are more myopic than people in other countries, maybe maybe. But the idea that they are uninformed victims is magical wishful-thinking.

  9. “…there are limits to how dumb you think people can be, particularly in repeated situations.”

    Umm, really. That’s your observation of the average Joe on the street?

    Ok, say it really is as you say – some kind of summation of rational choices. How do we account for the rapid adoption of “obesogenic behaviors” in migrants?

    http://dro.deakin.edu.au/view/DU:30052526

    Oh, they just decide to get fat?

    I have bunch of anecdotal evidence that friend who move to Japan lose weight almost immediately, while a good Japanese friend gains weight when they come to Australia and lose it when they go back to Japan.

    You can’t underestimate the power of conformity to social and cultural norms. I mean you have done experiments showing how dumb people really are (theoi).

    You can ask the same questions about binge drinking – why do some countries do it and not others? Or alternatively, why do Aussies who really believe cycle helmets are useful move to any other country and give them up despite their ‘rational’ self believing they are worthwhile when at home?

    I feel like you’ve painted yourself into a corner on explaining cultural phenomena unless you allow people to be far less rational. Indeed, allow them to be copying machines that respond to their environment in predictable ways and you will get plenty of results.

    Again, my point is you wouldn’t model the behaviour of any other animal by resorting to rationality (despite animals obviously being able to learn through experience the consequences of their decisions). So exactly when did humans evolve to not be an animal anymore and inherit instinctive behaviours?

    • We expect Joe on the street to be responsible and accountable when it comes to crime, his own education, his marriage, his job, etc. What a convenient ‘exception’ to suddenly treat him as a blathering ignorant fool when it comes to the effects of what he chooses to eat and how much he chooses to exercise on a daily basis! Such a pick-and-mix attitude to explain human behaviour is indeed not economics which at least aims to have a consistent story for many phenomena at the same time. Ad-hoc pick-and-mix belongs to an unemployed armchair psychologist.

      Social norms are clearly in the mix, agreed, but they too don’t come falling out of the sky. The social norms have thus changed a lot, including the social norm as to whether or not to expect knowledge and own responsibility when it comes to food! Indeed, you are displaying a changed social norm right now compared to the culture of your ancestors. Without a predictive story for why the social norms have changed in particular countries, it’s not a very useful explanation.

      • Paul, in summary I reckon the main problem is that the average human has little idea about the extent to which most of the things found in front of our faces – most of the yummy processed/manufactured things in today’s modern food supply – are quite unhealthy in usual modern doses. The default is that we eat and drink them, day after day, decade after decade, and are left never quite full and sated. And over time we as a group get fat and sick.

        Part of the problem is ongoing incompetence in modern nutrition science, and the longstanding worse-than-useless (official) low-fat, pro-carb dietary advice. Here are several discussions on those issues:

        x http://www.australianparadox.com ;

        x http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/07/magazine/what-if-it-s-all-been-a-big-fat-lie.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

        x http://bert-hubert.blogspot.nl/2013/07/the-biggest-bet-of-your-life.html

      • “We expect Joe on the street to be responsible and accountable when it comes to crime, his own education, his marriage, his job, etc. ”

        Yes we do. But we also know that environmental factors will greatly impact these choices. So we as a society make efforts to change the environmental conditions to reduce crime, improve educational access, foster a culture of working rather than shirking etc.

        Take just one legal example. The notion of entrapment in criminal law exists because we know people respond to their environment.

        There is no convenient exception. Responsible and accountable are not synonyms of causal.

        You seem to want to think that the proximate cause (he ate too much) and deeper causes (what circumstances, had they been different, would have let to him eating less) are one and the same. Focussing on proximate causes won’t help you change social outcomes, but policy can greatly change deeper environmental causes.

        “Without a predictive story for why the social norms have changed in particular countries, it’s not a very useful explanation.”

        We can certainly identify mechanisms for cultural propagation, but since culture already exists, the starting point, like any systems model, is rather important. Hence, unless we know a hell of a lot about unwritten rules of interaction in every culture, we will have a hard time making decent predictions. A bit like predicting the weather.

        Also, lets think about how we would approach other social issues with your view that “center stage in an understanding of the problem must be our own choices”.

        Just rewrite your conclusion for another social ill.

        Understanding why large groups in our populations ignore decades of legal advice and choose to commit crimes, waste away in prison, and have a generally lower quality of life in return for the instant gratification of stealing a few bucks is surely a more promising avenue for understanding the causes of crime than indulging in the next ‘its all magic’ story.

        Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it.

  10. Paul, your contention that “it’s always cheaper to eat less” ignores the fact that it is more expensive, both in terms of money and time, to eat healthily. A lot of people don’t have the time to cook & prepare their own food, and in many cases (try googling the term “food deserts”) don’t have access to the raw materials & equipment to do so. So they eat the cheap stuff that is available.

    Now if people were choosing to make bad choices in matters of food consumption, you’d expect to see them making similar bad choices in other areas of life, such as drug use, teenage pregnancies, petty crime & violence. The long term trends for these are heading down. We are significantly less violent than when we were all thin!

    As an aside, the “rational, well-informed consumer” is to economics what the “perfectly spherical, frictionless cow” is to physics. A useful abstraction for 1st year classes, but not terribly useful after that.

  11. Where do “personal choices” come from?

    See:

    Fun Facts About Obesity | JayMan’s Blog

    All Human Behavioral Traits are Heritable | JayMan’s Blog

    Obesity and IQ | JayMan’s Blog

    A Fat World – With a Fat Secret? | JayMan’s Blog

    The causes of obesity remain unknown. At least some people do have metabolic issues that leads to fatness. Even the popular carbohydrate hypothesis doesn’t necessarily hold water. See Stephan Guyenet:

    Whole Health Source: The Carbohydrate Hypothesis of Obesity: a Critical Examination

    I’m all for looking at a topic critically, and debunking obviously ridiculous claims, but let’s not let that slip into judgmentalism.

  12. I agree with Cameron and rory.

    One thing that has been missing from the discussion however, is a statement about what is missing in many foods. Fat people are often under-nourished in many ways. This may seem strange, but the body needs a wide range of chemicals to maintain itself, and many of these are missing from processed foods. Companies use flavourings to make foods taste like they have things in them that they don’t. They mostly do this in an effort to make the foods taste better, not in an effort to purposely disguise their food, or because they are part of an evil conspiracy. People then constantly feel like eating a lot of those foods to get what their body needs, but they never get it.

    There are all sorts of motivations and social effects related to food, including habits, corporate profit motives, marketing, status, group identify, etc. The social effects are just as important as the properties of the food, but they aren’t understood as well.

    Saying something is “magic” is another way of saying “I don’t understand”, so Paul in that sense I agree with you also. We don’t understand very well. But like magic there are real things going on that aren’t clear. We need to understand them, not dismiss them.

      • Yep – I’ve seen it. So has everyone. Amazing things happen and you can’t tell how, unless you know how.

        • The biochemistry is leading the behaviour.
          The inability of those without adequate familiarity with this subject will no doubt lead them to dismiss this expalnation but they are only revealing their ignorance.
          Magical thinking ….. nonsense. Inability to comprehend more likely.
          It will take a long time for public education to raise awareness of the dietary imbalances posing as healthy eating and once the food/industrial complex gets on board , well we may as well wait for the population to take global warming seriously.

  13. I could have swore I left a response to this. In case I did not, here it is again:

    Where do “personal choices” come from?

    See:

    Fun Facts About Obesity | JayMan’s Blog

    All Human Behavioral Traits are Heritable | JayMan’s Blog

    Obesity and IQ | JayMan’s Blog

    A Fat World – With a Fat Secret? | JayMan’s Blog

    The causes of obesity remain unknown. At least some people do have metabolic issues that leads to fatness. Even the popular carbohydrate hypothesis doesn’t necessarily hold water. See Stephan Guyenet:

    Whole Health Source: The Carbohydrate Hypothesis of Obesity: a Critical Examination

    I’m all for looking at a topic critically, and debunking obviously ridiculous claims, but let’s not let that slip into judgmentalism.

  14. Wealthy and educated people in English-speaking countries at least tend to be lower in weight, especially women (as I remember from an article in JEP on obesity). So being educated about healthy food in a world awash with all kinds of too much unhealthy food seems to be important. Lower income men also weren’t so obese, presumably because they are doing more physical labor. Doesn’t it make sense that poor people in developed countries can afford to eat much more unhealthy food than they could in past generations and they’re doing less physical work. More educated and wealthy people are more informed, have better access to good food, and are more disciplined at attaining goals. I don’t think it has to be very mysterious.

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