People are getting fatter, at least in the industrial world. In fact, it’s become the single largest health problem facing most first world nations. With increased obesity comes more heart disease, diabetes and other health conditions. It’s often been stated that the United States is the fattest nation in the world. That’s not actually true. The US is near the top, but several are in fact, fatter. A number of small nations and the nation of Kuwait have higher rates of obesity and heavier populations than the US. Canada and Mexico are both on par with the US, as is Egypt, while the United Kingdom is rapidly catching up.
In fact, the problem is nearly universal in most first world countries. Across Western Europe, waistlines are growing. Germany, Ireland, Finland, Greece, Spain and others have seen obesity skyrocket in recent years. In both Australia and New Zealand, obesity rates are now described as “epidemic” and continue to rise. The nations with the fastest growing obesity rates, however, are those which are still developing industrially. Although the overall prevalence of obesity in Chile, Brazil and India are low, they are growing at the highest rates. In China, obesity was once extremely rare, but in the past decade has become common. Even Japan and South Korea are seeing rising obesity, despite having had a reputation for generally lean populations.
The common yet false claims:
If you ever happen to watch a youtube video or visit a website claiming dangers associated with food irradiation, genetic modification or the use of vaccines, modern medicine etc etc, you will very often hear claims that it is the reason why the population is obese. Pictures of unhealthy, overweight kids are often shown alongside warnings of the evils of modern agriculture.
Others will say that we need to “detoxify” to become thinner. That seems to be an odd suggestion, since fat is not toxic but the result of your body absorbing and storing nutrients, which is what it’s supposed to do. Others insist that the answer is eating only organically-certified foods.
NOT reasons why people are fat:
- Genetically modified foods
- High fructose corn syrup being used as a sweetener (as opposed to cane or beat sugar)
- Food irradiation
- Bisphenol A
- Insecticide residue
- Fluoridation of water
- A need to “detoxify” the body
Reasons why people are fat:
- Eating large amounts of high calorie food
- Sedentary lifestyles
Of these the first is by far the most important reason. The second does have some impact and may be more true in children, since there has been a very strong shift toward less outdoor play and exertion than in decades past. That said, there have long been large segments of the population who get minimal exercise and it is primarily the change in eating habits that is responsible for more obesity.
People in industrialized countries are eating more processed foods than ever before, more calorie-dense snacks and consuming more soft drinks than ever. When one says “processed foods” it might seem to indicate that the problem is that they are a problem because there is something artificial or unnatural about them. That’s not really the problem so much as it is that these foods tend to be very dense in calories and are easy to consume in bulk. They also, by and large, are easy for the body to extract those calories from. Fast foods and packaged snack foods are widely available and cheap. It is very easy to eat a lot of them without even noticing.
Soft drinks are another big culprit. It’s not uncommon for someone to drink sodas or sweetened juices with every meal of the day. A single can of cola can easily contain 150 calories and it’s quite easy to put away 500+ calories of soda with a meal and hardly even notice it. Sodas and soft drinks are so high in calories because they are loaded with sugar. Often this is in the form of high fructose corn syrup, but that’s not what matters. It could just as easily be cane sugar or beat sugar or any other kind of sugar. It’s not the source of the sugar but the quantity and thus the caloric value.
The problem is not limited to sodas either. Sweetened iced teas, sports drinks and other beverages can contain just as much sugar and calories. Even “unsweetened” fruit juices can be very high in naturally occurring sugars from the fruits they are made from.
It’s become very common for people in industrial societies to drink large quantities of sodas and soft drinks every day. It’s become very common for people in industrial societies to eat large quantities of processed, calorie-dense snack foods like cookies, candy bars and other sweets. More and more people are also eating food from restaurants, fast food or otherwise on a daily basis. These foods too tend to be high in calories, often being fried.
It’s important to remember that none of these foods are “bad” in and of themselves, should they be eaten in relative moderation. Coca-Cola and Pepsi have both been around for more than one hundred years and were popular and ubiquitous around the world throughout the 20th century. If the average person had a Coke or Pepsi every time they went to a ball game or barbecue, then there wouldn’t really be any problem. If donuts were consumed a couple of times a week, they would not be much concern either.
The problem is that these foods have become staples. It’s not uncommon for a person to eat a couple donuts for breakfast, chased with a coffee with lots of sugar then eat a burger and fries, with a large soft drink for lunch, snack on candy bars and soda in the afternoon and then have a large high-calorie dinner.
Why this has happened:
The reason that so many have excessive calorie intake is that they can. It’s not the fault of restaurants or food producers, they are just filling a demand. As a general rule, humans prefer foods that we would generally consider “unhealthy” by modern standards.
For most of human history, food has been scarce, so it was beneficial to eat the foods with the highest calories in high quantities, when they were available. Calories are the most important consideration when it comes to nutrition and having a constant surplus is something that has only happened recently. Foods with a lot of fat and sugar taste good and are satisfying. Other options are there, but given the choice between a salad and a burger, most people will choose the burger. Choosing the salad usually means making a conscious decision to do what is healthy, not what is more enjoyable.
Innovations in agriculture, automation and the general rise of more food services has made it easier and cheaper than ever to get these foods. Soda machines are common and convenience stores and gas stations are stocked with every kind of sweet confection imaginable, primarily because that’s what people want. Fast food restaurants can provide a quick breakfast, lunch or dinner with drive-through convince and do it for only a few dollars. They often do have healthy options on the menu, but that’s not usually what customers buy.
Given the choice, consumers will also tend to prefer larger portions. To some extent it is an issue of more value for one’s money, and simple economics come into play here. The value to a consumer can be increased by either lowering the cost of a product or increasing the quantity. For a restaurant, it’s more attractive to increase the quantity, since they are then taking in more revenue and have fixed preparation costs. Additionally, consumers simply tend to gravitate toward greater portions. French fries and other high calorie sides are cheap, so it makes business sense to pile them on, since consumers prefer to get more anyway.
There are also some cultural reasons for this happening. People are more mobile than ever, and being on the go means more opertunity to grab a quick packaged snack. Eating at home is less common than in decades past, and prepared foods and restaurants are part of the growing service-oriented economy. With more women in the workplace and fewer traditional families, the old norm of having a woman spend her afternoon making a pot roast or meatloaf for the family to eat together at the dinner tables is no longer common.
There are no easy solutions here. Encouraging people to eat more healthy foods and reduce intake can help. Providing more low calorie options can help too. Encouraging more exercise is also helpful.
On an individual basis, we can all decide to eat healthier and do so through willpower, but making the whole population do so is much harder. To some extent, one is up against human nature, which is generally a losing proposition. Making food more expensive or less available is not a good option, because doing so would result in greater burdens on the lower classes and more income going toward food purchases. Trying to place restrictions on foods won’t generally work either. Such restrictions are unlikely to be well received and would need to be draconian to have any chance of working at all.
Even if restrictions put in place, there will always be ways to skirt them. Creating a “black market” for high calorie foods might seem like an absurd idea, but it has actually happened. In Los Angeles, school districts instituted a policies for school lunch programs, replacing most of the high calorie foods with things like salads, whole wheat breads, grilled chicken and other foods generally considered healthy. Unfortunately, a large portion of students don’t like the new menu and prefer sodas, chips and candy enough to create a thriving black market. More and more students now bring their own lunches, and now are selling to their peers. Food trucks and vendors set up shop around schools to fill the demand. Now California is mulling banning such vendors, while some districts consider either inspecting bagged lunches or banning them altogether.
Trying to apply such rules and restrictions to greater segments of society would result in similar backlash, although it would likely be even worse.
 I know already someone is going to point out that I personally could stand to lose a few pounds. I don’t dispute this. That’s not the point. I’ll be the first to admit that the reason I am overweight is that I my eating habits are sub-optimal.
 A lot of the readers of this blog seem to like hypertechicalities, so to clarify the “Not reasons why people are fat” should probably say “Not MAJOR reasons why people are fat.” It is true that there are circumstances where antibiotics can result in some weight gain. It’s also possible that one could make the logical connection between vaccines and more obesity by pointing out that vaccination has economic benefits and that these could, in turn, result in a population that could buy more food.
 Of course the subject is more complicated and there may well be other factors that come into play, but go beyond the scope of this blog post.
 Someone is almost certainly going to bring this up – it’s true that HFCS and sucrose (cane sugar) are not identical and that there’s some difference in the dietary effects. In general, HFCS is lower in calories than sucrose of an equivalent sweetness which would suggest that it’s actually less problematic. Claims have been made that HFCS is more readily converted to fat than glucose, although data to confirm this is, at best weak. Regardless of these possibilities, it does not change the fact that the major problem is quantity, not type of sugar and HFCS does not appear to be significantly more prone to contributing to weight gain than other forms of sugar.
This entry was posted on Sunday, May 20th, 2012 at 10:24 pm and is filed under Agriculture, Bad Science, Culture, Obfuscation, Quackery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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