Archive for July, 2009

Beaten to the (HFCS-sweetened) punch

July 15, 2009

The Brass Tack just went right ahead and blogged New Yorker’s review of recent fat-themed books before I could get to it. I even had the article bookmarked and everything! Anyway, I guess that releases me from having to summarize the review myself:

People have gotten fatter in the past few decades not because the nation’s willpower has suddenly been sapped by pod people, but because calorie-dense food has become much more abundant, and because humans are always easily manipulated psychologically by supersizing and the like.

As Elizabeth Kolbert, the review’s author writes, this is a wee bit problematic:

Type 2 diabetes, coronary disease, hypertension, various kinds of cancers—including colorectal and endometrial—gallstones, and osteoarthritis are just some of the conditions that have been linked to excess weight. (Last month, the Times reported that gout, once considered a disease of royalty, is, as the population gets fatter, making a comeback among the middle class.) It has been estimated that the extra pounds carried by Americans add ninety billion dollars a year to the country’s medical spending. No credible estimates exist for global costs, but, Delpeuch and his co-authors write, “Obesity is inescapably confirming itself as one of the biggest drains” on national health-care budgets.

So far, we’ve heard about a variety of ways in which the obesity epidemic might be mitigated: through the tax code, through education, and even through better urban planning, to name a few. (e.g. discussions here and here.) As Brass Tack points out, these well-known initiatives may or may not be enough for the U.S., but to reduce and prevent obesity worldwide something else is needed. Here is where our takes on the situation diverge.

As the Brass Tack writes, technology is the missing ingredient:

The only real solution would be to make protein and vegetables competitive with grains in terms of price. If we could make in vitro meat cost-effective, one day a skinless chicken breast might be as cheap as an order of fries. (And factory-grown meat doesn’t torture animals.) We’d also need to really et aquaculture off the ground. And we’d need a new green revolution for non-starchy vegetables so they could be harvested more cheaply and watered with less. It’s going to take a whole lot more than a rooftop garden to do this.

Now, her piece is titled “Obesity and economics,” and so my dissent may as well be titled “Obesity and sociology.” Because, for all the economic and technological factors that have gone into fueling the obesity epidemic, these factors have only been the “how.” The “why” of obesity stems from culture, and specifically the culture of food: what is food, when and how and with whom it should be eaten, and so forth. Basically, if people didn’t recognize fast-food french fries as food, it wouldn’t matter how cheap McDonald’s could sell french fries for, because the demand would just not be there. On a broader scale, people eat as they do because of a mix of old customs, new marketing, and timeless peer pressure – and, yes, because technological and economic developments have enabled them to eat so.

So what’s the point of this – if you will – sociological take on obesity? Even if we remove the enabling factors – cheap corn, “supersize” portions, urban “food deserts”, total ignorance of nutrition – we will still be left with the root cause of obesity: the desire for a certain (and incidentally unhealthy) diet. And that means, so long as a caloric surplus is available, people will continue to get fat(ter). And that’s the good news; the bad news is that “food culture” is much more difficult to manipulate on a national scale than tax rates or commodity costs.

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