Monday, January 13, 2014

What Is Causing the Growing Problem of Obesity?

Obesity is a massive problem. On a worldwide level, it is estimated that about one in three people are obese. Nearly seven in ten people in America are overweight. Being overweight adds additional economic burdens, as I pointed out a few years back. Before creating solutions to the problem, you need to know what the root causes of the problem are. That might be a self-evident assertion, but that point can be easily forgotten when good politics get in the way of good policy. My friend made me aware of an article from the think-tank Rand Corporation entitled Five Myths About Obesity. Diane Cohen, who authored the piece, concluded that "what is really needed is regulation, for example, limits on marketing that caters to our addiction to sugar and fat," which is what particularly piqued my interest. Is obesity really a disease, and we thus lack the self-control to make our own decisions regarding our health? Does the government need to step in and decide what forms of food are acceptable so we can win the War on Obesity? To figure out how to deal with obesity, let's go through the list of some of the possible causes of obesity.
  1. Genetics. Genetics play some role in obesity, but people are too quick to blame everything on genes these days. Between 1980 and 2000, obesity rates doubled. If genetics were the primary or sole cause of this increase, it would have taken longer for obesity rates to have doubled. This increase took place too quickly for genetic factors to be responsible, which is to say that the role that genetics plays in obesity is small. 
  2. Sedentary lifestyle. Americans live a less physically demanding life. Physical inactivity is at a point that it is the fourth leading cause of death (World Health Organization).  Many Americans are not getting the exercise they need (CDC, 2012, Table 67). Technological development has allowed for less physically demanding activities, both at work and at home. We also watch more television, which is another sedentary activity that increases probability of obesity (Harvard School of Public Health).
  3. Advertising, lack of healthy food, and a"toxic food environment." The idea here is that one's environment corrodes one's ability to make food choices, whether it's at work, home, or at school. Food marketing is blamed for obesity, but there is no discernible link between advertising exposure and body weight (Andreyeva et al, 2011). Additionally, some claim that obesity is an issue because there is a lack of access to healthy food, or what some would call a "food desert." According to the USDA (2012, p. 1), approximately 3.6% of Americans deal with both food deserts and income issues. If there is anything problematic with the "toxic food environment," it's an issue of convenience, not access.  
  4. Smoking. When people quit smoking, food tastes and smells better, which makes it all the more tempting to eat. Also, nicotine allows for a slightly greater metabolism. Although there is some weight gain while quitting smoking, it cannot be considered a major contributor to obesity (Chiolero et al, 2008).
  5. Sleep deprivation. There is an increasing amount of research showing a correlation between a lack of sleep and obesity. As the Harvard School of Public Health outlines, less sleep means more opportunities to eat, as well as a decrease in physical activity. A good amount of sleep also provides a proper hormonal balance that does not make you too hungry or too full.   
There are other factors that can play roles, such as pregnancies, certain emotional states (e.g., depression, anxiety) that cause overeating, rare genetic diseases (e.g., Cushing's Syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome), or other sociological factors. However, the vast majority of cases of obesity are caused by increased caloric intake and decreased physical activity. Cohen would like for us to think that these forces are beyond individual control, and that only government can provide the proper regulatory framework to protect people from themselves. Looking at the most feasible causes of obesity, I firmly believe that personal responsibility and willpower are the solution to a vast majority of obesity cases. Is it easy to lose weight? No. Nothing in life worth pursuing is ever easy. Even so, I trust an individual to gain control over their life more than I would a bureaucratic agency to mandate healthy living to its citizens.


  1. No mammal in their natural environment eating their natural diet ever gets fat nor has tooth decay. Humans are not designed to eat grains or sugars, humans are omnivores designed to eat meats & seafoods & eggs & fat & vegetables, and rarely nuts & fruit & honey--nothing more. There is no one right particular diet to eat for all humans, but these general guidelines are right for all humans.

    TerryWahlsDotCom and MarksDailyAppleDotCom and JackKruseDotCom are three places to start getting info. There is a fast-growing number of holistic doctors and dentists and vets who are helping people & their pets find the right diet for each of them.

  2. What "we the people" need is No government interference with our food: no food pyramid that tells us the Wrong things to eat, no food subsidies at all, etc. Government food pyramids & subsidies are heavily influenced by lobbies for big agriculture- and farming-companies, which are more interested in selling the products they own than whether or not those products are good for the human body.

    Also, locally-grown & organically-farmed agriculture and cattle and poultry are more "natural" and nutrient-dense, hence much better for the human body.

  3. We're overweight because we have the choice to eat whatever we want. Capitalism has driven food businesses to compete with one another by providing extremely cheap food that tastes great, and foods that are high in calories appeal to the human animal for good evolutionary reasons (which now fail us, considering our sedentary lifestyles and our absurdly high levels of prosperity).

    Every prosperous country has or will face this problem, to some degree. It comes with the territory. Look at the rising rates of obesity in China.

    The answer is not government control. The answer, to whatever degree it exists outside of our own choices, is built into us: social shame (by which I mean negative social consequences OUTSIDE of direct shaming, which has been proven not to work all that well). But sadly, we're living in a time when all forms of social shame, however subtle and non-confrontational, are being reclassified as harmful actions equivalent to assault. That's insanity, and it needs to be ignored, like all forms of political correctness.