Posts Tagged ‘Obesity’
The World Health Organization predicts that, in a few years, obesity-related diseases—diabetes, heart disease, strokes and kidney failure—will be the world’s major causes of death.
The reason most commonly given for the increase in obesity, especially in the United States, is that people don’t get enough exercise or eat healthy food.
But a research team headed by a bio-statistician named David B. Allison has found that American animals also are getting fatter—pet dogs and cats, alley rats, laboratory mice, and marmosets, chimpanzees, macaques and vervet monkeys in primate research centers.
Now it could be the case that pet dogs and cats are not getting enough exercise, and alley rats are eating more junk food. But what about the primates and the laboratory mice? They live in controlled environments in which their diet and activities don’t change from year to year.
Obviously people who exercise regularly and eat fresh fruit and vegetables will on average be healthier than those who don’t. But scientists are coming to doubt that exercise and diet alone are the keys to the obesity epidemic. They look for biochemical factors that cause the body to store more fat.
Allison’s team studied 12 different animal populations, subdivided into male and female.
The biggest weight gainers were the chimpanzees, whose average weight increased 33.6 percent every 10 years. Marmosets gained 9.3 percent and vervet monkeys gained 8.8 percent. Macaques gained an average of 11.5 percent per decade in a California primate research center, 9.6 percent in an Oregon center and 5.3 percent in a Wisconsin center.
Cats gained 9.7 percent and dogs gained 2.8 percent
Laboratory mice gained 12.5 percent and laboratory rats gained 3.4 percent. Feral city rats gained 6.9 percent and feral country rats gained 4.8 percent.
The only sub-group to show no appreciable weight gain over the decades were female laboratory rats, with an average increase of only 0.2 percent every 10 years, barely enough to measure. Male rats gained an average of 6 percent per decade.
David Berreby, writing in Aeon magazine, reviewed some possible factors. Stress and sleeplessness, for example, are linked to disruptions in leptin, the hormone that tells the body when it has had enough to eat. The prevalence of artificial light, interfering with natural sleep and biological rhythms may be a factor.
Other possibilities are a virus, bacteria or industrial chemical. Candidates include Bisphenol-A (BSA), a chemical found in most household plastics, and the Ad-36 virus, an endocrine disrupter. If there is a common factor affecting humans and animals, my guess is that these are the most likely.
But at this point we just don’t know.
We human beings are conditioned through natural selection to desire sugar, salt and fat. They were scarce for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who ate them every chance they got. So it is no wonder that we like sweet, salty and greasy junk foods, and that food processors and fast-food restaurants make a lot of money selling them. Since we Americans are no longer hunter-gatherers, our craving for junk food has many of us unhealthy and obese.
Recently a New York Times reporter named Michael Mann discovered there is more going on than that. He found, through interviews and a search of court documents, that food processors are able to engineer their products to contain the exact amount of sugar, salt and fat that will maximize the human appetite for more—much as the tobacco companies were able to engineer nicotine to contain the exact amount that would maximize the craving for more cigarettes and cigars.
This is a drawback of competition and free enterprise. So long as corporate profits depend on producing excellent goods and services at a reasonable price, the free market works for the benefit of the public in a way that no planned system could. But when profits are increased by doing something that is harmful, any company that holds bag risks falling behind and being crowded out.
We as individuals have the power to refrain from addiction to an unhealthy diet. I am glad the Food and Drug Administration requires packaged foods to be labeled as to their fat content, and their ingredients. I have only become concerned about a healthy diet fairly late in life, but I now look carefully at what I buy. I don’t know what I would do without this information.
Click on The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food for Michael Mann’s article in the New York Times Magazine.
Click on How the government subsidizes obesity for an earlier post of mine on how the federal government’s grain subsidies make junk food cheaper than healthy food.
Click on The Acceleration of Addictiveness for an article by venture capitalist Paul Graham on the synergy between addictiveness and free enterprise.
This chart by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine show how the U.S. government subsidizes an unhealthy diet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidizes corn more than anything else, but the PCRM counts subsidies for the portion of the corn crop used for animal feed as a subsidy for dairy and meat.
Obesity is a big health problem in the United States. Medical experts say obesity is the main reason why life expectancy is falling in certain U.S. counties, and, if it continues to worsen, may lower overall U.S. life expectancy.
One of the reasons why obesity is getting worse—not the only one, of course—is that federal subsidies make unhealthy processed foods cheaper than healthy unprocessed foods such as fruit and vegetables. That is one of the reasons—not the only one, of course—why obesity so much more common among the poor than the affluent.
Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, described a molecular analysis of a McDonald’s restaurant meal, which revealed almost every item was partly a form of corn, including the corn-fed beef and chicken and the soft drinks and condiments with high-fructose corn syrup. The corn content was follows: Soda (100 percent corn), milk shake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent) and French fries (23 percent).
Michelle Obama deserves credit for calling attention to the problem of childhood obesity. President Barack Obama would deserve greater credit if he could break with the practice of past Presidents, both Republican and Democratic, and take a stand against corn subsidies.
Opposition to corn subsidies is an issue on which principled liberals and principled conservatives should agree. The fact that their agreement does not change things shows how American politics is based on serving vested interests rather than conflicts of political principle.
Life expectancy, particularly for women, is actually declining in parts of Appalachia, the South and the Midwest.
From 1987 to 1997, there were 314 U.S. counties and county equivalents, out of 3,141, in which life expectancy for women failed to increase or actually declined. From 1997 to 2007, there were 860 such counties, and 84 counties in which life expectancy for men was flat or declining.
The principal cause, experts say, is the increase in obesity among Americans, followed by increased smoking among American women. Obesity is not a joke. Michelle Obama deserves credit for focusing attention on this problem.
A team of writers in the New England Journal of Medicine said that unless current trends in obesity are reversed, American life expectancy will fall, and decades of gains in medicine and public health will be wiped out.
Unless effective population-level interventions to reduce obesity are developed, the steady rise in life expectancy observed in the modern era may soon come to an end and the youth of today may, on average, live less healthy and possibly even shorter lives than their parents. The health and life expectancy of minority populations may be hit hardest by obesity, because within these subgroups, access to health care is limited and childhood and adult obesity has increased the fastest.
In fact, if the negative effect of obesity on life expectancy continues to worsen, and current trends in prevalence suggest it will, then gains in health and longevity that have taken decades to achieve may be quickly reversed. The optimism of scientists and of policymaking bodies about the future course of life expectancy should be tempered by a realistic acknowledgment that major threats to the health and longevity of younger generations today are already visible.
The bright side, they added ironically, is that the solvency of Social Security will cease to be an issue.
The present-day United States is one of the first civilizations in history in which poor people are fat and rich people are lean and fit. There was a time within living memory when things were just the opposite. During and just prior to World War Two, the U.S. military was concerned that so many recruits from poor families were undernourished and stunted. Now their concern is just the opposite – too many recruits are overweight.
If you look at photos of poor people from the past – of Texas Hill Country pioneers, of immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island, of Dust Bowl farmers in the 1930s – they’re all lean and gaunt, with bodies more like the inmates of refugee camps than Americans of today. Not all the tycoons and millionaires of those times were fat – think of Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller Sr. – but a large girth was the norm. If you look at the menus of the banquets of the upper crust, in the late 19th century you can see why.
Now our image of wealth and poverty are different. We think of rich people as men (usually men) who have time to work out in the gym, and poor people as overweight women (that’s the image) slumped in front of the TV set. Since we associate being overweight with gluttony and lack of character, this reinforces the popular meme that poor people are morally to blame for being poor.
Obesity is a serious health problem, putting even young children at risk for diabetes and heart disease. Much of the writing about the subject of obesity treats it as a matter of knowledge, influence and will, with maybe factoring in thoughts on Darwinian evolution and a predisposition to like sugar, salt and animal fat. The solution is a combination of knowledge and will power – understanding what a healthy diet and lifestyle involve, counteracting advertising the appeal of junk foods, resisting the desire for an unhealthy diet and life. I don’t deny the importance of these things. There is another factor, though, and that is affordability of fast food versus fresh fruit and vegetables.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the poorest state, Mississippi, is the state with the highest rate of obesity, and that a century ago, the Deep South was the part of the country with the highest concentration of deficiency diseases such as ricketts and pellegra. In terms of nutritional calories, fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive, while so-called junk food is cheap. That’s partly because raising fruit and vegetables is more labor-intensive than raising grain and livestock. But it is also because grain – especially corn – is subsidized by the government, and that is also a subsidy for grain-fed beef and pork.
Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, described a molecular analysis of a McDonald’s restaurant meal, which revealed almost every item was partly a form of corn, including the corn-fed beef and chicken and the soft drinks and condiments with high-fructose corn syrup.
The corn content was follows: Soda (100 percent corn), milk shake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent) and French fries (23 percent).
It is a great achievement, of course, that poor people no longer starve to death for lack of nutritional calories. A sack of flour, a sack of potatoes, a sack of bean or a sack of rice is affordable by almost any American. But our society is rich enough that we should aspire to more than minimal sustenance of life. We can aspire to a society in which health and well-being are available to all.
Click on Food Stamps for Good Food for an article in The Nation about how to make healthy food more affordable.
Click on Better Food in Philly for a New York Times article on the same subject.
Click on Farm Bill 2008: Who Benefits? for supporting data for the pyramid chart on the Physicians for Responsible Medicine’s web site. While there is no direct agricultural subsidy for meat and only a small subsidy for dairy products, Physicians for Responsible Medicine counts subsidized grain used as animal feed as part of the subsidy for meat and dairy.
Click on Fattest States 2010: CalorieLab’s Annual Obesity Map for the source and context of the United States of Obesity map.
Click on In 1991 The Fattest US States Were As Thin As the Leanist in 2009 for an article and comparative maps showing the increase in obesity over 18 years.
Click on Tomorrow’s GI Joe May Be Too Fat to Fight for another article and comparative maps on the increase in obesity.
Click on EWG Farm Subsidy Database for statistics on farm subsidies 1995-2009 from the Environmental Working Group.
Click on The fattest states in the USA 2010 for a good new infographic on the geography of obesity. [Added 5/2/11]
Also: My respects to Michelle Obama for her commitment to calling attention to this problem, knowing (as she must have) how it would make her the target of ignorant ridicule.