Overweening Generalist

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Obesity, OR: "Does Our Butt Look Big In That?" (Pt. 3)

A lyricist named Bernie Taupin once wrote this line in a song called "The Bitch Is Back," sung by Elton John:

"Times are changin' now the poor get fat."

And if anyone wants to know why or how this historical turn of events took place, it's easy to find out that  our ingenious modern era with its manipulation of science and technology has produced food at a level to mock Malthus, and cheaply, too. (In the rich countries.) Evolutionarily, for 99% of the time we've been homo sapiens it's been a real slog to capture enough calories and eat a diet with enough protein, fat, and carbs to keep us going, and the average life expectancy rose to the unheard-of high of 38 years old in Unistat by 1850. Evolutionarily, we were pretty much programmed to die by 40. Why sit around as old people and use up the precious tribe's resources? Just for your stories and wisdom? Write that shit down, grandpa, and die already. You're taking up space and it's been at least five years since you used the plow worth a damn.

Sir Thomas Malthus was a catastrophist. If you were around when he was doing his version of what Sir Martin Rees is doing now, and you were prone, let's say, to "pessimistic thinking," you might have thought him a prophet. Basically he said we humans reproduce at an exponential rate, while the rate of food production is arithmetical. It was only a matter of time before famines became common and quite widespread. Malthus was a Man of God, too...No wonder his outlook was so prone to bleakness...(I tend to listen worriedly to Sir Martin Rees, though, truth be told, but that's for another blogspew.)

                                    Reverend Malthus, 1766-1834. Sociologist, economist,

All too human, Malthus did his futurology and prognostications while living in what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Mediocristan: he was using far too simple mathematics and couldn't factor in something totally unknowable but fairly Black Swan-ish: we were able to harness mind-power to produce more and more food in smaller and smaller areas, and quicker and quicker, and then transport got better and faster, and refrigeration came into its own...another futurologist proven wrong. (Temporarily?)

But in the ultra-short period of, say, 125 years, this easy access to sugar (which was always hard to find for 99% of our existence), fat, and carbs - all delightful, life-enriching and acting on dopamine levels in the brain (AKA the "reward system") - threw us a curve. We didn't know how to handle it. And then other sciences and technologies combined forces and made our lives comfier and comfier, to the point where, very very suddenly, on our evolutionary scale, we sit around all day long, every day, and eat rich, fatty food. Meanwhile, our bodies are basically the same ones we had a million years ago. No wonder we're fat!

Now we are so rich we've extended the average lifespan to double what it was in 1850, and we're dying of degenerative diseases. Now the game is not predicting when the food will run out, but when we'll learn how to handle the food. And maybe our analytical tools are more sophisticated than Malthus's.

We saw in my last entry that the NCHS/CDC say the stats showed the obesity epidemic is leveling off already. A recent mega-research paper predicted 42% of the Unistat public would have a Body Mass Index of 30% or higher by 2030, but we have reasons to doubt that. The CDC in 2003 predicted that by 2010 40% of the public would be clinically obese (BMI above 30%); the number turned out to be 35.7%

The British Dept of Health predicted in 1999 that by 2010 25% of Brits would be obese. They updated this prediction in 2006 to 33%. By 2010 the number was 26.1%. Fudge factors? Yes, all sorts of them. First off, of course, many who responded by admitting they were eating fudge as they spoke. Then again...

Some numbers were obtained by phone surveys, asking people how much they weighed, and people tend to prevaricate in that situation. Nonetheless, the numbers are probably pretty close. They have turned out to not be as bad as our best predictors predicted. Do the predictors have a vested interest in their High Numbers? Yes, probably. More money gets thrown at Public Health and obesity-related problems, and some of that money sticks to the predictors and their colleagues. But still: we have a long road to hoe, and it's not going to be easy.

                                Chicago-style deep-dish pizza: now qualifies as a "vegetable"
                                in Unistat schools, thanks to the Goliath food and beverage 
                                industry and their lobbyists. Man, this looks good right about 
                                                       now! Eh?

Why will it be difficult? Well, that too is a very complex problem, but if we look at the Goliath-like Food and Beverage Industry and what it can afford in lobbying Congress, versus the public interest groups that want to educate and restrict massive amounts of sugar and fat in schools, or curb advertising aimed at children, well, David gets stomped to death by Goliath like an ant. In the last three years, four government agencies sought to reduce sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to kids: Congress killed it. The Center For Science in the Public Interest - a bunch of do-gooders who object to 9 year olds who weigh 170 pounds already - spent $70,000 last year lobbying Congress. The Food and Beverage Industry spends that every 13 hours. Pizza is now classified as a "vegetable" in schools. According to this article from Reuters, the food/bev industry has never lost  a significant political battle, and their tactics are the same as what the tobacco industry's were: we're just giving people what they want in a free society. There's no real proof our food and drink is making people sick. They need to moderate their own intake, and exercise more. If you made a hefty paycheck working as a lobbyist for big Food and Bev, wouldn't you say that too?

Note that Ol' Captain Buzzkill William Dietz makes an appearance in the above-cited article: "This may be the first generation of children that has a lower life span than their parents."

Here are two classic takes on why we're fat, from different points of view. First, check out Professor Richard McKenzie, who may be getting some of that sweet Food and Bev money alongside his emeritus professor dough. Yes, we're fatter. On average, Unistatians are 26 lbs heavier than they were in 1960. SUVs were made for fatties. Gurnies have had to be reinforced, stadium seats widened. Because we're on average 26 pounds fatter than 1960, we use an extra two billion gallons of gasoline and jet fuel. We create much more greenhouse gas and our medical costs have skyrocketed. But, as he argues in his book Heavy: The Surprising Reasons America Is the Land of the Free and Home of the Fat, it's all due to lowered tariffs, cheap imports, and "our growing economic freedoms," which go with political freedoms. No reason to change any of the freedom stuff! (I'll let you mull this one over on your own.)

I think it's a classic, valid libertarian view. There's much to say for it. I'm not completely sold on how we're economically freer now, though. But the freedom argument holds some appreciable weight (sorry!) with me. What I object to is the ultra-monied Food/Bev lobby and their louder bullhorns. They don't want frank education about food and what it's doing to us. For guys like McKenzie, money equals freedom, but I'd like more "freedom" for the educators.

                                     Jonah Lehrer, brilliant popularizer of neuroscience, 
                                     the latest psychology, and very creative science writer,
                                                born in 1981.

From Wired, here's a typically smart article from Jonah Lehrer. Why do people eat too much? Well, we're really bad at recognizing when we're full. (That long legacy of hungry homo saps.) Also, restauranteurs think we expect huge portions, and we probably do. So plates have gotten bigger and bigger. Serving sizes are up, Lehrer says, 40% over the last 25 years. We're prone to mimicking the behaviors of those around us. And yes, Big is Good. But why? Lehrer links this to primate status-seeking, which I find fascinating. The problem is: seeking high status by getting the big serving, we get obese, which lowers status. Talk about a vicious circle!

As always, Lehrer suggests a way our of the predicament: if we become mindful of the power/powerlessness module in our primate brain that links Big Food to High Status and therefore, Power, we realize the folly. Mindfulness. It's a big theme in much of Lehrer's writings on neuroscience. But it's easier said than done.

In closing, I suggest we meditate - or ruminate? - a bit on the epigraph Jonah Lehrer uses at the beginning of his article, the quote from M.F.K. Fisher. Is it true? If so, how much do you think it explains about our obesity problem? Do you think some subconscious part of our brain tends to equate food with security, security with love, love with food?


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific series of blogs. How does "Alice's Restaurant" fit in? Can we get whatever we want there?

Thinking about your phat blogs, I remembered Leary/Wilson's model of what shapes our behaviour: genetics, imprints, conditioning, and learning. Programs like Weight Watchers provided learning and some light conditioning. I guess critters like me need to learn to reimprint our first circuit behaviors.

Eric Wagner said...

The Lehrer link doesn't seem to work.

michael said...

@Eric: thanks for the head's up on the Lehrer link; I'm not sure what went wrong there. It looks fixed now.

i had planned to write a lot more on obesity, especially on counterintuitive ways to look at it, which would've included thinking not only about what we eat, but the Leary-RAW model you mention. I have quite a lot to write about this topic, which is intellectually stimulating to me. But, apparently, not to my readers, judging by the stats.

So I might temporarily abandon the Phat Series and get back to what people expect from the OG: writing on drugs, book culture, sex, and science.

Ray Kurzweil wrote one of the most interesting diet books I've ever seen: The 10% Solution, which has been amended at least once to include the latest science. Kurzweil had Type 2 diabetes, and reversed it, altering his body's biochemistry.

I also think there is some really fascinating, deeper-than-meets-the-eye stuff around Barry Sears's The Zone diets, which are about how foods affect the hormonal systems in the body, and cause inflammation, which leads to a cascade of all sorts of other problems. His books basically advocate the "Mediterranean Diet."

Dr. Melvin Konner, a polymath who did original work in anthropology before going back to Harvard to get his MD (chronicled in an eye-opening book, Becoming A Doctor), co-wrote The Paleolithic Prescription at least 10 years ago. It's since caught on and been mined by other authors hoping to get rich writing diet books. It's another diet that makes a lot of sense to me.

But now there are all kinds of new things coming down the pipe that might allow us to lose weight w/o forcing us to radically alter our food habits.

I hope to get to those - and try to be amusing, if not entertaining or non-boring, in the next 6 weeks.

Thanks for hanging with this series so far and your comments. I understand HBO has a new documentary on the obesity epidemic; I need to check that out so I can present ideas they miss.

There's so much physical and psychological anguish and suffering and downright misery with this "epidemic," which I think is far less people's character failings - which our culture's naive understanding of neuroscience and human biochemistry allows - and much more genetic and epigenetic.

It's very tempting to frame this as New Science (non-Vichian) vs. Food/Bev Drug Dealers not wanting the New Science to work...

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I wonder if it's in the nature of how we behave that when we have access to stuff we like that's cheap, we have trouble moderating our intake. A few years ago, I got very interested in jazz. I now have more jazz music than I can possibly listen to. My taste shifted more to classical music, and although I continue to get more music, I already have a big classical collection, more than I could easily listen to. I got a Kindle for Christmas, and by hunting for free and cheap books, I already have a "library" of several dozens books on the thing.

Isn't there a way to combine both freedom AND education, i.e. make a big effort to educate kids in the schools about healthy eating, but not being too heavy-handed in regulation? Or should those Big Mac boxes have warnings on the outside?

michael said...

I think the quick, cheap access that has happened so suddenly, on an evolutionary level, is probably the biggest (sorry) reason for the obesity epidemic. Another aspect of this, it seems to me, is the concomitant astounding success of science/tech to make our lives more comfortable, faster, "easier" and engaging visually. Visual engagement fostered by technology tends to be arresting, and deeply encouraging a sedentariness.

I have female friends who've reached their late 40s/early 50s, and they used to be slim, thin-waisted and now, no matter what they do (they're often punishing themselves with heavy exercise they don't enjoy or not allowing food to be as much of a joy as before), and they're still widening in the hips, putting on weight in places that horrify them. And when I say there were good evolutionary reasons for genes to kick in at a certain age so you'll retain as much fat as possible because food was anything but guaranteed for 99% of our existence...this is part of the reason your ancestors survived and you're here, etc, etc, etc...it's cold, cold comfort.

Yep: all the sudden we have unbelievable riches for next to nothing. It's tough for our psychology to handle. My problem is dead-tree books...