David Berreby – The obesity era

Years ago, after a plane trip spent reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Weight Watchers magazine, Woody Allen melded the two experiences into a single essay. ‘I am fat,’ it began. ‘I am disgustingly fat. I am the fattest human I know. I have nothing but excess poundage all over my body. My fingers are fat. My wrists are fat. My eyes are fat. (Can you imagine fat eyes?).’ It was 1968, when most of the world’s people were more or less ‘height-weight proportional’ and millions of the rest were starving. Weight Watchers was a new organisation for an exotic new problem. The notion that being fat could spur Russian-novel anguish was good for a laugh.

That, as we used to say during my Californian adolescence, was then. Now, 1968’s joke has become 2013’s truism. For the first time in human history, overweight people outnumber the underfed, and obesity is widespread in wealthy and poor nations alike. The diseases that obesity makes more likely — diabetes, heart ailments, strokes, kidney failure — are rising fast across the world, and the World Health Organisation predicts that they will be the leading causes of death in all countries, even the poorest, within a couple of years. What’s more, the long-term illnesses of the overweight are far more expensive to treat than the infections and accidents for which modern health systems were designed. Obesity threatens individuals with long twilight years of sickness, and health-care systems with bankruptcy.

And so the authorities tell us, ever more loudly, that we are fat — disgustingly, world-threateningly fat. We must take ourselves in hand and address our weakness. After all, it’s obvious who is to blame for this frightening global blanket of lipids: it’s us, choosing over and over again, billions of times a day, to eat too much and exercise too little. What else could it be? If you’re overweight, it must be because you are not saying no to sweets and fast food and fried potatoes. It’s because you take elevators and cars and golf carts where your forebears nobly strained their thighs and calves. How could you do this to yourself, and to society?

Moral panic about the depravity of the heavy has seeped into many aspects of life, confusing even the erudite. Earlier this month, for example, the American evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller expressed the zeitgeist in this tweet: ‘Dear obese PhD applicants: if you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation. #truth.’ Businesses are moving to profit on the supposed weaknesses of their customers. Meanwhile, governments no longer presume that their citizens know what they are doing when they take up a menu or a shopping cart. Yesterday’s fringe notions are becoming today’s rules for living — such as New York City’s recent attempt to ban large-size cups for sugary soft drinks, or Denmark’s short-lived tax surcharge on foods that contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat, or Samoa Air’s 2013 ticket policy, in which a passenger’s fare is based on his weight because: ‘You are the master of your air ‘fair’, you decide how much (or how little) your ticket will cost.’

Several governments now sponsor jauntily named pro-exercise programmes such as Let’s Move! (US), Change4Life (UK) and actionsanté (Switzerland). Less chummy approaches are spreading, too. Since 2008, Japanese law requires companies to measure and report the waist circumference of all employees between the ages of 40 and 74 so that, among other things, anyone over the recommended girth can receive an email of admonition and advice.

Hand-in-glove with the authorities that promote self-scrutiny are the businesses that sell it, in the form of weight-loss foods, medicines, services, surgeries and new technologies. A Hong Kong company named Hapilabs offers an electronic fork that tracks how many bites you take per minute in order to prevent hasty eating: shovel food in too fast and it vibrates to alert you. A report by the consulting firm McKinsey Co predicted in May 2012 that ‘health and wellness’ would soon become a trillion-dollar global industry. ‘Obesity is expensive in terms of health-care costs,’ it said before adding, with a consultantly chuckle, ‘dealing with it is also a big, fat market.’

And so we appear to have a public consensus that excess body weight (defined as a Body Mass Index of 25 or above) and obesity (BMI of 30 or above) are consequences of individual choice. It is undoubtedly true that societies are spending vast amounts of time and money on this idea. It is also true that the masters of the universe in business and government seem attracted to it, perhaps because stern self-discipline is how many of them attained their status. What we don’t know is whether the theory is actually correct.

Higher levels of female obesity correlated with higher levels of gender inequality in each nation

Of course, that’s not the impression you will get from the admonishments of public-health agencies and wellness businesses. They are quick to assure us that ‘science says’ obesity is caused by individual choices about food and exercise. As the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, recently put it, defending his proposed ban on large cups for sugary drinks: ‘If you want to lose weight, don’t eat. This is not medicine, it’s thermodynamics. If you take in more than you use, you store it.’ (Got that? It’s not complicated medicine, it’s simple physics, the most sciencey science of all.)

Yet the scientists who study the biochemistry of fat and the epidemiologists who track weight trends are not nearly as unanimous as Bloomberg makes out. In fact, many researchers believe that personal gluttony and laziness cannot be the entire explanation for humanity’s global weight gain. Which means, of course, that they think at least some of the official focus on personal conduct is a waste of time and money. As Richard L Atkinson, Emeritus Professor of Medicine and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Wisconsin and editor of the International Journal of Obesity, put it in 2005: ‘The previous belief of many lay people and health professionals that obesity is simply the result of a lack of willpower and an inability to discipline eating habits is no longer defensible.’

Consider, for example, this troublesome fact, reported in 2010 by the biostatistician David B Allison and his co-authors at the University of Alabama in Birmingham: over the past 20 years or more, as the American people were getting fatter, so were America’s marmosets. As were laboratory macaques, chimpanzees, vervet monkeys and mice, as well as domestic dogs, domestic cats, and domestic and feral rats from both rural and urban areas. In fact, the researchers examined records on those eight species and found that average weight for every one had increased. The marmosets gained an average of nine per cent per decade. Lab mice gained about 11 per cent per decade. Chimps, for some reason, are doing especially badly: their average body weight had risen 35 per cent per decade. Allison, who had been hearing about an unexplained rise in the average weight of lab animals, was nonetheless surprised by the consistency across so many species. ‘Virtually in every population of animals we looked at, that met our criteria, there was the same upward trend,’ he told me.

It isn’t hard to imagine that people who are eating more themselves are giving more to their spoiled pets, or leaving sweeter, fattier garbage for street cats and rodents. But such results don’t explain why the weight gain is also occurring in species that human beings don’t pamper, such as animals in labs, whose diets are strictly controlled. In fact, lab animals’ lives are so precisely watched and measured that the researchers can rule out accidental human influence: records show those creatures gained weight over decades without any significant change in their diet or activities. Obviously, if animals are getting heavier along with us, it can’t just be that they’re eating more Snickers bars and driving to work most days. On the contrary, the trend suggests some widely shared cause, beyond the control of individuals, which is contributing to obesity across many species.

Such a global hidden factor (or factors) might help to explain why most people gain weight gradually, over decades, in seeming contradiction of Bloomberg’s thermodynamics. This slow increase in fat stores would suggest that they are eating only a tiny bit more each month than they use in fuel. But if that were so, as Jonathan C K Wells, professor of child nutrition at University College London, has pointed out, it would be easy to lose weight. One recent model estimated that eating a mere 30 calories a day more than you use is enough to lead to serious weight gain. Given what each person consumes in a day (1,500 to 2,000 calories in poorer nations; 2,500 to 4,000 in wealthy ones), 30 calories is a trivial amount: by my calculations, that’s just two or three peanut MMs. If eliminating that little from the daily diet were enough to prevent weight gain, then people should have no trouble losing a few pounds. Instead, as we know, they find it extremely hard.

Many other aspects of the worldwide weight gain are also difficult to square with the ‘it’s-just-thermodynamics’ model. In rich nations, obesity is more prevalent in people with less money, education and status. Even in some poor countries, according to a survey published last year in the International Journal of Obesity, increases in weight over time have been concentrated among the least well-off. And the extra weight is unevenly distributed among the sexes, too. In a study published in the Social Science and Medicine journal last year, Wells and his co-authors found that, in a sample that spanned 68 nations, for every two obese men there were three obese women. Moreover, the researchers found that higher levels of female obesity correlated with higher levels of gender inequality in each nation. Why, if body weight is a matter of individual decisions about what to eat, should it be affected by differences in wealth or by relations between the sexes?

Chemicals ingested on Tuesday might promote more fat retention on Wednesday

To make sense of all this, the purely thermodynamic model must appeal to complicated indirect effects. The story might go like this: being poor is stressful, and stress makes you eat, and the cheapest food available is the stuff with a lot of ‘empty calories’, therefore poorer people are fatter than the better-off. These wheels-within-wheels are required because the mantra of the thermodynamic model is that ‘a calorie is a calorie is a calorie’: who you are and what you eat are irrelevant to whether you will add fat to your frame. The badness of a ‘bad’ food such as a Cheeto is that it makes calorie intake easier than it would be with broccoli or an apple.

Yet a number of researchers have come to believe, as Wells himself wrote earlier this year in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, that ‘all calories are not equal’. The problem with diets that are heavy in meat, fat or sugar is not solely that they pack a lot of calories into food; it is that they alter the biochemistry of fat storage and fat expenditure, tilting the body’s system in favour of fat storage. Wells notes, for example, that sugar, trans-fats and alcohol have all been linked to changes in ‘insulin signalling’, which affects how the body processes carbohydrates. This might sound like a merely technical distinction. In fact, it’s a paradigm shift: if the problem isn’t the number of calories but rather biochemical influences on the body’s fat-making and fat-storage processes, then sheer quantity of food or drink are not the all-controlling determinants of weight gain. If candy’s chemistry tilts you toward fat, then the fact that you eat it at all may be as important as the amount of it you consume.

More importantly, ‘things that alter the body’s fat metabolism’ is a much wider category than food. Sleeplessness and stress, for instance, have been linked to disturbances in the effects of leptin, the hormone that tells the brain that the body has had enough to eat. What other factors might be at work? Viruses, bacteria and industrial chemicals have all entered the sights of obesity research. So have such aspects of modern life as electric light, heat and air conditioning. All of these have been proposed, with some evidence, as direct causes of weight gain: the line of reasoning is not that stress causes you to eat more, but rather that it causes you to gain weight by directly altering the activities of your cells. If some or all of these factors are indeed contributing to the worldwide fattening trend, then the thermodynamic model is wrong.

We are, of course, surrounded by industrial chemicals. According to Frederick vom Saal, professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri, an organic compound called bisphenol-A (or BPA) that is used in many household plastics has the property of altering fat regulation in lab animals. And a recent study by Leonardo Trasande and colleagues at the New York University School of Medicine with a sample size of 2,838 American children and teens found that, for the majority, those with the highest levels of BPA in their urine were five times more likely to be obese than were those with the lowest levels.

BPA has been used so widely — in everything from children’s sippy cups to the aluminium in fizzy drink cans — that almost all residents of developed nations have traces of it in their pee. This is not to say that BPA is unique. In any developed or developing nation there are many compounds in the food chain that seem, at the very least, to be worth studying as possible ‘obesogens’ helping to tip the body’s metabolism towards obesity. For example, a study by the Environmental Working Group of the umbilical cords of 10 babies born in US hospitals in 2004 found 287 different industrial chemicals in their blood. Beatrice Golomb, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, has proposed a long list of candidates — all chemicals that, she has written, disrupt the normal process of energy storage and use in cells. Her suspects include heavy metals in the food supply, chemicals in sunscreens, cleaning products, detergents, cosmetics and the fire retardants that infuse bedclothes and pyjamas.

Chemicals and metals might promote obesity in the short term by altering the way that energy is made and stored within cells, or by changing the signals in the fat-storage process so that the body makes more fat cells, or larger fat cells. They could also affect the hormones that spur or tamp down the appetite. In other words, chemicals ingested on Tuesday might promote more fat retention on Wednesday.

It’s also possible that chemical disrupters could affect people’s body chemistry on longer timescales — starting, for instance, before their birth. Contrary to its popular image of serene imperturbability, a developing foetus is in fact acutely sensitive to the environment into which it will be born, and a key source of information about that environment is the nutrition it gets via the umbilical cord. As David J P Barker, professor of clinical epidemiology of the University of Southampton, noted some 20 years ago, where mothers have gone hungry, their offspring are at a greater risk of obesity. The prenatal environment, Barker argued, tunes the children’s metabolism for a life of scarcity, preparing them to store fat whenever they can, to get them through periods of want. If those spells of scarcity never materialise, the child’s proneness to fat storage ceases to be an advantage. The 40,000 babies gestated during Holland’s ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1944-1945 grew up to have more obesity, more diabetes and more heart trouble than their compatriots who developed without the influence of war-induced starvation.

It’s possible that widespread electrification is promoting obesity by making humans eat at night, when our ancestors were asleep

Just to double down on the complexity of the question, a number of researchers also think that industrial compounds might be affecting these signals. For example, Bruce Blumberg, professor of developmental and cell biology at the University of California, Irvine, has found that pregnant mice exposed to organotins (tin-based chemical compounds that are used in a wide variety of industries) will have heavier offspring than mice in the same lab who were not so exposed. In other words, the chemicals might be changing the signal that the developing foetus uses to set its metabolism. More disturbingly, there is evidence that this ‘foetal programming’ could last more than one generation. A good predictor of your birth weight, for instance, is your mother’s weight at her birth.

Lurking behind these prime suspects, there are the fugitive possibilities — what David Allison and another band of co-authors recently called the ‘roads less travelled’ of obesity research. For example, consider the increased control civilisation gives people over the temperature of their surroundings. There is a ‘thermoneutral zone’ in which a human body can maintain its normal internal temperature without expending energy. Outside this zone, when it’s hot enough to make you sweat or cold enough to make you shiver, the body has to expend energy to maintain homeostasis. Temperatures above and below the neutral zone have been shown to cause both humans and animals to burn fat, and hotter conditions also have an indirect effect: they make people eat less. A restaurant on a warm day whose air conditioning breaks down will see a sharp decline in sales (yes, someone did a study). Perhaps we are getting fatter in part because our heaters and air conditioners are keeping us in the thermoneutral zone.

And what about light? A study by Laura Fonken and colleagues at the Ohio State University in Columbus, published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reported that mice exposed to extra light (experiencing either no dark at all or a sort of semidarkness instead of total night) put on nearly 50 per cent more weight than mice fed the same diet who lived on a normal night-day cycle of alternating light and dark. This effect might be due to the constant light robbing the rodents of their natural cues about when to eat. Wild mice eat at night, but night-deprived mice might have been eating during the day, at the ‘wrong’ time physiologically. It’s possible that widespread electrification is promoting obesity by making humans eat at night, when our ancestors were asleep.

There is also the possibility that obesity could quite literally be contagious. A virus called Ad-36, known for causing eye and respiratory infections in people, also has the curious property of causing weight gain in chickens, rats, mice and monkeys. Of course, it would be unethical to test for this effect on humans, but it is now known that antibodies to the virus are found in a much higher percentage of obese people than in people of normal weight. A research review by Tomohide Yamada and colleagues at the University of Tokyo in Japan, published last year in the journal PLoS One, found that people who had been infected with Ad-36 had significantly higher BMI than those who hadn’t.

As with viruses, so with bacteria. Experiments by Lee Kaplan and colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston earlier this year found that bacteria from mice that have lost weight will, when placed in other mice, apparently cause those mice to lose weight, too. And a study in humans by Ruchi Mathur and colleagues at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism earlier this year, found that those who were overweight were more likely than others to have elevated populations of a gut microorganisms called Methanobrevibacter smithii. The researchers speculated that these organisms might in fact be especially good at digesting food, yielding up more nutrients and thus contributing to weight gain.

The researcher who first posited a viral connection in 1992 — he had noticed that the chickens in India that were dead of an adenovirus infection were plump instead of gaunt — was Nikhil Dhurandhar, now a professor at the Pennington Biomedical Research Centre in Louisiana. He has proposed a catchy term for the spread of excess weight via bugs and viruses: ‘infectobesity’.

No one has claimed, or should claim, that any of these ‘roads less taken’ is the one true cause of obesity, to drive out the false idol of individual choice. Neither should we imagine that the existence of alternative theories means that governments can stop trying to forestall a major public-health menace. These theories are important for a different reason. Their very existence — the fact that they are plausible, with some supporting evidence and suggestions for further research — gives the lie to the notion that obesity is a closed question, on which science has pronounced its final word. It might be that every one of the ‘roads less travelled’ contributes to global obesity; it might be that some do in some places and not in others. The openness of the issue makes it clear that obesity isn’t a simple school physics experiment.

We are increasingly understanding that attributing obesity to personal responsibility is very simplistic

This is the theme of perhaps the most epic of the alternative theories of obesity, put forward by Jonathan C K Wells. As I understand his view, obesity is like poverty, or financial booms and busts, or war — a large-scale development that no one deliberately intends, but which emerges out of the millions of separate acts that together make human history. His model suggests that the best Russian novelist to invoke when thinking about obesity isn’t Dostoyevsky, with his self-punishing anguish, but Leo Tolstoy, with his vast perspective on the forces of history.

In Wells’s theory, the claim that individual choice drives worldwide weight gain is an illusion — like the illusion that individuals can captain their fates independent of history. In reality, Tolstoy wrote at the end of War and Peace (1869), we are moved by social forces we do not perceive, just as the Earth moves through space, driven by physical forces we do not feel. Such is the tenor of Wells’s explanation for modern obesity. Its root cause, he proposed last year in the American Journal of Human Biology, is nothing less than the history of capitalism.

I will paraphrase Wells’s intricate argument (the only one I’ve ever read that references both receptor pathways for leptin and data on the size of the Indian economy in the 18th century). It is a saga spanning many generations. Let’s start with a poor farmer growing food crops in a poor country in Africa or Asia. In a capitalistic quest for new markets and cheap materials and labour, Europeans take control of the economy in the late 18th or early 19th century. With taxes, fees and sometimes violent repression, their new system strongly ‘encourages’ the farmer and his neighbours to stop growing their own food and start cultivating some more marketable commodity instead – coffee for export, perhaps. Now that they aren’t growing food, the farmers must buy it. But since everyone is out to maximise profit, those who purchase the coffee crop strive to pay as little as possible, and so the farmers go hungry. Years later, when the farmer’s children go to work in factories, they confront the same logic: they too are paid as little as possible for their labour. By changing the farming system, capitalism first removes traditional protections against starvation, and then pushes many previously self-sufficient people into an economic niche where they aren’t paid enough to eat well.

Eighty years later, the farmer’s descendants have risen out of the ranks of the poor and joined the fast-growing ranks of the world’s 21st-century middle-class consumers, thanks to globalisation and outsourcing. Capitalism welcomes them: these descendants are now prime targets to live the obesogenic life (the chemicals, the stress, the air conditioning, the elevators-instead-of-stairs) and to buy the kinds of foods and beverages that are ‘metabolic disturbers’.

But that’s not the worst of it. As I’ve mentioned, the human body’s response to its nutrition can last a lifetime, and even be passed on to the next generation. If you or your parents – or their parents – were undernourished, you’re more likely to become obese in a food-rich environment. Moreover, obese people, when they have children, pass on changes in metabolism that can predispose the next generation to obesity as well. Like the children of underfed people, the children of the overfed have their metabolism set in ways that tend to promote obesity. This means that a past of undernutrition, combined with a present of overnutrition, is an obesity trap.

Wells memorably calls this double-bind the ‘metabolic ghetto’, and you can’t escape it just by turning poor people into middle-class consumers: that turn to prosperity is precisely what triggers the trap. ‘Obesity,’ he writes, ‘like undernutrition, is thus fundamentally a state of malnutrition, in each case promoted by powerful profit-led manipulations of the global supply and quality of food.’

The trap is deeper than that, however. The ‘unifying logic of capitalism’, Wells continues, requires that food companies seek immediate profit and long-term success, and their optimal strategy for that involves encouraging people to choose foods that are most profitable to produce and sell — ‘both at the behavioural level, through advertising, price manipulations and restriction of choice, and at the physiological level through the enhancement of addictive properties of foods’ (by which he means those sugars and fats that make ‘metabolic disturber’ foods so habit-forming). In short, Wells told me via email, ‘We need to understand that we have not yet grasped how to address this situation, but we are increasingly understanding that attributing obesity to personal responsibility is very simplistic.’ Rather than harping on personal responsibility so much, Wells believes, we should be looking at the global economic system, seeking to reform it so that it promotes access to nutritious food for everyone. That is, admittedly, a tall order. But the argument is worth considering, if only as a bracing critique of our individual-responsibility ideology of fatness.

What are we onlookers — non-activists, non-scientists — to make of these scientific debates? One possible response, of course, is to decide that no obesity policy is possible, because ‘science is undecided’. But this is a moron’s answer: science is never completely decided; it is always in a state of change and self-questioning, and it offers no final answers. There is never a moment in science when all doubts are gone and all questions settled, which is why ‘wait for settled science’ is an argument advanced by industries that want no interference with their status quo.

Making policy, as the British politician Wayland Young once said, is ‘the art of taking good decisions on insufficient evidence’. Faced with signs of a massive public-health crisis in the making, governments are right to seek to do something, using the best information that science can render, in the full knowledge that science will have different information to offer in 10 or 20 years.

The issue, rather, is whether the government policies and corporate business plans are in fact doing their best with the evidence they already have. Does the science justify assuming that obesity is a simple matter of individuals letting themselves eat too much? To the extent that it is, policies such as Japan’s mandatory waist-measuring and products like the Hapifork will be effective. If, on the other hand, there is more to obesity than simple thermodynamics, some of the billions spent on individual-centred policies and products may be being wasted. Time, in that case, to try some alternative policies based on alternative theories, and see how they fare.

Today’s priests of obesity prevention proclaim with confidence and authority that they have the answer. So did Bruno Bettelheim in the 1950s, when he blamed autism on mothers with cold personalities. So, for that matter, did the clerics of 18th-century Lisbon, who blamed earthquakes on people’s sinful ways. History is not kind to authorities whose mistaken dogmas cause unnecessary suffering and pointless effort, while ignoring the real causes of trouble. And the history of the obesity era has yet to be written.

Published on 19 June 2013

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  • What a terrific romp through some tricky areas of science. Followed you all the way. Much needed thinking for a ‘quick let’s solve it’ problem. My teenage daughter was, by the way, particularly turned off by the image…

  • Nothing about High Fructose Corn Syrup? The sheer amount of processes additives to many foods may explain a lot.

    • The problem with laying it all at the feet of HFCS is that it’s an additive that’s not used in many countries which are also experiencing rising rates of obesity.

      • I’m trying to figure out which countries don’t use HFCS…I am very familiar with Malaysia, Indonesia, and parts of central America – the growing middle class is guzzling coke, buying donuts / KFC / frappaccinos / processed snacks / etc faster and in larger quantities than ever in history. Diabetes and other obesity-related diseases have shot up. The middle class can afford rich fatty, sugary foods that would have been reserved for special occasions. I see people in Malaysia eating fried chicken, super rich oily meat curries, fried bread, and corn syrup sweetened soda, tea, fruit flavored syrup drinks, etc every single day. This is in stark contrast to the modest portions of a decade or two ago and more village-grown food, a typical meal consisting of rice, a veg, a curry and maybe a hard boiled egg, tofu or small piece of chicken. Since I started traveling and working in ‘developing’ countries, I have noticed dramatic changes in consumption.

        • Most countries use sugar rather than HFCS, though. It’s used in the US because of ridiculous tariffs on sugar that simply don’t exist in other countries – take the EU, for example, where obesity is also high, but HFCS is not commonly used at all.

      • HFCS is used in countries that are adopting American style fast foods. So is genetically modified grain.

  • Not up to Aeon’s standard fare.

    These absurdly roundabout alternative causes, while they should be strongly investigated in the scientific community, are not viable excuses for obesity.

    What the author seeks to do is argue from:

    A. It may be the case that obesity is not ENTIRELY determined by caloric intake. This is unproven in humans directly, but it may be the case. No mention is made of how these alternative contributing factors of obesity (imagine, you eat a cheesecake every day, I drink from a BPA water bottle, and we’ll see who gains weight faster!)

    B. Humans therefore are merely cogs in the great wheels of history and it is not their fault they are fat.

    This leads to hilarious conclusions like such:

    “If, on the other hand, there is more to obesity than simple thermodynamics, some of the billions spent on individual-centred policies and products may be being wasted. “

    What a jokish conclusion – if the major driving factors of obesity is diet and exercise (or the lack of it) which nobody can deny (even if they accept other minor causes), this is a hilariously jump away from any evidence brought to bear in this essay.

    Unconvincing and apologist in manner, although well-written.

    • The question then becomes, how minor are the minor factors? How decisive are diet and exercise? These seem like real empirical questions, the answers to which should influence health policy. Are you entirely unperturbed by the weight gain in laboratory animals, for instance?

      • No, I’m certainly perturbed by it – but I’m aware that in the last 40 years most animal models have become genetic monocultures – given the general seclusion of animal models this seems a more relevant factor than the BPA in household objects, or any other explanation made up here. Given this better explanation (genetic monoculture leads to accumulation of genetic/epigenetic problems) which is well-known to include obesity, this connection seems extremely tenuous.

        The author’s claims are merely a lot of hinting and forging of ambiguous connections.

        My exact problem is that this essay promotes an abdication of personal responsibility to an incredibly vague and unproven notion of “outside influence.”

        In fact, there are few domains which I can think of which we are as free to choose in as the domain of our bodies. We can put tattoos on them, we can exercise them, we can eat what we want and when we want. While our bodies may fail us by developing cancer or suffering from a severe injury, it is more common for us to fail our bodies.

        Defining obesity as a disease is pathetic – it’s like defining poverty as a “disease.” Everyone is against poverty and obesity, but saying that they are “diseases” should be an obvious fallacy, but also a notably dangerous one.

        I see this as a continuation of our movement away from personal responsibility – brain scans moving into courtrooms, ADHD is everywhere, and now being overweight is classified as a disease.

        If we cannot be responsible for our own bodies, what can we be responsible for?

        • “(imagine, you eat a cheesecake every day, I drink from a BPA
          water bottle, and we’ll see who gains weight faster!)”

          I would love to see you experimentally given medically supervised hormonal imbalances, while your friend is given a cheesecake to eat every day. Sounds like the results may surprise you.

          • Please don’t purposefully misunderstand me – I said that I would drink from a water bottle using trace amounts of PBA every day, and someone else would eat cheesecake every day, and obviously the person who ate cheesecake would gain weight much faster, while the PBA water bottle person might not at all.

            If you cannot understand the difference between trace amounts of chemicals vs direct injection of hormones you have no business reading/commenting on articles like these.

          • First of all, it is BPA not PBA. Secondly, trace amounts of chemicals add up. Look at tuna and mercury content. Why is it higher in tuna than other sea life? Because tuna are top of the food chain with long lifespans. So are humans. We are not talking about negligible amounts or they wouldn’t be able to test for these substances in urine. He mentioned numerous chemicals which may have an impact beyond BPAs. And many of these chemicals have not been around long enough to have knowledge of the long term effects on the human body.

          • The problem is that drinking from the BPA bottle may cause YOU to want to eat a piece of cheesecake every day. We all know that restricting calories will work **in the short term** to reduce weight. Short term solutions do not solve long term problems. Why does a successful dieter put weight back on? Do you think 95% of people who diet to lose weight put back on the weight because they want to be fat? They obviously know how to diet, they have enough willpower – why do they go back to old habits? Most people are not stupid, and nobody actually chooses to be overweight. We need to look at what factors are driving people to eat this way and look at interventions that can be made at that stage. It is not impossible to lose and keep off weight long term, but it is exceedingly difficult. EXCEEDINGLY difficult. Look at the poster up above who says his diet is so strict he only eats a few bites of cake a few times a year. How does a normal person live like that in our society? I kind of got away from your point about the BPA there…

          • …aaaand what about the weight gain in animal populations who get their diet from the wild? Fugg off smug rich white snot.

          • IF: I don’t agree with someone’s opinion about the cause of weight gain in animals
            == THEN: racism.

            That’s a fine model, a fine model.

          • How can you predict that result when you don’t even have subjects?

    • But even if you believe that obesity is nothing more than thermodynamics and is about diet and exercise, then individual-centred policies may still be a waste of money – if the way work and the urban environment is being configured is promoting weight gain, then no amount of exhorting people to stop eating so much is going to help. You need to change the triggers, to achieve anything at a population level.

      • The thermodynamics line is a gross oversimplification. People who lose weight by eating less and exercising more do change their biochemistry. The changes in biochemistry help to regulate the appetite itself. Increased “willpower” is oftentimes a result not a cause.

    • Actually, what you have written in support of the thermodynamic model is an apologist piece.

    • You haven’t understood the main thesis of the article, and you mocking a serious subject.
      The idea is that chronically high insulin levels causes obesity, and not calorie imbalance – which is a radical revision that changes everything, This is the main point.
      I can suggest a different experiment than yours (plastic bottle vs cheese-cake)
      You eat cheese cake as much as you like, I’ll eat meat or any other food that has low insulin response (greens, cheese, eggs, poultry, fish etc..) in any quantity I’ll like, i.e. ad-libitum feeding.

      I can guarantee you from experience and research that you’ll get fat eventually (after your metabolism will be overwhelmed by insulin) and I will not.

      The “if the major driving factors of obesity is diet and exercise” is the jokish conclusion, in fact it is much more logical that overeating and sloth are consequences of a deranged metabolism and are correlated with overweight and not the cause of it.

  • So – are women who severely their restrict caloric intake in order to be fashionably thin (or to increase longevity) in fact setting their offspring up to be obese?

    • No. Limited caloric intake will probably make the children thin. Repeated “diets” with periods of starvation and gorging would cause obesity.

      • She said severely limit their caloric intake, not just limit it. So, I think she was talking more like anorexic behavior.

  • This is brilliant. Well done. Very well written, very informative, very thought-provoking.

  • Interesting article. But… a central argument for the broader explanation of obesity is that lab animals too have gained weight. There could be many reasons for this – even though their diet is strictly controlled.

    Most prominent, I think, is that lab animals are a refined species. Lab animals are bred for sitting around in cages, generation after generation – and they become more and more distant from their natural behavior. Perhaps more docile and inactive – and because of that they also become fatter on the same diet.

    Some researcher actually argue, that some species of lab animals no longer are fit for using in research because of this breeding selection (see fx. Panksepp 2012). Lab rats, for example, simply does not play.

    Although chemicals etc. definitely is a problem there is one big issue the article does not ponder: Commercials and advertising promoting unhealthy food. Chocolate bars, ice cream, soda, burgers etc. Somehow it has become so that you cannot leave you house without being reminded of all sorts of tasty-but-not-really-food items. Nor can you turn on the television.

    This communicative angle on the obesity problem is also a non-individual explanation and would – if it has truth to it – also demand collective action.

    • //… bred for sitting around in cages, generation after
      generation – and they become more and more distant from their natural
      behavior. Perhaps more docile and inactive//

      That narrative sounds familiar, maybe it could apply to another species.

    • He said that they had the same diet AND activity level.

    • Shut up, we’re getting fat because of magic, not because we’re eating more and moving less!

    • The elephant in the room for me is not only the pervasive industrial chemicals (that’s a good theory), but the for-profit food markets. I travel all over the world and see similar eating and drinking habits… but America is the fattest. Even more than Canadians. To me, it’s got to be a combination of things, but the food supply and what is IN it has to have some impact. Lab animals eat local food…

      • I have traveled in America for three weeks, and toured into Los Angeles, Grand Canyon and Las Vegas – the usual. I was stunned when if first came to eating out. I’m small framed (about 160 cm and 55 kg), and I often leave food at the restaurant, because the portions are too big. In America I was full after eating one-third of the portion! And it was just the main course! And you know, we eat our steaks with fries or rice – but at that plate, there was a steak the size of my three hands, AND rice, AND fries, AND corn. It was a dinner for three. Then, I thought it just might be that one restaurant. We went to another, I’ve ordered crab salad. I thought this time I get a healthy option. Well I got a bowl full of salad the size of my head! All dripping in mayonnaise. And rice, and corn in it 😀 Some salad! So we went next time to the Mexican restaurant… big portion, but kind of normal. However that was in Los Angeles already, and that population looks a bit different than the people I saw elsewhere. Once we ate at MacDonald’s at the road and surprisingly the portions were the most predictable, though some of the burgers I did not order would make two meals instead of one. People drink soda with that and I think it’s a problem.

        Americans, you just eat too much! It’s a fact. And it’s hard to scale down once your body set the program to eat that much. I know, because as I’m in my thirties keeping proper weight isn’t a painless activity as it was when I was 20.
        I am laughing especially at your latest diet fad, “no gluten”. Well, if somebody does not eat gluten, he will also stop eating donuts, white buns, sweet buns, hamburgers, cookies, wafers… of course he/she will get trimmer! I don’t fight the fad however, I have friends who have a genuine celiac disease and they are happy they have so many food choices now that the companies followed the fad.

        • Also, I will add, I bought genuine American cookies in geniuine American supermarket ;-D And I’l tell you that the same brands in US have bigger, fatter, sweeter products than in Europe. Also, American ice cream seems to be made of butter instead of cream…

    • Been saying for that we need healthier lab rats.

    • Since the change has been relatively sudden on a scale of things- animals have been kept in captivity for millennia- it seems more likely something has entered the food supply, probably through grains. Monsanto and its products need another look.

  • Some of the responses on this thread are predictably smug and arrogant, made by people who undoubtedly have no weight problems, of that I am certain. Those things that seem not to “make sense” are so easily dismissed out of hand. But just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it’s true, and something that doesn’t, doesn’t mean it’s false.

    I have had serious weight problems for the past 50+ years. Believe me, I’ve tried everything. Those who say it’s just a matter of willpower don’t know what they’re talking about and can go perform a physical impossibility on themselves. There are fat people in my family. I would say it’s a combination of genetics, eating habits and these unknowns that the author discusses. Otherwise how could there be such across-the-board global phenomena? I am convinced that, in addition to what we know, there’s a good deal more we don’t.

    I am so glad that the AMA *finally* has declared obesity a disease. That’s a game changer. I will be even more glad when serious research begins to ferret out the influence of some of these elements that until now have not been factored into the equation.

    • You may think you’ve tried everything, but I’m guessing you didn’t try eating lots of starches, some fruits and vegetables, and cutting out all animal products. I dropped all my excess weight this way. My health improved and at 67 years old, I have the most energy ever. This is closest to the natural human diet. Chimpanzee’s are our closest relatives, and they are herbivores who eat small quantities of insects as a delicacy. John McDougall, MD and Caldwell Esselstyn, MD (Bill Clinton’s cardiologist) are proponents of this way of eating . . . uh, minus the insects!

      • Humans need vitamin B12, which can only be obtained from animal products. How, then, is cutting out animal products a more “natural” diet for humans?

        • Animals get B12 from the micro-organisms in the soil, so washing your garden-fresh veggies a little less could help. Also, nutritional yeast is a good source of B12. We use it as a Parmesan substitute (with ground almonds and salt).

        • Not true at all; in fact, this is a common misconception. Everything that a person needs to survive can be gained from vegetarian or vegan diets without vitamin supplementation. If animals randomly have the ability to generate B12, then why would we even need to eat animals in the first place? Unless you’re suggesting that humans are the only animals that aren’t capable of producing B12 on their own?

          • Well, herbivores get from bacteria in their rumen or by eating their shit (cecotrope). You don’t have a rumen, and you (probably) don’t eat your shit. So you don’t have the bacteria required to generate B12 within you. Omnivores and carnivores get it from the herbivores they eat. Humans are omnivores, and like other omnivores, depend on eating herbivores to obtain B12.

          • False.

      • Where are the randomized trials that proves your assertion? They don’t exist.

        All you have is an N=1 case.When I add starch and cut out animal products I gain weight instantly and can’t lose it no matter how little or how much I eat. As soon as I cut out starch and add animal products my weight normalizes and my lipid panel improves as well. Which is also N=1 and means nothing – except to me.

        You’re fortunate you found something that works for you. Don’t assume it’s a universal answer. EVERYBODY is different.

      • Oh you betcha I am doing exactly what you suggest: starch, fruits and vegetables, and nothing with a face! I have McDougall’s “Starch Solution” and plenty of other stuff as well. Then another part is cutting out excess SSFF (can you guess what those letters stand for?) 😉 Still another part is exercising enough to ramp up my metabolism, which is currently on the floor…

        • Exactly. Calories are only part of the equation. A person will likely be fat, regardless of diet, if they don’t get even minimal amounts of exercise (say, a 30-60 min. walk) per day. And to lose weight, you need to be more active than that minimum.

    • It’s true that there are people who have a harder time to lose weight, especially when they have been programmed for it (baby formula fed babies are often overweight for example), and I can understand that. However for one person like you there will be ten others who just eat too much and don’t exercise. I think we can’t judge people by how they weight, but in general America needs to eat healthier. Up there in this thread I describe my shock when I went to States and learned that everything is huge, and when you order yourself a meal at the restaurant, you could feed a family of three.

      • Do you have data for your “1 in 10” assertion? My biological family for four generations (my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, my children) have had the same metabolism issue. I won’t bore you with details but out of 13 people, 1 has had normal weight due to a lifetime of strict attention to diet and exercise, 1 has normal weight due to Crohns’s disease causing an inability to digest food, 10 are 100 or more pounds overweight, and 1 is 300 pounds overweight. All have attempted weight loss with only temporary results.
        So . . . somewhere there are 117 fat people who are just lazy?

  • Excellent essay. What the proponents of the ‘just put down the fork’ view of obesity have never answered is why obesity rates began to spike in 1980 in the US, and then spread rapidly outwards into the English speaking world. If obesity is merely a breakdown of willpower, you have to conclude that human willpower suffered a catastrophic breakdown in 1980, for a reason that’s never been clearly articulated.

    It’s only when you stop seeing obesity as a moral problem, but as an economic one that some answers become apparent.

    As an aside, the rise of women dieting in pregnancy must also be contributing to children becoming obese, because of that effect observed during events like the Dutch hunger winter, or the Biafran famine of the 1960s.

    • Just another thing to blame the Dirty Freaky Hippies for. I mean, it hadn’t been that much earlier, right?

    • really? wouldn’t the explosion of cheap to produce processed foods explain it? they all tend to be high calorie density in small packages. non processed foods tend to be less calorie dense so that people get sated by eating “normally”. but with processed foods, you eat “normally” and you get way more calories than you expect.

      it IS put down the fork combined with RTFLabel. there is NO fat person around who eats the GOAL WEIGHT X 12 in calories and is overweight. NONE.

      and whether you eat apples and celery or big macs, if you read the label and eat your proper amount of calories, you WILL be at the weight you want to be.

      that’s it. no mystery. no conspiracy. fat is not MAGIC! it’s just STUFF measured in calories. if you don’t consume enough STUFF, it’s not gonna be packed onto your frame. it IS thermodynamics. bloomberg is right.

      • Did you actually READ the article or just decide to close your mind and continue to statically judge.

        • read it.

          again – if they tracked the calories consumed by fat people, they will find their answer right there.

          everything else is chaff.

          • ” there is NO fat person around who eats the GOAL WEIGHT X 12 in calories and is overweight. NONE.”

            Haha. That’s cute. Please try again.

          • and so you believe that fat is magic? that despite the fact that there is literally no MASS, no MATERIAL left to make fat… that it just osmosizes into the body from FAT AIR?

            jesus christ, i hope for your sake that you are not as vacuous and idiotic (and completely devoid of meaningful expression) as you sound.

      • I think there are multiple factors here. “Put the fork down” works
        when it can be maintained. If you go to sites like http://myfitnesspal.com you can find numerous people who have lost 100’s of pounds by simply keeping a journal of what they eat and how much they exercise to maintain a deficit. Even people who don’t ultimately succeed in losing a lot weight with these methods admit that while they follow the advice they do certainly lose weight. They just “fall off thewagon” and can’t maintain what is, realistically, a high discipline plan.

        There can be little doubt that the biochemical/thermodynamic theory of “burn more calories than you consume” is capable of working for the vast majority of people. That said, there is clearly more going on. Our choices for diet and exercise are bad, but can they be so much worse, almost universally worse, than they were even 30 years ago? Most of the problems with “food deserts”, highly processed foods being the cheapest option for poor people, lack of exercise options in the inner cities, etc existed 30 or 40 years ago,yet the problem has ballooned out of proportion. I suspect that some or all of what the article brings up is true. These factors contribute to obesity, or some of them do at any rate. They don’t “Make you fat”, eating too much makes you fat (I know, I gained and then lost most of 70 pounds), but they can be contributing factors.

        Imagine we’re bowling. Talent and practice can make you a good bowler, other people maybe not as good. Still, anyone who bowls with any regularity is likely to become at least a decent bowler; it might be a relative hard game to master, but it’s pretty easy to become competent. Now imagine the lanes aren’t maintained. Scuffs start showing up in the wax, boards are cracked here and there, etc. The really good bowlers can probably adjust, and among the less talented some will put in the effort to figure out the permutations, but inevitably some of the mediocre bowlers will become bad, and some of the good ones will become mediocre. You can overcome the issues with the lanes, but it’s harder to bowl well than it used to be, and mistakes are costlier.

        Think of these factors not as trying to ignore the core problem of people eating too much, but trying to figure out where the lanes are messed up in the hope that we can get the playing field a little closer to level.

        • “That said, there is clearly more going on.”

          absolutely. but almost all that other stuff is secondary and tries to sidestep personal responsibility.

          and again, as a liberal/radical, i find it hilarious that i’m touting that particular flag but here it really is within someone’s realm of control… unless they have a drug like relationship with food it really is as simple as putting down the fork. right?

          you might find it hard to believe that our patterns in consumption and exercise are so different than they were 50 years ago but they really really are. whether that’s an abrupt change or a gradual change over decades can be argued over but it is different.

          the biggest culprits probably are:

          – the cheapness of food

          – the cheapness of processed food (which tend to be extremely calorie dense while a the same time not very filling)

          – the universal ubiquity of processed food

          – the ubiquity of the car and the rise of tv, internet, videogames and other factors that keep you at home and/or seated.

          – the fast pace of modern life and the fact that mother’s don’t toil for hours every day cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner – and the corresponding rise of fast food. the difference between a home cooked meal vs. slices of pizza really can add up to a vast difference in calories consumed and satiety.

          yes, there are lots of factors at play. but the only thing people HAVE to know to keep weight off is the thermodynamics.

          IDEAL WEIGHT X 12 = calories you’re allowed to consume per day.

          period.

          everything else is subordinate to that. get that right and NOTHING ELSE MATTERS.

          it doesn’t matter that the fucking lab gerbils are heavier. IDEAL WEIGHT X 12… that’s ALL you have to worry about. can only afford to eat snickers and yoohoos? fine, just eat IDEAL WEIGHT X 12 calories worth and you’ll STILL BE SLIM!

          i wish there was a formula that simple for getting into the top 1% that EVERYONE on the planet could do. there isn’t. but here, there is.

          and that is where the article gets it wrong. and gets it wrong by looking at EVERYTHING ELSE except that core problem… and even MOCKING it for fuck’s sake.

          • It isn’t just the cheapness of food. I believe that cheap junk food, soda, and the like are a huge part of the issue. However, I grew up on a farm and was doing a lot of physical labour for work and fun as a child. My parents and neighbours also, and some are or were overweight, but there is a distinct difference in lifestyle between myself as a child, those neighbours, Amish neighbours walking miles and miles a week, doing hard labour even to heat homes, biking or running for fun, and the like… Gym rats are one thing, but “normal” people don’t even come close to the physical efforts I grew up with. In the past tongs were even less cushy than I experienced. We cannot pretend that it is all food choices.

          • again, if people are mindful of the calories being consumed (and most people are not), it would be clear where the weight is coming from.

            you can become fat by eating 50 totally natural oranges every day too.

      • The explosion of cheap-to-produce processed foods started in the 1950s. I assure you that my mother and grandmother had no trouble going to the store to buy cookies and potato chips and corn chips and brownie mixes and frozen pies.

  • Let’s say lab animals have lived in artificial environments for generations, so what about zoo animals? They’re sort of halfway between labs and nature, so what do their numbers look like? But neither would necessarily show that one way or another, everyone’s eating. And it’s coming from somewhere. If it’s true the entire world, or large parts of it are changing, what’s causing it? Industrialized food sources? Water treatment? Or are all species evolving to compensate for some subtle change that’s already happened or is coming?

    • If they’re evolving to compensate for something, it will necessarily have already happened. Mutations are not purposeful, and natural selection only responds to the existing environment, not future environments.

      But the zoo animals idea is interesting. The article did mention pets and feral city animals having weight increases. I think the focus on lab animals was mainly to weed out differences in activity level and diet — which is something that will have changed significantly in zoo animals as zoo practices changed. Of course, I’d think that zoo animals probably get more exercise than they used to, with bigger pens and attempts to create an environment that doesn’t bore them to death.

  • In before the fatbashers sho–nevermind.

  • Really nicely written article. And much food for thought in it. The animal stuff is particularly intriguing. But the human part – I really have to wonder based on my experience and that of my friends and family.

    I was a fat kid (1950s and 60s) and I had a fat dad, but my mom was slim. Why dad was fat and mom was thin was obvious – he ate every snack food made by food corporations in addition to rich meals with lots of meat, whereas mom was determined to stay thin and always watched what she ate. I followed dad’s pattern. My brother and sisters followed mom’s pattern and stayed thin.

    When I went to college, I slimmed way down – no free snack food sitting around, no mom’s cooking waiting for me 3 meals a day with snacks in between. Through adulthood I gradually gained some weight back till 5 years ago I was about 30 pounds overweight. I decided I wasn’t going to follow in dad’s footsteps, which had led him to a sudden and fatal heart attack at 70. So I started following the ideas of Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Joel Furhman, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. T. Colin Campbell, and Dr. Carl Esselstyne – no animal foods, no snack foods, no processed carbs. Not a diet because diets are temporary. A new permanent way of eating. Plus I decided to exercise at least one hour every day, and I mean exercise hard. The 30 extra pounds came off and they have stayed off. But even now, if I start straying and eating snack foods, or drinking more than a tiny bit of alcohol every day, I start gaining and have to cut back. I simply cannot eat snack foods and empty carbs, nor drink as much alcohol as I wish I could. I eat a few bites of cake maybe 2 or 3 times a year. I drink more than I should again 3 or 4 times a year. Otherwise, I have to stick to a low fat vegan diet of whole foods all the rest of the time or I start losing control of my weight. But if I do stick to the plan, I have no trouble keeping the weight off.

    Most of my friends eat like my dad did. They are all fat. A few of my friends eat like I do. They are trim. My brother is very careful (though he does eat meat – he’s sort of into the paleo thing) and exercises hard and often, and he is still trim. My sisters are both extremely careful in what they eat and they are trim.

    Here’s what it comes down to: you can’t indulge yourself. You have to be hard on yourself. You have to be self-disciplined. You have to mistrust everything that comes from a big food corporation except minimally processed or unprocessed whole foods. You have to move a lot. You have to live like our ancestors did back when most of them were trim – walk instead of ride, work in the fields (your yard, e.g. don’t use riding mowers). Food is for nourishment, not extreme pleasure. Advertising tells us to indulge, and food companies make their products as addicting as possible (not to mention that they feed animals antibiotics and growth hormones some of which end up causing our bodies to grow). Several generations ago, corporations didn’t have such control and labor saving devices hadn’t eliminated effort from almost every area of life. There weren’t boob tubes and computers that people sat in front of all day long. And not too long before that, people experienced famines from time to time (e.g. Ireland in the mid-1800s). Nothing like a famine to keep you super trim!

    All of this accounts for why current generations are so much fatter. It didn’t take such self-control 60 years ago but now it does. The only way to stay slim now is to resist the system. And that means self-denial big time. Self-denial that lasts a lifetime and almost never lets up.

    Sad but true. It’s hard but it is possible. The first step is to realize you either practice what seems like extreme self-control to most people or you get fat.

    • Sounds incredibly depressing to me. I think I would much rather be fat and die young but happy than deprive myself my entire life and live a long time. I guess to each his own.

      • Dying young has probably always been a reasonable alternative to those in no danger of dying soon. A few months ago I had an “is it cancer?” test hanging over my head–a very nasty kind of cancer, at that–and faced for the first time the real prospect of dying before age 35. It was easily the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had.

        • Yes, but Tim describes his father dying at 70, as if that is too young or prematurely. Considering that when social security was put in place in the early 1900s, the average life expectancy was 68 (and people weren’t generally obese then), I would say 70 isn’t exactly premature–though some people may consider it to be.

          35 is certainly pretty young–but then dying of cancer is entirely different than dying of complications from obesity, isn’t it?

      • But when I live “cleanly” I feel so much better. And food tastes so much better. It is worth the discipline.

        • But that’s YOUR experience. Not everyone is the same, so not all experiences will be the same.

          I’m not sick because of my weight. My cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure are all on the low side of normal. My asthma is gone. I live with chronic pain from a spinal cord injury and it makes exercising impossible. I’m lucky to still walk, let alone go kayaking and enjoy other sports.

          I’ve tried changing how I eat, I run a calorie deficit (less calories than charts say I need to maintain my weight) of -1200 calories a day. I’m either still gaining weight or hovering at the same number.

          How? The medications I take to keep walking. The constant 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off of steroids, every month, every year for the last 22 years. No diet change will end that.

          I can be obese and walk, or trim and in a wheelchair.

          Guess which one I picked?

          • Bravo! I consume roughly 400 calories a day and I am obese. I had gastric bypass surgery and am still obese. Some days I eat up to 900 calories a day, but rarely.

            I see the farmers injecting hormones into cows, chickens, pigs to make them fatter for the market. Those hormones are in the meat we eat and we get fatter.

            There are many medical reasons for obesity and it’s not always a “garbage in/garbage out” method. Luckily, I’m of the age that I don’t give a flip what someone thinks about me and I eat for my health, not for someone’s viewing pleasure.

          • ::Facepalm:: A hormone is the organic growth signal. All multicellular living things have them. The farmers might add more on top but if your cells are dividing in response to cow hormone, go talk to your mom about how she spent her nights. In the meantime, try exercise. Or don’t eat multicellular lifeforms.

          • No multicellular lifeforms?? So…. an amoeba diet? I am thinking that wasn’t quite what you meant! lol

          • And once you filet the amoeba, there’s only enough for a very small sandwich!

          • You will never loose weight eating that amount of calories as you are putting your body into starvation mode. Your body is storing everything as fat just to maintain itself.

          • charts can be wrong. what’s your ideal weight? multiply that number by 12. that equals the amount of calories you need to consume a day to get to that weight and stay there.

            the drugs aren’t the issue.

            you may have to fine tune your number of calories to get to your target weight (not everyone’s resting metabolism is the same and it goes down with age) but there IS a calorie number at which you will hit and stay at your desired weight.

            and that’s another thing, for some reason, people feel that despite age and life circumstances, they can just continue to eat what they always did but lament at gaining weight.

            you have RECALIBRATE how you eat to allow for time and circumstance. there is no ONE, STATIC, ETERNAL answer that will always be true.

            but then, it’s just a matter of tweaking until things level out.

      • Of the people I know who were overweight and died young, they didn’t seem happy to me. Not while the last 2 decades of their lives they were robbed of energy, got knee pains, arthritis and crumbling spines and then progressed to diabetes and cancer. That’s a long time to be putting a brave face on things…

        • It’s a trade off, for sure. However, Tim is describing a situation that works *for him*. Not only would his diet not necessarily work for other individuals, the kind of diet he describes would not make life worth living for me. If my choice was to be miserable for every single day of my (longer) life, or be fat, I’ll take fat.

      • There is definitely an adjustment period, but after anywhere from 3 weeks to 2 months of “clean” living as Chris Mo describes it, a new more careful way of eating gives a great deal of pleasure. Maybe not the kind of “rush” that high-fat and/or high-sugar and/or high-salt morsels deliver, but definite and sustained pleasure. Coupled with the satisfaction of knowing you are doing something wonderful for your future self.

        If only the choice were as simple as 1) have extreme pleasure now and die a little earlier; or 2) have less pleasure now but live longer (wishing you could die because of a boring diet). But it isn’t like that. The real choice is this: 1) have extreme pleasure now and gradually decline so the last 2 or 3 decades of life are an increasing torment of disability and extreme medical intervention; or 2) have a little less pleasure now, though still a huge amount of pleasure, and last many decades without disability and extreme medical intervention, then decline very quickly at an advanced age and die quickly, knowing you did the best for yourself by exerting some self-control.

        Obviously there’s no guarantees for any individual. A few people can smoke massively, drink themselves silly, and eat like there’s no tomorrow and live to 100 without problems while a few people are very careful and die young or get horrible conditions that disable them for decades. But on the average you are doing yourself a huge favor by living as cleanly as possible while still enjoying yourself.

        One big problem is what we think of as normal. Now normal means eating foods that would have given people in middle ages orgasms to just have one bite. Huge amounts of salt, sugar, and fat in everything processed. So much salt, sugar, and fat in just about everything that you can barely taste the beautiful flavors of the minuscule amounts of real food in the food-like products most of us consume.

        We evolved over 10s or 100s of thousands of years where normal eating meant gathering greens and tubers and hunting lean muscular animals that had to fight for their existence every moment. We’ve had enough time to have evolved to handle what the 10,000 year old agricultural revolution delivered – whole grains, legumes, and still fairly lean animals. But not nearly enough time to evolve to handle what the food industry has done since 1950 – process everything nutritional to practically nothing (except extreme flavor) and fatten animals up so their meat resembles nothing like what our ancestors ate. If you want subject yourself to the forces of natural selection, go ahead. But I think I’ll try to stick with what my body truly needs.

        Sure, our brain tells us to gorge on bad stuff because it doesn’t realize a famine isn’t right around the corner. During the millennia while we evolved to our current form famines were ALWAYS right around the corner. And if a famine comes now, those who struggle with obesity have the metabolisms that will thrive in such an environment. It’s only our access to cheap piles of food that makes people obese now – that and not eating tons of fiber instead of what the food industry so longs to sell us so they can profit massively at our expense.

        There definitely are people who eat 500 calories a day and still lose no weight. I have a good friend like that. One of my sisters is like that. And her problem got solved by eating only in a 4 hour window every day and eating no animal foods and no added fat – just whole foods with lots of fiber. My other friend can’t do that – her vagus nerve is damaged and she can’t eat fiber. I’m not sure what the solution is for her, other than extreme deprivation for life which is what she does. She is amazing but it’s no picnic, that’s for sure.

        Beyond doing your future self a favor, there are other really good reasons to eat carefully. Animal foods these days mostly come from factory farms where animals are tortured without a break for all their short lives (except cows who get to graze for part of their lives). If you want to eliminate a lot of suffering in this world, give up animal foods. That’s the single biggest thing an individual can do to reduce suffering. There’s also the environment to consider. Animal agriculture is enormously costly and polluting. Again, the single biggest thing you can do to pollute less is to stop eating animal foods.

        Where’s the downside? You benefit yourself, other sentient beings, and the earth and what do you really give up in the long run? A little bit of pleasure. You still get a huge amount of pleasure and satisfaction from eating well prepared whole foods. So what you lose is basically nothing in the end. Except you have to control yourself in a world of cheap food-like substances that are massively pushed through relentless advertising. Like I said earlier, resist the system.

        • Actually, modern agriculture is what we haven’t really had time to adjust to. We used to be subsistence hunters–eating meat primarily, along with what we could forage while we followed the food animals. The concentrated energy from meat is what allowed us to develop large brains and gave us the ability to be such excellently adapted long distance runners. There is no way you are going to convince me that we aren’t evolved to eat meat.

          And I said it sounds depressing, because the kind of diet you describe sounds like torture to me. I’ve tried low fat, mostly vegetable diets and the result is that I am always hungry, not to mention extremely bored. After you have been hungry 100% of the time for several weeks, even the most strong willed person has to admit defeat. I’ve tracked my calories–I mostly cook at home and usually eat between 1600 and 2000 calories a day–not a large amount. You can be as self righteous as you like, but you can’t escape the fact that your experience simply is an example N=1. It does not apply to everyone–or even a large number of people.

          • If you are the weight you want to be, and enjoy your eating, and are in good health, that’s great. If it’s not broken don’t fix it. I’m not trying to tell you how to conduct your life.

            If anyone who struggles really hard with weight issues is reading this, I’m suggesting you give the approach I’m describing a try. It is definitely not a matter of N = 1 as Janipurr claims. If you go to Dr. John McDougall’s website or Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s, you’ll find hundreds of testimonials of people who have lost hundreds of pounds and have kept them off for years, and feel better than they ever did before with more energy than they ever thought possible. If you read the books of Dr. Dean Ornish and T. Colin Campbell and Carl Esselstyne and Neal Barnard, and of course McDougall and Fuhrman as well, you’ll see how in peer reviewed studies, a whole foods plant-based diet (WFPBD) has reversed severe heart disease and diabetes and many other conditions.

            The paleo diet is interesting, but there are no studies showing it can reverse arterial blockages. Maybe someday that will be put to the test, but so far, the WFPBD is the only dietary approach proven to reverse deadly conditions. And prevent them too, of course.

            The books of the authors mentioned above also cast severe doubts on the assertion that early humans ate tons of meat. Think about it. If you want to eat a plant, it can’t run away. If you want to eat an animal, it tries desperately to escape. Which is going to be easier to get? Early humans likely ate mostly plants and a little meat, and on rare occasions, a lot of meat.

            Not enough time to have evolved to handle what the agricultural revolution has delivered? Strange then that the whole food products of the agricultural revolution have been shown in studies to reverse deadly diseases. And that hundreds if not thousands of people eat a WFPBD and lose huge amounts of weight and feel really great. If we hadn’t adapted to those foods, none of this would be the case.

            Does such a diet have to be boring? If you read those testimonials I mentioned above, you’ll see that once people get used to that eating style, they love it and would never go back. Janipurr, if you ate too many veggies and not enough whole grains and legumes, well many people feel hungry doing that. Not everyone, but most people find grains and legumes more satisfying than mostly veggies (though I personally crave veggies). Dr. McDougall emphasizes this concept in his book “The Starch Solution”. And if the issue is not enough fat, which some people really miss, adding nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados – really high quality fats, in other words – is an option Dr. Fuhrman recommends.

          • Here is my problem with what you describe…I am a woman in my mid-30s and am what doctor’s consider obese. Now one would look at me and think I must eat a diet rampant of “empty” calories such as fast food, snack foods, etc… Here is the thing – I don’t.

            My daily diet looks something like this:

            • I eat more then the recommended amount of vegetables every day.

            • I eat little meat and when I do it is lean meats or fish (occasionally I will eat pork or a steak but not regularly)

            • I do not eat processed grains and in fact the only grains I consume are oatmeal and quinoa.

            • I get most of my carbs from fruit, vegetables and legumes

            • I only use Coconut and Olive Oil, and occasionally small quantities of butter

            • 90% of my meals are cooked by me

            • I do not drink juice or soft drinks (except on rare occasions), drink only 1 cup of coffee a day and spend the rest of my day drinking water and decaf tea

            • I eat between 1800-2200 calories/day

            • I walk every day, do yoga several times a week and swim.

            Sounds great, right? It is, except for the fact that despite all of these efforts, I am unable to lose a single pound. In fact, if I even deviate slightly from any of this, I will actually gain weight. Part of this is due to a condition I have called Poly-cystic Ovarian Sydrome, but even the doctor’s say that there is to be something more going on. So you tell me, given your model is this still a result of my poor diet and laziness?

          • Did they put you on metformin? It’s a good one for insulin resistance. My friend with the same problem was put on it and lost weight, she’s still obese, but much less so. Small steps also are a success. Also, try cutting off salt – it causes to store too much water, and excess water is a pain in PCO. I’m not a dietetician, so I won’t recommend you diets, it should be done by a professional.

          • Look, I’m not saying anything about good and bad or virtuous versus lazy. I don’t think being heavy is bad. I don’t think heavy people are less good than lean people. I don’t think rigid self-control is better than a relaxed policy of taking pleasure in the good things of life.

            I’m just saying that I want to be lean, not heavy, and mainly because I have been convinced that being lean is healthier for me in the long run (though I’m sure vanity comes into it as well, and vanity is something I acknowledge to be generally bad). And I admit that I could be wrong. I am certain of very little in this life. But the science, such as it is, certainly seems to point to increased health benefits in being leaner.

            I advocate self-control not because it’s morally better than relaxed pleasure-seeking but because science says it’s very difficult to be lean when massive quantities of incredibly good tasting food and food like substances surround us everywhere and are easily affordable for most first world people.

            I’m not saying people in general, or you in particular, should be lean. I am saying that if you want to be lean – purely your decision – there are things you can try. You have tried a lot of things already. But there are more things you can try, and I’ll list them in a minute. But first, I know, and have said already, that some people struggle much more than others. The people who struggle most are the ones who would be super successful if we lived in conditions like those we evolved in, where food was scarce and hard to come by and famines always waited just around the corner.

            To a lesser extent than you, it sounds like, I am a person who struggles too. In order to go from a BMI of 27 to my current BMI of 21, I had to adopt a low fat whole foods diet of exclusively plants. But even that was not enough. I had to fast completely for one or two days a week. And I had to restrict my eating hours to 5 a day (intermittent fasting). To maintain my BMI of 21, I still have to fast usually 1 day a week and maintain my 5 hour eating window, and of course maintain the plant foods only approach. And exercise hard at least one hour every day without exception, usually more than one hour. I do allow myself small quantities of nuts and seeds now, again, because I think the science indicates they are health-promoting when not eaten in excess. This is all a lot of trouble and requires a lot of self-discipline. I admit that it could indicate obsession. I’m not saying it’s better than being more relaxed and heavier. But it is the path I’ve chosen because I believe it will lead to better health. Not because it’s inherently virtuous or praiseworthy.

            Here are some additional things you can try if you want to be leaner. If you don’t, ignore these:

            Fast one or two days a week.

            Eat only in a 4 or 5 hour window on the days when you don’t fast entirely. (Just for the record, I have found hunger is not an issue after you get used to this – even on total fast days – and that vigorous exercise is no problem even in a fasted state. But check with your doctor first, of course).

            Dr. McDougall would tell you this about olive oil and coconut oil: eliminate them entirely. They are not whole foods for one thing. Olives and complete coconut would be better options if you must have them. Nuts and seeds would be a better way to get fat (raw, unsalted, of course). But until you are at the BMI you want to be at, cut out all added fat. And animal products of any kind (take vitamin B-12 if you cut the animal foods). McDougall would say that starches (meaning whole grains, potatoes, sweet potatoes – not refined grains, not even whole grain flour) will satisfy you once you get used to his approach.

            And this would really be great if you want to spend the money on it: go to a McDougall 10-day program. You will see how to make his approach tasty and satisfying because all your food is supplied, plus you will get health assessments and advice from doctors who specialize in using nutrition to get people healthy and lean, plus you will take in many lectures that will lay out the science very clearly and convincingly. Dr. Fuhrman has similar retreats, and True North in California has a program that is even more extreme that would really jump start your progress. Also, the Rice Diet people in North Carolina.

            So once again, you can do more than you have tried so far. But what you’ve already done shows great self-control. And self-control is good if it serves you, but I’m not saying anyone is a bad person who chooses to go with pleasure instead. It just depends on what you want.

          • Hi Tim,
            I’ve also been trying to do a WFPBD. I have been trying on and off for the about 6 months, and recently started reading ‘Whole’ by Dr T Colin Campbell. I’m planning to read ‘The China Study’ next. I’ve been vegetarian for 13 1/2 yrs, and vegan for the last 6 1/2 of those, but I am really struggling with sticking to the whole foods diet. Any suggestions for making those first few weeks a little easier?

          • Hi Ciarrai,

            I just finished reading “Whole” today. Great book. But not much help in terms of daily mechanics.

            Have you tried “The Starch Solution” by Dr. John McDougall? It presents the science and some success stories, but it also contains recipes that have been tried on lots of people, whereas “Whole” has no recipes. McDougall’s main thing is that most people find starch – his sort of in-your-face name for complex carbs (in-your-face to the low carb people) – more satisfying than a huge emphasis on vegetables, and his recipes reflect that. I do find he’s right, although I like lots of veggies and lots of fruit (I may eat too much fruit, I sometimes worry).

            For me, quinoa is absolutely delicious. So if I eat a lot of quinoa, I feel very happy and satisfied. Of course I eat it with some legumes and veggies too. Brown rice and oat groats cooked like you would cook brown rice or quinoa are also very yummy to me (I usually combine all 3 grains before cooking). So if you could find one or more grains you really like, and eat it/them with beans and veggies, and really fill up on that, and then end with several fruits, that might satisfy you.

            Lots of people really crave potatoes. They have gotten a bad rap because the low carb people really despise their very concept, but as McDougall points out, they have a lot of nutrients and most people find them very satisfying. The trick is finding tasty ways of preparing them that don’t use butter or oil. I love them cooked with cabbage and onions (the Irish in me). Or baked then smothered with salsa and beans. “The Starch Solution” contains lots of potato recipes.

            One of the best ways to really get going is to go to one of McDougall’s 10-day programs where you see all kinds of ways to prepare whole foods. Or Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s similar retreats. But they are kind of pricey.

            Don’t keep junk foods around your home. It’s so hard to resist their temptation. That is something I’ve struggled with for years as my partner stocks the pantry with tons of junk food and I can’t convince him to switch to whole foods. But in the last year or so I’ve gotten so I can resist them almost all the time. And I do that by being sure to fill up on good stuff first so there just isn’t room.

            And that’s another thing. You get to eat a lot of volume when you stick to whole foods because they are inherently nutrient dense but not calorie dense. So feel free to eat as much as you want to the point where you’re just not hungry at all.

            I find stevia really yummy. Added to coffee in the mornings, decaf in the afternoons, and hibiscus tea (zinger teas) in the evening really makes me feel like my sweet tooth is satisfied. Fruit really helps with that too.

          • Don’t forget G6PD Deficient people who can’t eat beans (soy is in everything processed) and cannot eat vegetarian diet. Lot of other people either, unless they want to get sick and die.

          • You should look into the keto diet. You naturally end up eating lower calorie amounts because it’s a high fat, low carb diet. You eat higher fat (versus low fat because guess what – your brain LOVES fat and needs it), and lower carb (because even “healthy” whole wheat bread metabolizes as sugar, and basically at 300g a day recommendation, that’s like shooting a CUP AND A HALF of sugar into your body, and your body is normally at a 1 tsp of blood sugar. sooooo then your body produces insulin, and turns the sugar into fat for storage, and you gain weight.)

            Basically, I’ve lost weight and I’m sitting here eating cauliflower fried in bacon fat, eggs, and hot dogs with sour cream and cheese, and this is not only super filling, tasty, but makes you healthier! Hopefully (if you want to lose weight) – you haven’t given up and resigned your life to feeling crappy on carbs. Check out reddit.com/r/keto to really get the info (read the FAQs) if you want to know more – like I want to shake everyone who recommends the high carb-low fat diet and say “nooo that’s why we’re fat and have SO much mental shit!!! opposite, OPPOSITE!”

          • Actually, keto diet promotes diabetes even more than eating all carbs.

      • I feel so much happier when I get 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day and don’t drink alcohol or eat crap. So as you say–to each his own. But I don’t feel deprived, I feel healthy and happy. I used to weigh about 40 lbs more, ate a lot more pizza, and drank a lot more booze. This wasn’t a life of delicious indulgence, but one where I got sick a lot more and was too tired to do the things I love.

    • Damn fine article. Brave common sense.

    • Did you not read the article?

    • “So I started following the ideas of Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Joel Furhman, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. T. Colin Campbell, and Dr. Carl Esselstyne – no animal foods, no snack foods, no processed carbs. Not a diet because diets are temporary.”

      This sounds dreadful.

      • It’s not. It takes a period of adjustment, and then whole foods deliver tremendous pleasure. It’s like addiction. Say you enjoy a 5 ounce glass of wine every day. Great flavor, perhaps even some health benefits. Then someone introduces you to cocaine. What a rush – way better than wine. Then you try heroine. Bye bye cocaine. Now you really know how to savor life, and a little glass of wine seems pathetic. Once your life comes unraveled by addiction, you decide to give up the hard drugs. It takes work. There’s an adjustment period. But after you weather it, the little glass of wine tastes great again.

        The food industry tries their best to lard their food like substances with exactly the right degrees of salt, sugar, and fat to addict people to their products. For many such products, irresistibility, not nutrition, is the goal. (Some food companies do offer healthy options, obviously – like companies that sell unadulterated vegetables and whole grains and beans, and even meats from animals fed their natural diets and not tortured for their whole lives). Sure, compared to these fantastic tasting food like substances, a whole foods plant-based diet seems bland. But once you escape the addiction to these things, whole foods are incredibly delicious and you feel so much more vital and glow with health and energy.

        Definitely worth it.

  • Excellent piece. Obesity is probably more complex than we have been told the last few decades. The sudden surge in the US from 1980 is especially puzzling; nothing special happened to either diet or exercise around then – large numbers of people just started getting huge for no adequately explored reason. I am a bit dubious about the BPA explanation, though viruses are convincing. So is HFCS though it isn’t used everywhere that obesity has become a problem. Finally, the great tide of fat seems to be going out, at least in some places. The reasons for this are as interesting as those for the obesity crisis in the first place.

    • “nothing special happened to either diet or exercise around then [1980s]”?

      ……………….

      Fast food proliferation, more artificial substances in food, processed food, deep fried everything, television culture, more desk jobs, the death of the independent farm, and, relevant for this particular discussion, the rise of the victimization of everything and the externalizing of responsibility.

      • Fast food was around before 1980. Americans ate more meat and fat before 1980 than they did afterwards. No junk/processed food in the 1970s? Are you kidding? Agribusiness was up and running by 1965, as was a sedentary desk-job culture. What changed? Maybe more sugar? Maybe a virus? We don’t know

        • Have you seen that ad from the 1970s ad about eating sugar to help you lose weight? Classic! http://sas.guidespot.com/bundles/guides_e8/assets/widget_asIMHY0iTnGyGw7MS6BF8y.jpg

        • Studies looking at intake of fast food show a huge frequency increase in the late 80’s, too.

          The average family eating out once or twice a month in the 70’s and 80’s would not see near the impact that today’s average family does – 4 or 5 meals a WEEK.
          That’s a rather significant change.

      • …and Monsanto spread their products worldwide.

      • Umm, hate to tell you, there was a lot of fast foods back in the 80’s. T.V dinners, and host of other unhealthy food. It was about convenience back then.

        Fast food is not a modern phenomena.

    • Something special did in fact happen to diet around 1980: George McGovern and Ancel Keys, among others, decided to push the idea that fat, especially saturated fat, was harmful, and people responded by eating more “healthy whole grains” which turned out not to be so healthy. The politics behind this is well-documented in Gary Taubes’ books.

    • subsidized corn syrup

    • Remember, 1980 is about the time the “exercise craze” started. I’d had the impression that the sudden surge came after the ’80s, what with super-sized fries and at the same time the end of the exercise craze, part of which I’ve always chalked up to the intentional drabification of exercise wear after the ’80s. If you’re gonna sweat, you might as well have fun doing it, and after the ’80s exercise was sold more as penance or proof of serious-mindedness after the supposed frivolity of the ’80s. Of course, they sold it that way in the ’80s WRT the ’70s, too, but they ramped up the drabitude in the ’90s.

  • GMO Glyphosate are the culprits. Monsanto even knows the truth is coming out, it’s why the pre-empted mass lawsuits by passing the “Monsanto Protection Act”. Time to wake up folks.

  • Please stop using the term “thermodynamics” in this context–it was incorrect when Bloomberg said it, and it’s incorrect when you say it. What he was trying to say is that it’s a chemical, biological process. Thermodynamics refers to a very fundamental understanding of how particles behave in ensembles in under the influences of temperature, pressure, concentration, etc. The scientific mechanism behind weight gain in mammals is more appropriately categorized under the realm of biology and/or chemistry.

    • I think the author may be using the term “thermodynamics” as a way of poking fun at Bloomberg’s conceptualisation of the problem.

    • Thermodynamics refers to the relation between heat, energy, and the ability to do work. This is quite applicable to the study of calorie expenditure. It seems perfectly acceptable in this context, and this is from someone with a chemical engineering degree, though I suspect since you are irritated by the use you are in the sciences as well. I believe your definition for thermo above is actually more applicable to the related field of physical chemistry. Let’s not quibble. Call it thermodynamics and debate the important points.

      • You correctly surmise that I’m a scientist: I have a PhD in Nuclear Physics. And while I agree that “heat, energy, and the ability to do work” is relevant to things like metabolism, it is also relevant to just about every process on earth (as most physics concepts are).

        The concept that the author describes in the article–“if you take more energy than you use, you store it”–describes a metabolic process that takes place within living cells which is facilitated by chemical processes (specifically chemical transformations), which if anything could be associated with electrical properties of atoms, not thermal properties (though heat is released as a result of the reactions in the cells). I would argue that branding this process directly with a broad set of physics terms is counterproductive to begin with–it is a chemical process. It is not related to the basic laws of thermodynamics, and the only reason I can find that the author continued to invoke this term is because Bloomberg did, which I think is irresponsible.

        To your statement about “quibbling”: as a physicist who has spent a large amount of time disabusing the public of incorrect understanding of physics terms (“quantum” is a particularly egregious example), that they picked up from that term’s misuse in popular media, I tend to care a lot of about these kinds of things.

  • “One recent model estimated that eating a mere 30 calories a day more
    than you use is enough to lead to serious weight gain. Given what each
    person consumes in a day (1,500 to 2,000 calories in poorer nations;
    2,500 to 4,000 in wealthy ones), 30 calories is a trivial amount: by my
    calculations, that’s just two or three peanut MMs. If eliminating
    that little from the daily diet were enough to prevent weight gain, then
    people should have no trouble losing a few pounds.”

    This is INCREDIBLY bad logic and not even remotely math.

    If you *need* 2500 calories a day, and eat 2530 then you’ll gain weight, yep.

    If you do NOT need 2500 a day, and cut back from 2530 to 2500 it’s not going to make any difference at all!

    I am 45 years old. I am 5’1″. If I ate 2500 calories a day I’d weigh – well, I’d weigh what I did 4 years ago before I realized the ‘2000 calories a day’ was a meaningless average.

    The average calorie intake *I* need to stay at a healthy weight of about 120lbs is 1700 a day.
    Yet – they’re suggesting that in poorer nations the 1500 – 200 is ‘bad’ ?
    And in wealthy nations we eat 2500 to 4000 calories A DAY???
    And you think that’s OK??
    And cutting out 30 calories should help???

    This isn’t science, it’s more feel good crap.

    • But by a purely thermodynamic model, which is what he was referring to, and what is largely touted by people who say obesity is purely a choice, going from 2530 to 2500 would make a difference. You can’t argue both sides of that. It only makes a difference when it brings you down to your “right” level, is hokum.

      • The claim was that ‘normal’ calorie intake is between 2500 and 4000 calories per day.
        That’s still between 500 and 1500 calories MORE per day than your body needs.
        If you eat more than your body needs, you gain weight.
        If you cut a very small amount – 30 calories?
        And are still eating 500 to 1500 calories MORE than your body needs?
        You’ll still gain weight.
        A teeeny bit slower – but STILL too much food and STILL gaining weight.

        • You don’t know “my” body or anyone else’s needs. Your conviction that you do is as arrogant as it is ignorant.

          • The 2000 calorie ‘average daily intake need’ was arrived at through studying the calorie needs of 18 – 24 yo male college students in the 70’s.
            The odds of that applying to you are incredibly slim.

            If you are overweight you are taking in more calories than your body needs. Period.

            The vast majority of women in the U.S. ARE eating between 2500 and 400 calories per day – exactly as the article states.

            However, that same vast majority would by ANY nutritional calculator that looked at height, weight, age, gender and activity level would show that only a very small percentage of women need even CLOSE to 2000 calories.

            That would be body builders, actual *athletes* (not ‘Oh, I walk at lunch sometimes) and pregnant women.
            So if you’re overweight and you’re sure it’s because people on the internet are mean and say things you didn’t want to know?
            Good luck with that.

    • Totally agree with Kitwench. If you’re a moderately active short female and you want to be a size 2 (which is a healthy weight for us, according to the charts), you can’t eat more than 1700 calories a day. One lunch at a place like TGIFridays will put you over your entire day’s allotment of food and you will gain weight, even if you eat nothing else for the rest of the day. If, on the other hand, you consume your entire 1700 calories in sweet tea and Cheetos and do not eat anything else, you will not gain weight. You’ll feel like crap, but you will not gain weight. Yes, I believe there are other things to consider (I personally like the temperature theory), but their effects on the human body pale in comparison to the gigantic caloric load that people consume on a daily basis.

  • As a researcher who works with non-human primates (many of which are overweight), I suspect that there have been significant changes to the diets of lab animals over the past few decades, though these don’t show up when looking at carb-fat-protein content. The companies that produce lab animal chow (Purina being the big one), obviously aim to reduce the cost of making the food while keeping the macronutrient levels relatively constant. This means that what goes into lab animal diets is subject to market forces and is not static. I’d be really interested to know how the ingredients that go into the lab animal chow have changed since the 70s.

    • I’ve read that when studies are done on high-fat diets, oil is poured onto one group’s chow while the control group gets regular chow; they don’t get a fat source that they would find in the wild (nuts seeds, for example). I’ve always been curious about what KIND of oil is used; not all fats are equal. Some vegetable oils are known to cause significant inflammation; coconut oil can cause weight loss. What if 50 years ago labs used lard, and now they use soybean oil? What if the seeming effects on atherosclerosis, weight gain, etc, are determined by the TYPE of fat and have nothing to do with added calories?

      Or perhaps the carb source in chow used to be rice or potatoes, and now it’s corn or wheat? If the protein used to be eggs, and now it’s soy, the effects on health and weight could be affected by the quality of the food regardless of whether the macronutrients are the same.

      • You make some good points. Industrial seed oils are a novel component in the modern dietary. Human chow has been reconfigured to conform to government dietary advice to restrict saturated fats replacing them with polyunsaturated oils. Animal chow has been reconfigured to take advantage of the cheapest available food components. Google – Vegetable oils promote obesity.

        • Yes, animal diets are not the same as they were. Because more pigs are fed soy and corn, lard can be higher in omega 6 PUFA than it used to be (30% as opposed to 11%). The diets may be the same in calories, macronutrient ratios, and vitamins etc (though some manufacturing processes will have changed) but the quality will have shifted.

    • Laboratory animal chow has changed dramatically over the time encapsulated by this study. Harlan Labs, makers of one of the most popular formulations of rat mouse chow (Teklab), have reformulated their chow several times during the last 2-3 decades, using a larger percentage of corn, corn gluten meal, and soybean meal to maintain a consistent meal price.

      At this time, 88% of America’s corn and 94% of America’s soybean crop are GMO; GMO soy corn didn’t exist in this country until 1996. So any dataset that claims to be using the same strictly-controlled food and covers a range before 1996 is highly suspect (NB, every group in this study begins before 1996, with feral rats going back as far as the late 40s.)

    • The lard based high fat research diet D12492 produced by Research Diets, which contains 60% of energy as fat, has been used over many years in many scientific animal studies related to the effects of high fat diets. The manufacturers provided details of the nutrient content of the diet based on USDA data which showed that 15% of the fat content was n-6 linoleic acid (LA) About 90% of the fat content was derived from lard and the rest from soybean oil.

      In 2011 the manufacturer tested the d12492 and found that LA comprised 30% of the fat, not 15% as previously published based on USDA data. The increased LA content of the diet is due to increased use of soy chow (which is high in ;LA) in feeding pigs which resulted in high LA content in the lard. Thus many studies were conducted based on erroneous data regard LA content of the diets. To there credit, the company made their findings public.Chris Masterjohn published an article on the subject in his blog The Daily Lipid Nov 19, 2011.

      .

      .

    • How does keeping the costs down while keeping the macronutrient levels relatively constant result in any change to the animals?

      Do their bodies know they are eating cheaper-to-make food?

  • The moral of the story; there’s no mucking around with nature and getting away with it.

  • “It’s possible that widespread electrification is promoting obesity by making humans eat at night, when our ancestors were asleep”

    It’s also possible that the doubling of life expectancy over the past two centuries is promoting obesity by making humans eat past their “natural” expiration date of around 40 years, when our ancestors were dead. Thus every year after forty isn’t really a victory of humanity over mortality, its just another year to accumulate unsightly fat.

    • Average life span is a poor indicator of lifespan. Average life span factors in infant mortality, which has gone down drastically over the past century, and continues to drop, has raised the average lifespan by decades. A better indicator would probably be “average lifespan of people who attain age 5.”

      • Data of that sort also exists: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus11.pdf#fig32. Average life expectancy for those who have reached the age of 65 was an additional 13.9 years in 1950 (earliest year data was available). By 2012 that figure had increased to 19.1. This takes care of the problem of infant mortality dragging down average life expectancy because of the astoundingly higher rates before modern obstetric methods became standard practice. To summarize, people who reach the age of 65 are living on average 37.5% longer than they were in 1950… I wish I had data from 1900, but I would suspect the figure to be just as dramatic (in the 50-60% range).

        • Which still doesn’t account for a rise childhood, teen, young adult, and adult (non-senior) obesity rates. I still doubt we’ve “doubled” our life expectancy “past [our] ‘natural’ expiration date of around 40 years”, per your original post. At the most basic level, I doubt the “‘natural’ expiration date” bit.

  • I think a little statistical analyses and some insight of general demographic trends, applied judiciously, can “explain away” a lot of this obesity epidemic nonsense that seems to be sweeping the nation.

    First let’s consider a basic law of accumulation. If an average healthy adult weighing 180lbs begins putting on weight in middle-age at 40, and can be expected to live until he is 80 years old, that is 40 years in which our model American will be loosening his/her belt. Even extremely modest gains of 1lb/year will result in our 180lbs Joe Sixpack turning into a 220 Joe Spare-tire in his twilight years.

    Couple this with the rapid advances in medical technology and a diminishing birthrate (a product of greater wealth), and you have a recipe for a statistical increase in the amount of overweight people relative to healthy people–BUT this need not arise out of actually increasing the absolute number of obese people in the general population. The rise in obesity rates is a function of fewer younger people (who tend to be leaner, just as a matter of having had less time to put on weight) relative to older folks who are indeed overweight, but also living longer because of advances in medical technology. Prior to the widespread use of statins and the triple-bypass, being obese tended to..well..kill you. And so you saw a lot fewer obese people walking around, because there were indeed less of them.

    The two most important things money can buy are food and health, and as the wealthiest nation in history, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we spend an inordinate amount on both. We haven’t yet achieved the right balance (if there even is such a thing), but for my bread the answer to the obesity question is pretty straightforward: generate more wealth. Wealth doesn’t just buy more food, it buys better food–It doesn’t just buy expensive emergency health services, it can be put in the service of long-term health. It buys the leisure that is mandatory for a regular exercise regiment. And the wonderful thing is… like fat, wealth tends to accumulate around the midsection. The author’s thinly veiled disdain for capitalism and the wealth it generates is making the fatal mistake of confusing the cure for the disease.

    • And you are making the mistake of ignoring all the evidence
      that doesn’t fit your theory of the timeless, universal beneficence of
      capitalism. If capitalism, i.e. wealth generation, were the solution we should
      be seeing less obesity globally as capitalism spreads, not more, and Americans
      should be the thinnest people on the planet. I don’t want to argue against the
      efficacy of better food, better health care and appropriate exercise but these
      are just as achievable in a socialist or social democratic society. That
      obesity is affecting almost all societies even as capitalism spreads suggests to
      me that mere wealth generation is not going to produce the effect you claim it
      will. And if the problem is a lack of personal responsibility, then what is it
      about capitalism that causes so many people to forsake it?

      • No, we would expect to see more obesity as longer life expectancy and diminishing birthrates increase the number of older, overweight individuals relative to their younger, leaner children. The problem is nearly identical to the “graying” of the population. We haven’t been stricken by a public health crisis of rapid onset aging, more people just happen to be living longer thanks to rising wealth and better health outcomes.

        I never said capitalism was the cure, I said wealth was. If European social democracies are effective at accumulating wealth (and they are), I would expect to see positive results in years to come.

        As wealth increases people predictably spend more of their income on food, health and hygiene, and can afford to spend less time working. The way they utilize that extra time and money though is up to them. Eating healthy, eating local, regular exercise and adequate rest are all aesthetic values that we seem to think should be universal, but they aren’t. The constraints of poverty put very real limits on the choices families make in order to make ends meet.

        You’ll notice though that trends are changing. A wealth of new fast food restaurants are offering healthy eating options, Wholefoods and Wegman’s are expanding beyond their traditional urban/suburban clientele, and this is because people have more money to spend on the not unsignificant costs of healthier food. As consumers begin to place a higher value on healthy lifestyles, they’ll be willing to spend more of their rising incomes on healthier food alternatives. A rising standard of living doesn’t guarantee everyone is going to spend their money in the ways we might like them to, but it does make it possible for them to do so if they value them highly enough.

        • “… we would expect to see more obesity as longer life expectancy and diminishing birthrates increase the number of older, overweight individuals relative to their younger, leaner children …”

          Again, you are ignoring the evidence in order to advance your theory. It isn’t just because people are living longer. Children are just as prone to be obese these days as their parents, if not more so, and it does not follow that the older you get the fatter you will become. I would suggest the peak years for weight increase in adults is 40-50 i.e. what used to
          be the average age. My guess is that when the average age was 40, if you did get to be in your 40s and 50s, you were more likely to put on a few pounds too. And even now if you aren’t fat by the time you are 50, you probably won’t ever get fat.

          I don’t think the mere generation of wealth is sufficient to reverse a biological tendency and it doesn’t mitigate the obesity we see in children. At risk of raising a whole ‘nother kettle of fish, I think a better case could be made that it’s the distribution of wealth that is the problem. (Not that I’m making that case; I’m just saying.)

    • Interesting, enlightening, and well written piece. Thanks.

      The practical upshot, of course, is that we can control our own weight.

  • There may well be other factors involved in weight gain and the obesity problem, but to suppose that the argument of over-eating being a factor is too simplistic does not mean it isn’t still a factor and probably the most important factor. These ideas are not mutually exclusive. I gained 20% more weight in one year through a changed diet where I ate more. I lost it most of it again by changing that diet back.

    • Never does the article say overeating doesn’t factor in. Anyone who thinks otherwise has heard what they want to and not actually read/understood the entire article. The article is clear throughout that there are many potential and likely factors, and focuses its energy on examining possible causes outside the realm of fat-shaming. As an aside, my spouse is rail thin and the Hapifork would vibrate the teeth right out of his mouth, so there’s a fat-shame myth busted, right there.

  • A huge piece of the puzzle: the worldwide switch to diets high in easily-digested carbohydrates like sugar, HFCS, and refined flour.

    Must read: Good Calories, Bad Calories by science reporter Gary Taubes. Short version: eating fat doesn’t make you fat (or give you heart disease, or diabetes, or high blood pressure, or strokes, or cancer). These “diseases of civilization” are mostly due to the action of insulin in high-carb diets.

  • Here’s the real kicker: Obese mothers with bad diets who have babies and feed them soy-based formulas from plastic bottles heated in a microwave – short of gunshot, the best way I know to f*** that kid’s pancreatic B cells. Result: no appetite control and crazy blood sugar, probably for the rest of his/her life.
    Were are a sturdy species, but there are limits.

    • I think the fact that my mother bottle-fed me sugared canned milk as formula, timed the feedings, yanked the bottle out of my mouth whether or not I was done or not had something to do with it all…

      • …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

    • actually, any formulas change the normal bacterial culture in the human gut and formula fed infants are more at risk of becoming obese, as are babies born by elective caesarean. Just think about how many people on the planet are affected by these factors including third world countries and animals in captivity…. And the effect lasts for 2 generations.

  • Great article.

  • I disagree with your insistance that fat is always such a health problem, but otherwise this is a fascinating report. I love broad perspectives on complex issues like this. I highly recommend the book Health at Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon. Thanks for sharing this well written piece.

  • There is a lot of fat hate around here.
    Sorry your daughter was so turned off by the image — I was turned on.
    Sorry evidence doesn’t sway your thinking unless it agrees with what you already believe.
    Sorry so many of you are ignorant and hateful.
    Sorry that will never be medicalized.
    I also notice that many people’s chosen icons show them as white. I suspect most of them middle class. Check your privilege, open your minds, then we can have a discussion. Until then, adios guys and continue to stew in your hate with each other.

    • The fat haters are the ones without fat problems, can’t empathize and so by definition don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Just swat them aside and go on to the important stuff.

      • Archboy, seriously… fat can only get on a human body at one entry point : the mouth. It doesn’t leech into you from the furniture. Anyone who is fat, got that way from eating more food than they burn with acticity. Period. Longtime crack adicts are not fat, neither are concentration camp prisoners. Tell me which person in the Auchwitz photos was the one with thyroid condition where they just simply couldn’t shed the pounds? Um… I can’t find the fat guy in those pictures because they had scarce food supply. Bodies need nutrients and at least some activity. I can empathize with self harming overeaters just as much as i can empathize with smokers, heroin adicts or anyone else who just simply needs to stop the harmful behavior. But let’s call it what it is.

        • I am 49, 6’4″, male, white, and 160 lbs. I am also an overeater. I tracked it once; I eat about 4,000 calories a day. I am an omnivore, eating meat every day. I am also a computer slug, getting VERY little exercise. I HAVE TRIED to gain weight. For most of my adult life. Just not happening. Trock, your simplistic theory simply does not explain my weight.

        • Thank God you are one of the few who know the way out of the problem. Why can’t the rest of us just get that through our heads?

    • Haha! Fat hate. This is rich.

  • Hi David – wonderful article. I’d read much before on the link between obesity and heat/light/plastic/chemicals, but not the brilliant critique of capitalism as a system. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “fat cats”. Congratulations on a fine and much needed essay. Margaret Wertheim

  • wow, a well written, thoroughly researched article. very refreshing.. I actually read an article on the internet and I don’t feel like I have wasted my time.

  • I didn’t really slim down until I stopped being afraid of carbs and embraced potatoes, rice, pasta and bread. Seriously! Thousands of people have lost significant numbers of pounds and improved their cholesterol and trigyciride counts by cutting out animal protein and eating starches. This is the right “fuel” for many successful civilizations—rice and Asians, potatoes and Peruvians, corn and Incas, wheat and Middle Easterners. It was royalty and big landowners who could afford animal fat, and they are the ones who got fat eating from the king’s table. DrMcDougall.com has loads of information about this and video testimonials from dozens of people who turned their lives (and their fat) around with a starch-based diet. Who knew?!

  • I’m glad that we’re seeing more people starting to look at a broader perspective on causes of obesity. One thing that I was surprised to find omitted from the article: changes in food. The wheat/corn/rice/chicken/etc that we eat nowadays is genetically very different than what we were eating forty or fifty years ago. Is it possible that we’re putting on weight because of these differences in what is considered “food?”

    • To support your argument take a look at ‘Wheat Belly’ by Dr. William Davis. The wheat we eat – and by we I mean essentially everyone in the world who eats wheat – is quite toxic and promotes weight gain.

  • You have brilliantly articulated my own inchoate thoughts on the topic. When we have an epidemic, which obesity has become, it is specious to blame it on a mass breakdown in willpower. Your scientific curiosity sheds a bright light on a topic that needs to be opened up for discussion and analysis.

  • “The problem with diets that are heavy in meat, fat or sugar is not
    solely that they pack a lot of calories into food; it is that they alter
    the biochemistry of fat storage and fat expenditure, tilting the body’s
    system in favour of fat storage. Wells notes, for example, that sugar,
    trans-fats and alcohol have all been linked to changes in ‘insulin
    signalling’, which affects how the body processes carbohydrates. . . . If candy’s chemistry tilts
    you toward fat, then the fact that you eat it at all may be as important
    as the amount of it you consume.”

    Where is the evidence that a diet high in meat and fat and LOW IN SUGAR poses a problem? These articles are always putting meat and fat FIRST in their list of alleged detriments, but when you read on, it’s always SUGAR that actually causes the changes in insulin signalling. There is no insulin spike in a high-fat moderate-protein low-carb meal that excludes sugar. That’s why diabetics can often reduce or eliminate medication if they take up that way of eating.

    Furthermore, a recent worldwide meta-analysis of diet and obesity/diabetes/metabolic syndrome was made, and after controlling for factors like food availability, food types available, genomes, demographics, income, and gender . . .

    . . . the availability and consumption of SUGAR (not meat, not fat) was the determining factor in rates of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.

    And since these conditions are precursors to heart and kidney disease and even cancer, it would seem disingenuous for this author to say, “meat, fat, OR sugar” as if all are equally culpable. THEY’RE NOT.

    Doubly ironic because this is an article about changing attitudes about calories, diet, and obesity!

    • Everyone’s an expert, but the obesity rate in WILD ANIMALS is going up, too. Durr hurr

    • Thank you! I was waiting for someone to bring this up. I was an obese teenager and I decided in my early 20s that enough was enough, and started focusing on my diet and being more active. High fat, medium protein, and low carb (easy enough as I have a starch intolerance) did it for me. I’m now slim as they come. But the main factor – cutting right down on sugar. I even only eat fruit a couple times a week. Enough of this low fat stuff already. Compare most low fat products to full fat products and you’ll notice the low fat varieties compensate with more sugar! even to this day I maintain my low sugar consumption and I maintain my weight just fine. I adhere to no more than 4g of sugar per 100g, and while it might sound like that’s depriving yourself of occasional treats, it’s really not. Shop around and you’ll find stuff (plenty of chips) with low sugar content. Some makers of chocolates also have stevia-sweetened versions, which are much better. Having said all this, find what works for you. As I mentioned above, I have an intolerance to starch which affects my metabolism negatively. Try elimination diets to see if you have an intolerance to any/all/some of the top allergens (ie. gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, corn, etc) that may affect your metabolic function.

  • Articles like this are an excellent discussion about the epidemic of obesity in our society,a discussion we ought to be having. However, one of the elements of the issue I never see addressed in these articles in the fact there is a small sub-set of
    modern humanity that is the opposite of this problem – the ultra-fit. In fact,
    I would suggest that this sub-set are, as a group, more fit than any similar
    group of humanity in history.

    These groups of ultra-fit folks associate in communities like triathletes and runners (I’m part of the latter group). I see the same group of people at the frequent local running races, from people in their 20’s to their 80’s. Mostly they are trim and healthy. They train hard at their sport, and eat sensibly. I am constantly amazed at the physical skills of these people who, in their 60’s, 70’s and even 80’s can run and even compete against individuals sometimes 1/3rd (or less!) of their age.

    Less you think this group is somehow naturally advantaged, I started running in my early 40’s. I was overweight (BMI of 28) andcompletely out of shape – I couldn’t run a single city block. Years of training and better eating have me, at 47 years of age, with a BMI of 22. I completed dozens of races, often beating people half my age. Nothing about getting there has been easy, but it’s been quite rewarding.

    I think the success of the ultra-fit group needs to be equally examined in any discussion of our overall obesity problem. What worked for these folks? How can it be applied? Simply pretending that traditional solutions like exercise and diet “don’t work” is equally untrue to “one size fits all” solutions.

  • A lot to love about this article. Lines like these warm my heart:

    “Wells notes, for example, that sugar, trans-fats and alcohol have all
    been linked to changes in ‘insulin signalling’, which affects how the
    body processes carbohydrates. This might sound like a merely technical
    distinction. In fact, it’s a paradigm shift: if the problem isn’t the
    number of calories but rather biochemical influences on the body’s
    fat-making and fat-storage processes, then sheer quantity of food or
    drink are not the all-controlling determinants of weight gain. If
    candy’s chemistry tilts you toward fat, then the fact that you eat it at
    all may be as important as the amount of it you consume.”

    As complex as the landscape may be, however, I believe there’s one idea we can all embrace with a certainty approaching 100%, and that is the insight that the ubiquitous calorie counting model of why obesity occurs and what can be done to fix it is, at best, a major oversimplification. Here are 9 pictures that support one of Berreby’s points — that the way we think of obesity majorly oversimplifies the problem and does a disservice to dieters by blaming them for hormonal/metabolic issues that may be beyond their conscious ability to control: http://www.caloriegate.com/the-black-box/9-pictures-that-prove-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt-that-calories-dont-count

  • I was looking forward to the article returning to the issue of lab animals. It seemed to be a doing a good job of critically evaluating each of these alternative explanations, but then it seemed to fall apart as it went. Most of the explanations it put forward cannot explain the increase in weight in lab animals, which would have been helpful for a convincing hypothesis.

    But, by putting forward all of these ideas – each of which having limited support themselves, what this article basically says is that we have no idea what causes obesity.

    It’s worth going over what we do know. We do know that at any given time, variation in obesity is primarily heritable, with genetic differences between individuals being responsible for 80% of the variation on body weight (see All Human Behavioral Traits are Heritable | JayMan’s Blog, Should Parents Lose Custody of Obese Kids? | JayMan’s Blog, Genetics and the increase in obesity – Evolving Economics).

    However, this doesn’t explain the rise in obesity over time, which is the issue this article meant to discuss. Genetic changes aren’t responsible, since there hasn’t been enough time for sufficient genetic changes to accrue.

    As this article makes abundantly clear, the true cause(s) for the rise in obesity is unknown. Several commenters on the matter have put forward ideas (including me – Fun Facts About Obesity | JayMan’s Blog), but nothing has been established conclusively.

    We do know obesity is difficult to treat, and indeed, impossible to do so on a societal level (as all comprehensive study on the matter have shown poor long-term outcomes of weight loss efforts) – at least for now.

    But we also need to be clear on the true problems this poses (beyond aesthetic ones). For one, it’s important to point out that we in the Anglosphere assume that everyone in the (developed) world struggles with obesity, partly because the coverage of the matter that saturates the media implies this. But no, it turns out obesity affects the wealthy world very unevenly. Anglos (folks of British extraction) are much more heavily affected than most Western Europeans, who themselves much more affected than Eastern Europeans, who are more affected than East Asians (see A Fat World – With a Fat Secret? | JayMan’s Blog). As well, we are led to believe that obesity is heavily related to cardiovascular disease (CVD) and death from such. When in reality, the relationship between CVD and obesity is largely the exact inverse of the above pattern (see the previous link and also see And Yet Another Tale of Two Maps | JayMan’s Blog).

    Even within a society, we are told obesity leads to “early” death. In reality, this doesn’t appear to be so simple. Beyond the simple problem of establishing causation – which is generally very difficult – we have to look at other correlates.

    Turns out obesity is negatively correlated with IQ. Lower-IQ people tend to be fatter and vice versa. This is true even after controlling for education and socioeconomic status. It is not poverty or education that creates the relationship; this is a true deep connection between the two variables (see Obesity and IQ | JayMan’s Blog).

    Going a step further, it is known that IQ is strongly associated with lifespan. That is, higher IQ people live longer than lower IQ people, with the latter dying of all manner of causes much sooner than the former (with the exception of cancer). What do you get when you put the two together? That’s right, the association between obesity and “early” death could be entirely a result of the association between obesity and IQ. Indeed, at least one study that controlled for IQ found that less than 10% of the variation in lifespan remained affected by body weight. See (IQ and Death | JayMan’s Blog).

    It’s also worth noting that interventions aimed at improving lifestyle habits generally fail to reduce CVD death rates (with perhaps the exception of the “Mediterranean diet” study which has been criticized).

    This is actually an open field of study that remains highly mysterious, where solid answers are greatly desired due to the obvious public fascination with the topic.

  • The bottom line is that if we taken in more calories than we expend, we gain weight. When I was a child fifty years ago, we played outside all day, every day, all summer long. And that was during the same hot Texas summer we experience now. We played on shady porches or strung up blankets to make sunshades and tents. Now, except for the expensive confines of organized sports team it is rare to see an unsupervised child playing outside. In a similar manner active movements of spontaneous play have be eliminated from schools. This absolutely ignores the biological need for children to play actively and learn through that activity.

    I am no stranger to weight issues. As a middle aged woman I feel as if I have been on a diet most of my life. I do think there are environmental issues at play in some of this. I think replacing sugar and honey with corn ethanol-which is metabolized differently-is one factor. The addition of fluoride, which gave us nice teeth, many have also set off a series of low functioning thyroids, especially in women of a certain age. And then there’s the frantic pace of life itself. I hear young working people who are proud they can’t cook or don’t cook. Not only is cooking at home less costly, it is healthier because you can choose to limit or amend your diet as needed. The bottom line is the place of fastfood in our lives. I am not going to say that fastfood itself is the culprit, but the selection of unhealthy fast food is the problem. You can’t dine on burgers and fries and soda every day and expect to stay healthy even if you are a teen athlete. Perhaps it is time for us all to slow down, stop looking for the easiest solution and start expecting more from ourselves.

  • It’s REAL SIMPLE. I see fat working-class kids who play outdoors all day long, and I see skinny upper-middle-class kids sitting around the house in front of electronic devices all day. What’s the secret? ORGANIC FOODS versus processed foods. Processed foods are loaded with junk that makes you obese. Organic foods aren’t. That’s it. That’s the one thing you can do to solve the problem.

  • There are other factors. What about the huge increase in radiation and invisible “rays” of cellphones, broadcasting, radar, and the like? There is no place on earth to escape these forces which travel through our bodies all the time. They are supposed to be completely safe and without effects, but I wonder.

    Another key factor is the rape of food. Absolutely the money motive, or capitalism, is responsible for the almost total replacement of whole grains and foods made with them by empty white flour, because whole grains have actual live food content and will spoil, whereas refined flours have far longer shelf lives, i.e., profit. This pattern is repeated endlessly, where artificial ingredients flavored with chemicals are called food, and laden with the sweet, salty, and fat tastes we are hardwired to prefer. It’s not just the monstrously inflated portion sizes, but the fact that the “food” they contain can never promote health.

  • Plus, in America at least, there is a schizophrenic relationship with food. I marvel at the checkout counter magazines which predictably have articles about losing weight and giant desserts on the cover. Do you think perhaps a slight disconnect here?

    And I had an experience in Europe about 10 years ago which taught me a lot about weight. In northern Italy, everyone was slim, even the old folks. I could see that portion size was teensy (a muffin was 1950s size, about 2.5 inches) with vegetables at a meal, and there was NO snack food available, even in grocery stores. No bags of chips! No candy bars! And everyone walked a lot, and far. Then I took a train 50 miles over the Alps to Austria. A restaurant served me weinerschnitzel which was a fried meat thing with a plate of gravy on it, and nothing else. Desserts were enormous. And all the people looked like Americans: fat. I finally took some responsibility for my weight and began to lose the extra 20 or 30 lbs that had dogged me for years. Before then I had told myself it was my genetic stocky build. After seeing the vast difference in cultural food norms, I realized that if you eat and exercise properly, you will not be fat.

    • Sigh. I am close to 50 lbs over weight. I am physically active and HEALTHY. I also have not eaten one single bite of food that has added sugar or sugar substitutes in 13 years. I don’t eat meat. I don’t eat dairy. I don’t eat bread. I don’t eat processed foods. 99% of my diet is organic vegetables, brown rice, and legumes. I have struggled with my weight since earliest childhood and was constantly shamed to believe that “if you eat and exercise properly, you will not be fat,” even though everyone else in the family, eating exactly the same foods, did not share my weight issues. THERE IS SOMETHING ELSE GOING ON HERE. Was it the DES my mother took when pregnant with me? Possibly. There has been a direct link shown between hormone disruptor exposure in the womb and obesity. Just google “DES” and “Obesity”. What really needs to change is the prevalent attitude of shaming people who are overweight. If you haven’t lived it, you really have no idea how destructive it is.

  • Many people are having children that might have died a century ago..diabetes and other disorders are passed down..what about chlorine and fluoride in water and how the thyroid reacts to it..gmo corn, soy, etc., there are hundreds of endocrine disrupting chemicals in our environment,,I guess all you can do is try to eat a healthy diet w/o processed food, keep as active as possible, and follow the latest research. It is sad to see so many young people overweight..they were the exception not the rule and they’re going to have a tough road ahead of them.

  • The debate over human fate has been predicated on the dichotomy of determinism (darkness) and free will (the light) for centuries if not millennia. I see this article as playing on this paradigm. I believe that we can only have hope that we are responsible for our destiny, because the contrary is nothing short of soul destroying.

    With regards to this issue specifically, I discovered these last couple of years that if you can’t enjoy your body – the exhilaration of pushing yourself physically – you are missing out on an essential part of the human experience. I hope that everyone who hasn’t received a *personal* medical diagnosis to the contrary can experience what I am experiencing.

  • So, let’s say you get off the phone with your mom who was starving when she had you and you sit down to a dinner of industrial chemicals with a BPA spoon and an organotin fork and you leave the lights on all night, are you saying that you will get fat without eating calories? Are you saying you won’t get skinny by eating vastly fewer?

    The problem with this article is that, sure, maybe lots of things contribute to obesity, but you can’t get fat without calories and you will get skinny with fewer calories. Some groups hate personal responsibility and love “sweep of history” theories because, to quote the scholar Howard Jones, “no one ever is to blame.”

    Anyway, tell Russia and the Ukraine and China and Cuba and North Korea how capitalism leads to famine and poor nourishment. I’m sure they’ll be amused.

    • “Some groups hate personal responsibility and love “sweep of history” theories because, to quote the scholar Howard Jones, ‘no one ever is to blame.’ “

      Um, no, in NO way is this article saying no one is to blame. Whole societies are to blame for being structured in a way that promotes obesity.

      Some groups hate personal responsibility and want to scapegoat only the people who suffer the ill effects of a cultural problem, instead of taking equal responsibility as a part of that culture.

  • Haha, all the “this diet/lifestyle worked for meeee” commenting on this thread. You still can’t take the smug arrogance out of the 5 percent who lost weight and kept it off. Maybe your bodies are designed that way… maybe we need to cut the fat stigma. Maybe we needed to pay more attention to this article, because then we read further “it’s what you eat and how you don’t move.” You didn’t understand the research at all, did you? Most of you probably didn’t have the attention span nor the intelligence to read the entire thing. Just here to troll about fat.

  • only the patient can solve his/her obesity problem
    the disease is solely a function of the actions of the diseased
    and only the diseased can solve his problem

  • Very poor writing, the poverty piece was almost completely a constructed straw man. In order for that to be at all complicated, you have to assume that personal responsibility has nothing to do with wealth. Anyone else catch on to that ridiculous assumption? Without that assumption obesity and poverty have a shared cause, and would have to correlate. Occums razor can cut this to pieces.

  • Even if there is *something* going on that affects weight, in the end, anyone can lose weight by eating less, moving more. If you are ingesting fewer calories than you are burning through metabolism and activity, weight goes down. Works every time.

  • In your efforts to write a convincing essay, Mr. Barreby,
    you’ve managed to run roughshod over the public debate regarding the causes of obesity, while stringing together a laundry list of alternatives spanning everything
    from the possible (e.g. endocrine disrupters like BPA) to the inane (e.g.
    virally-induced obesity).

    The main confusion here is where you conflate “lack of
    willpower” with “overconsumption of calories”. In the public sphere, perhaps
    these two ideas are not well-distinguished, but in reality they are two
    distinct arguments. There is no scientific basis to state that obesity is due
    to a lack of willpower—it is simply an untested assumption that many people
    (even public officials) make. In contrast, obesity is very strongly correlated
    with the amount of calories that a person consumes.

    Thus, contrary to your thesis—which asserts that public efforts
    to reduce calorie consumption are secretly initiatives to blame obesity on a
    lack of willpower—most public efforts are literally just aimed at cutting back
    on how many calories people eat. If caloric over-consumption is a major cause
    of obesity, then these policies may have a shot at working, regardless of
    whether or not “willpower” matters.

    In fact, you even blatantly mischaracterize this common rhetoric. You state that “we appear to have a public consensus that excess body weight… and obesity… are consequences of individual choice” and that “public health agencies … are quick to assure us … that obesity is caused by individual choices”. But you provide varied and inconsistent evidence. As “Michael Bloomberg, recently put it… ‘If you take in more than you use, you store it.’” In fact, this “thermodynamics argument” is not about willpower! (Although, it is a little known fact that the 4th law of thermodynamics deals with how willpower can actually decrease entropy… Mind-blowing, I know).

    Moreover, by completely mistaking the purpose of currently policies, you also manage to dismiss the implications of the strong correlation between obesity and caloric consumption (i.e. the default model, which you appear to disdain so much). There are at least two ways to explain this correlation:

    1)
    When people eat too many calories, they store
    more fat and become obese

    2)
    People start storing too much fat (many possible
    causes), which necessitates that their bodies consume more calories

    More likely, the truth probably includes some combination of
    the above. We know, for example, that when people reduce calorie intake they metabolize fat stores and lose weight (not indefinitely, just until their bodies reach something like an equilibrium at the new level of intake) and when they increase calorie intake, fat storage increases (again, until a relative equilibrium is reached).

    On the other hand, even given this logic, it still follows that a person who is, for example, undergoing chronic stress might endure an increased rate of fat storage, which might shift his body towards increased hunger and caloric consumption (thus, overall weight gain). Other, non-caloric factors might produce similar effects.

    Notice how these positions are not mutually exclusive and nor do they directly conflict with many (but probably not all) public policies. Yes, maybe there are unknown causes that we need to worry about, but if we don’t have adequate responses to meet these unknowns, then cutting back on total calories is still the best strategy that we have.

  • Maybe it’s that we no longer eat cyclically, ie with the seasons. There is reseach popping up showing that different season’s foods have different effects on the body. One season will cause you to store fat and another will cause you to use it.

  • Look, folks, if you wanna say YOU’RE FAT BECAUSE YOU SUCK AND NEED YOUR ASS KICKED AND I’M THE ONE TO DO IT just come out and say so and spare us the pretty language.

  • You people are all so stupid. Cars are good so good that they are all deafied “o” the great Car Gods do no wrong but make thousands of pounds of poision to put in to the air. You breath this crap your children breath it all the poor animals breath the damn gas fumes from your car ya YOU do it. God is punishing all of us now we all have to take our fair share or this poision in to our bodies. Along with all the other 65 trillion tons of other chemicals poured in to the air every day of every year. Welcome to the future gentalmen it’s mutantal freak time have fun now have a nice day

  • Watching a basic training film from WWII, I was amazed at how thin all the recruits were. Not just trim, but very thin. As a child my Mom was concerned I was too thin and started after school snack therapy to help me gain weight. It worked. Very well. Today I have to watch everything I eat, every day. I could put 10 or 20 pounds on in a year if I didn’t monitor things closely. My wife and I order set, smaller portions in the restaurants we visit. A hassle? Sure, but it beats being too heavy and miserable. Obviously some of the posters here are watching everything they eat too (by the way, great overall discussion on this article) and I’m sure they are as amazed as I am how many calories we can so easily pick up during the day without even trying. Personally, I equate it to money management too. Most people don’t want to track what they spend (or eat) to see how it impacts them. It’s too much work, but there is a nice payoff.

  • What about the lack of intestinal parasites? I know it’s gross but it’s a fact that these are far less common that they used to be.

  • Cut all gluten sources entirely (no bread, pasta, tortillas, etc). Cut processed sugars mostly. Cut juice mostly. Cut carbs significantly.

    Focus on lean meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables, and the rest will just fall into place. Do this and you NEVER need to count calories. Just eat when you’re hungry, but stick with REAL FOOD, not grains, legumes, and dairy!

    See how simple that is?

    Everyone I know of who has done any of the variations of the Paleo plan has lost weight and gotten lean. It’s no coincidence. People are fat because they’re eating BAD foods, but the so-called experts don’t know what bad foods are. They haven’t a clue! They’ll tell you with a straight face to cut back on meats, fats, and alcohol, and to increase your “whole grain” and “dairy” intake. They’ll advocate a big bowl of lentil soup, with a side of whole grain toast and a glass of milk and advocate against a steak, broccoli, and a couple of glass of red wine. NOTHING could be farther from the truth! It’s a crime against humanity to preach this crap. If you’re overweight, don’t write about nutrition. You don’t know what you’re saying, and it’s damaging to others.

    This author simply doesn’t get it. He’s reaching for something that isn’t there, but touching on some truths along the way. Clumping meat/fat/alcohol together with carbohydrates/sugar shows a certain level of ignorance bordering on criminal, given the evidence that’s currently available. Meat, fat, and alcohol don’t cause weight gain for crying out loud. Carbs and sugar do! He’s also way overstating the case against stress, sleep loss, etc, and just searching for magic bullets everywhere. Get a clue! None of those things make as much difference as the composition of your food. You’re body simply isn’t built to process grains, legumes, or dairy. These screw up your metabolism. You’re body is built to process vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, etc. REAL FOOD.

    • Agree, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with fatty meat either.

      • True, as long as the animal only fed on grass and non-GMO grains.

  • The people who say they’ve “tried everything” or list their calorie counts, I bet they sneak ice cream, eat themselves some hot dogs and french fries, etc. I’ve never met an obese person who ACTUALLY eats well. When I do, when I have an actual, visible example of it, other than someone typing about how healthy they eat and just can’t lose the weight on the INTERNET, then I’ll believe you.

    If you’re over-weight and happy with your body, I’m glad for you. Your weight doesn’t offend me, and I don’t care about you being over-weight. It’s your body, do what you want. But if you’re going to tell me you live a “healthy” life-style full of good, nutritious foods (with lots of fruits and veggies and little sweets) and exercise, I’m going to call bullshit.

    I like how the article addresses how “not all calories are created equal.” I’ve been saying that for years. If your calorie counts consist of ice cream, chips, and whatever other nasty food you buy from the snack section at walmart, it’s no wonder you aren’t losing weight.

  • This is simply a justification for unhealthy habits and the lack of observance of one’s body, plain and simple. Scientists go hunting for reasons why people are fat. Without so much as a bathroom scale, I can tell when I’ve gained too much weight and readily adjust the combination of food I’m eating. I step up the exercise to balance things. I switched from cheeseburgers to hamburgers, cut out milkshakes in favor of lemonade, drink water instead of soda, swap a side salad in place where fries would have been offered at a restaurant. And other than that I generally eat what I want and keep balance. I never go to the gym; instead, I routinely practice chinese martial arts and burn calories using my own body weight.

    Healthy humans should generally be fatter than how hollywood and fashion magazines portray them. Photographs are edited to slim down women’s arms, waist and legs. Models and actresses starve themselves and this “look” has become the established norm over the last 50 years (since Twiggy). In contrast, the Renaissance era showed plenty of plump, happy people.

    That said, the availability of fast food, along with low nutrition and yes, a general lack of willpower for people to exercise, has led to an overweight society. Our bodies were meant to work physically and mentally. The United States is a service-oriented culture, and manual labor (requiring physical strength) has been moved off to other parts of the world, where the people remain in better shape.

    There are also a range of problems associated with being too thin. Both my wife and mother have trouble keeping their weight up. But the overarching problem with obesity is the amount of work the heart is doing to pump blood throughout the body, and the additional stress on the body’s joints and spine. Exercise and a balanced diet doesn’t mean “be skinny”, it just means “be healthy”. Too often, being thin is associated with being healthy, but that’s not always the case.

    The research in itself is of little use if it just gives obese people an excuse to stop moving and paying attention to their diet. No matter what the research reveals, a healthy, balanced lifestyle with a little extra fat on our bones is better than the chronic problem that exists now.

  • H/T to Instapundit, and pace just about the entire medical establishment, one big thing lab animals probably have in common with humans is an increased ratio of carbohydrate calories to total calories in their diet. That increases insulin production, a naturally produced hormone which causes fat storage.

    Another thing that is likely new, and even with lab animals where you could possibly control for carbohydrate consumption, is very probably a big increase in consumption of calories from cheap newfangled vegetable oils that are loaded with precursors to inflammatory compounds. Soy oil, “canola” oil, and that good old wholesome corn oil with the native american indian imagery that came with it.

    Newsflash for the author, insulin spikes from ingesting high glycemic index foods, such as anything made from whole wheat(oops), also upregulate the production of the worst inflammatory signalling compounds out of the raw material supplied by the new to the world cheap vegetable oils. This is chronically bad for all sorts of tissues, not just fat cells.

    Want to avoid being fat, having type II diabetes, circulatory diseases? Eat more animal fat, as millions of years of evolution before agriculture came into existence designed our bodies to do so well. Go paleo. Don’t eat wheat, non-GMO or otherwise. In the form of bread, it is a blood sugar spiking WMD non-pareil, outranking even table sugar in glycemic index. Throw out your food industry sponsored politically created “Dietary Guidelines for the United States.” It wrecks your life, and the lives of your loved ones, and harms your country.

  • Plants are growing faster and greener too. Must be the CO2.

  • I think nature is readying us for the coming ice age.

  • Has someone blamed the Koch brothers yet?

  • FWIW, as near as I can tell, the body doesn’t really make many mistakes. They’ve worked pretty well for millenia. So our bodies may think something is going on, and from that assumption causing obesity, which we consciously don’t realize, or agree with, or may be based on assumptions that no longer pertain to modern lifestyles.

    I suspect that what our bodies are trying to decide is, in simple terms, this: Am I a farmer? Or am I a hunter-gatherer?

    1. If I am a farmer, then I will be eating plenty of different healthy foods, which are readily available. So I will eat mostly early in the day, chew slower, eat healthily, etc. So the body doesn’t hang on to calories for dear life.

    2. If I am a hunter-gatherer, then I need to hang on to calories for dear life. Food is scarce, and when available, may be unreliable nutritionally. The body decides this because we eat irregularly, eat low quality foods, tend to skip meals often, eat late in the day, gobble down food quickly when we have it, or any number of a range of other behaviors.

    So one of the reasons why causes of obesity may be difficult to pin down, is because the body isn’t regulating itself on a few behaviors. It is regulating our fat retention, etc., on a principle, based on whether we are one of the two historical groups which has dominated human life for millenia.

  • There is an interesting idea about animal weight gain in a book called Sleep Starved:

    Addressing the chimpanzee weight gain in particular- it notes that captive chimpanzees sleep a lot less (4 hours or so) nowadays compared to their counterparts in 70s and 80s. The book also cites all the evidence that sleep deprivation has a cause-and-effect influence on human obesity and insulin resistance (and appetite).

    It theorized that domestic animals are getting their sleep cut short by the same long workdays, light pollution and noise pollution that effects us. The references are the book. It makes a good argument that industrialization leads to sleep deprivation which leads to obesity. So it is not just calories in/out: it’s about metabolism. Which makes sense.

  • Yup, it’s GOT to be evil chemicals in the air making people fat.

    Strangely, those evil chemicals have yet to catch up to me.

    How could this be?

    Sorry, not buying it. Even if evil chemicals are changing your metabolism, all that means is that you no longer need to eat as many calories as you used to, and should adjust your intake accordingly. You can’t hand-wave at thermodynamics by pleading biochemistry. No matter what happens to your biochemistry, to gain weight you still have to take in more calories than your body burns.

    And yeah, sure, poor people are fat because of “stress”. Sure. It couldn’t possibly be that (in America, at least) poverty tracks very closely to stupidity, laziness, and poor impulse control – three things that track to obesity. Nope, that can’t be it.

  • In any event, I don’t give a damn and am not willing to accept any change in public policy that restricts food choice. I’ll actively seek to undermine any attempt to enact such a policy.

    I eat whatever I want. I’m still thin. I have low BP, low cholesterol.

    My kid eats whatever he wants. He’s thin too.

    The idea that he and I should be restricted in the food we’re allowed to buy, and that McDonald’s should be restricted in the food they’re allowed to market and sell, because a bunch of genetic defectives can’t control themselves is so patently and obviously an absurdity that I’m happy to put my foot through the bottom of your bucket.

  • Since lab animals, domestic cats and dogs, marmosets, chimps, domestic and feral rats, etc. are ALL getting fatter, then there is a mechanism at work that is outside of the food industry, politics and economics. Could it be something like EMF, electro-magnetic radiation, that is flowing invisibly through ALL of us at an ever increasing rate from cell phones, computers and microwave towers, affecting, maybe, our thyroid glands and our metablolism?

  • Incredibly not a single word on Gary Taubs’s “Good Calories Bad calories”

  • Are we unfairly labeling Capitalism here?
    In a Free Market, the farmer has the option to sell whatever he would like, to whomever he chooses, at a price dictated by the demand. It doesn’t sound like the “enterprising”, “capitalist” British GOVERNMENT left those farmers much choice.
    Associating government-sponsored Imperialism and the subjugation of an entire people to the Free Market system is a contradiction in itself.

    Seems like a moot point, but the language used in media nowadays is wildly inaccurate. Not by accident.

    .

  • Occurs across multiple species, even lab animals with carefully controlled diets. Makes you wonder if the antibacterial fad has caused the death of massive numbers of beneficial gut bacteria – which WOULD affect lab animals in their near-sterile environs. I want to see much more work done in this area.

  • AHHHHHHHHHH!!! this is INFURIATING!!!

    just GET A FAT PERSON AND COUNT HIS CALORIES FOR ONE DAY!!!! YOU HAVE YOUR ANSWER!!! this kind of article is exactly the WRONG information people need to hear because it is SOOOooooooo misguided!

    animals are getting fatter? great, that’s a DIFFERENT ISSUE. don’t track THEIR calories, just grab a random fat person off the street and track what they eat!

    srsly, it’s calories. that’s it. everything else, protein vs. fat vs. carbs whatever MAY count when we’re talking about elite athletes or people who are already slim as it pertains to the last 2 lbs or something.

    but for the VAST MAJORITY OF THE FAT WORLD, all they need to do is EAT LESS PERIOD!!!

    so what is your ideal weight? take that number, multiply by 12. that is the amount of calories you are allowed to eat a day.

    if you are AT that weight, you will maintain. if you are more, you will gradually reduce until you hit that weight. if you eat less, you will reduce weight till you hit a LOWER EQUILIBRIUM WEIGHT.

    seriously people, you can’t gain weight MAGICALLY out of FAT AIR! if there’s not enough substance coming IN, you can’t accrue substance on your frame! bloomberg is absolutely right.

    and why is it sooo difficult for this study to have simply tracked the amount of calories someone eats? why is that so hard?

    because people are desperate – DESPERATE – to find a scapegoat so they can blame it one something else.

    but just count the calories. for every fat person that reads this article, just count the calories that you average in a day and divide by 12. THAT’S why you’re fat.

    • Dumb.

  • Fascinating. I’ve no idea of the truth of it but I know that I gain huge amounts of weight when I try to stop smoking (that’s a big, and usually un-mentioned cause of obesity) and I only lose weight when my stress levels drop for a while. I don’t deliberately change my eating patterns in either case though I generally try to restrict my sugar intake.

  • This is an interesting article, but I think it *seriously* overestimates the impact of factors other than personal responsibility (or at least *implies* an overestimate). Our behavior has a *massive* impact on our fat levels. That much is ridiculously obvious. Individuals growing up in identical environments often show huge differences in fat levels, and individuals over time show changes in fat levels as they vary their behavior. I am currently dealing with this. When I go through periods where I eat a lot of ice cream, visit the vending machine at work, and otherwise eat junk food, I gain weight. When I avoid highly processed foods and get to eating food that is closer to the way it’s found in nature, I lose weight. I don’t think that *anyone* is shocked by this.

    We shouldn’t ignore things like epigenetics, chemicals in the environment, and other such factors, but we really need to prioritize the main factors causing obesity. The biggest factor should come as no surprise — what we eat. The calorie/thermodynamic theory of weight gain needs to die quickly. It is obviously flawed. Diets with equal calories but varying amounts of macronutrients have varying impacts on fat levels. As the article touched on, different foods have different effects on the body’s hormonal signaling. Even artificial sweeteners have an impact on insulin sensitivity, despite the fact that they have no calories.

    The most obvious shift in our diets over the last century or so has been a huge increase in sugar consumption and the consumption of highly processed carbohydrates. High-fructose corn syrup has been especially problematic over the last few decades. Sugar and processed carbohydrates wreak havoc with hormonal signaling, especially insulin.

    Rather than dismiss or downplay personal responsibility, we need to embrace it even more strongly because it is the most important factor in obesity. The goal should be to help people change their behavior in a way that is both *effective* and *sustainable*. Until we can do that, obesity will always be a problem, no matter what government policies we try to implement.

    • Responsibility has its place, but death by a thousand cuts is still death. Each individual factor might not have a terribly large amount of significance, but all of them combined is a powerful force

  • I very much enjoyed your article. There is much food for thought in it, and I would have enjoyed a good discussion about what it is saying. I hope to yet, but it will have to be elsewhere.

    I’m quite disappointed that so many of the comments I read were not well thought out discussions related to the contents, but back and forth discussions (and sometimes debate) of the prescribed diet and lifestyle of one diet guru or another (or the commenter’s own views of what one ‘should’ or “should not” eat and do) . Of the few comments about the actual article, some were even inaccurate about what was said.

    The article is a good piece attempting to question at least, the ‘first law of thermodynamics’ idea of weight management, and suggesting many possible contributors, particularly related to the rise of capitalism and the economics of food production.

    Many groups and organizations benefit by the belief that it is a person’s choices that are responsible for their weight, and all those diet guru’s that are being touted in the comments ARE AMONG THOSE PROFITING!!! Anyone claiming to promote the “right way to eat/live in order to lose weight’ are directly or indirectly feeding into the idea that it is our choice, while the article is legitimately questioning that assumption. It is not outright saying it’s wrong, it’s intelligently questioning it!

    Of the things not discussed, one of them is hypothyroidism. That is part of my story, as it is of many overweight people. Hypothyroidism, and thyroid issues in general seem to have also increased in the past few decades. Weight gain (no matter what you do) is one thing hypothyroid patients have to contend with, but I wonder what the cause of the rise in thyroid disease and how it might be related to the rising obesity rate,

    Another is the loss of trace minerals and other micro-nutrients in the soil. Causes of that are said to be the mono-croping as well as use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. That means that, even while consuming a “whole foods” diet, one may be lacking in many of the nutritional benefits available in the past and therefore contributing to the diseases of today including obesity.

  • I may have been too critical on some of the comments, for there were many that were relevant and some of heartfelt sharing of personal experience.

    I do object however to the promotion of one or another of the diet guru’s or systems that are actually profiting by the very thing the article is questioning; the ‘it’s your fault” personal responsibility angle of the FLTD idea.

    Of course our well-being is our responsibility, and blindly trusting any authority is not in our best interest. There is also so very much logically convincing and contradictory information out there, it is really hard to know what to believe, so intelligent responsible dialogue on these matters is so important.

  • quite interesting. lots of great explanations. or wait are they excuses? sorry but every fat person wants blame being fat on something other than anything and everything within their own personal control. it is in fact within their control 99% of the time. while every fat person wants to attribute every non fat person’s “success” favorable/lucky genetics. here’s the thing. fat, thin, muscular, endomorphic, mesomorphic….whatever, there is, in fact a scientific explanation. it’s micro science (as in the singular human being) though not macro science (the masses) as everyone wants to believe. sorry what works for me may not work for you and vica versa. don’t worry about science though. take the time, effort and energy to figure out what works for YOU as a unique individual. DO NOT believe all the hype of the mainstream media, large corporations, conglomerates and other for profit organizations and entities that try to make a buck off you. they are not your friend.
    with respect to mice, chimps, rats, cats, dogs etc. also getting fatter. there absolutely is a connection to to human’s getting fatter and that is that they definitely live in “man’s world” now, we do not live in theirs. they eat the same shit as mainstream humans do. light, BPA, other chemicals and their effects on hormonal balance…may be partially to blame? bacterial and viral influences? seems far fetched. i have seen so many people change their lives, that whether realistic or not, i will always hold on to the belief that if you are fat, it’s your own fault. if you really want to change that you will passionately and unwaiveringly sekk out what works to change that. unfortunately, most people won’t.

  • I am just loving the irony of all the comments the exemplify article’s conclusion– “Today’s priests of obesity prevention proclaim with confidence and authority that they have the answer.”

    The funniest thing is that Bloomberg’s city, New York City, is one of America’s thinner cities. And the most svelte neighborhoods are the fairly well-off ones full of restaurants like my favorite Salt Fat, which was perhaps a cheeky sendup of Bloomberg’s food policies. I struggled with my weight in my late teens in the burbs and then lost weight on some of the diets commenters here are promoting, though it was not easy at all. But I’ve managed to maintain it despite now eating what I imagine many of these people think are “bad” foods responsible for everything bad in the world.

    What changed? I’ve only lived in fairly well-off parts of cities in these years, areas that are pockets of European-style obesity rates despite being home to Cronuts, Momofuku’s pork buns, and peanut bacon brittle. Let’s not even get down to the sear amount of candy and booze Scandinavians pack down. Or pretend we can replicate Sweden or Park Slope’s rates of obesity just by telling people not to eat particular foods or to “move more.” I really doubt I would maintain my weight if I moved back to the Southern suburbs I am from, places that had no farmer’s markets or even sidewalks to speak of.

  • Have you considered obesity as a symptom instead of a disease?

  • This is the most thorough review, and the most compassionate, I’ve seen on weight. I will use it with my clients and “weightest” friends. Thank you!!!

  • Probably written by a fatty

    implying

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1454084

  • OMG!! That pic!

    It’s the Willendorf Venus come back to life!?

    What goes around, comes around…

  • Great article but didn’t find any mention of GMO’s or that High Fructose Corn Syrup that is in almost all “Food Products” ( as opposed to real food) today and both are part of the problem.

    Today’s obesity epidemic is the result of inflammatory hormones gone wild because of the ingestion of foods that cause inflammation ie: Sugar, grains and GMO foods. Fat cells are the bodies factories for these inflammatory hormones – Source( “The War Within” by Floyd H. Chilton, PHD).

    I have found that what works for me (down 20 pounds and maintaining for over 1 year now) is the low carbohydrate or Paleo Diet with real food only and one cheat day per week. I know everyone thinks that I eat large portions of meat and not much else, but that is NOT true. I eat small portion of 2 to 4 ounces of meat and lots of organic vegetables at every meal. I cook only with extra virgin olive oil, organic butter and extra virgin coconut oil as all other oils will make you fat – Source ( “Primal Bodies, Primal Minds” by Nora Gedgaudas).

    I started the Paleo Diet after trying other diets and working out with weights and running many miles only to be frustrated by not being able to lose fat from my waist line. I lost the 20 lbs during the first 3 months and did not workout at the gym at all.

    My advice to anyone wishing to lose weight is to stop the addiction to carbohydrates and those fake “food products” in the center aisles of the grocery stores. Vegetables and fruit will provide you with all the carbs you need. Shop the outside edges of the grocery stores and Farmers Markets whenever possible.

  • 1. What causes the obesity disease and why is it disproportionately affecting Americans? Europe doesn’t have nearly the obesity epidemic that the U.S. has.

    2. Why aren’t most wild animals away from produced food getting fatter?

    3. Why does the rise in obesity correlate so closely with the rise of fast food starting in the 1970s?

    4. How much is the medication to treat the “obesity disease” going to cost? Isn’t being in charge of defining what is and ins’t a disease and profiting off of treating disease a conflict of interest?

  • I was following along okay until it delved into the fake science of lysenkoism. There is no inheritance of acquired characteristics. That is not evoulution. You can’t inherit obesity. Any genetic propensity is through natural selection over multiple generations not just one or two. That portion of the article ruined the whole thing. Lysenkoism is even less of a science than creationism. It is more on a par with flat-earthers.