Obesity and the unhealthy economy

By Edward Hadas
March 13, 2013

Obesity is a matter of free choice – no one forces people to get fat – but few people are happy with the result. In the last few decades, the freedom to eat has too often turned into slavery to the immoderate desire for more.

In the United States, the world leader in obesity, the trend toward higher body weights began more than a century ago. Researchers John Komlos and Marek Brabec show that the average body mass, weight adjusted for height, has moved upward fairly steadily – from too low for optimal health right through optimal to the current too high level. Most visibly, and alarmingly, the gap between the heaviest 30 percent and the rest has widened significantly in the last few decades. There is no end in sight.

The problem of obesity is an adverse side effect of one of the greatest economic liberations ever, the freedom from want of food. Until shortly before 1900, food shortages were nearly always and everywhere a lively possibility, and all too often a grim reality. Now, although inadequate nutrition still blights the lives of more than a billion people in the world, residents of developed economies enjoy food in excess.

This change from shortage to surplus should have provoked a moral analysis. In the old days, the ethics of abundance were almost irrelevant. Moralists chastised gluttony, but for most people necessity imposed moderation, in practice if not in desire. And farmers did not need a course in philosophy to decide to produce as much as they could.

In the new era, physical need is no longer a constraint and unhealthy eating is now an everyday reality. The threat must be countered by individuals, food producers – no longer primarily farmers, but companies with processing plants and factories – and governments. All have failed to live up to the challenge. The result is that food is often not used as it should be, to provide the benefits and pleasures of healthy eating.

What should individuals do? They can and should count calories, read labels, avoid “junk food” and so forth, but above all they need to turn to the traditional religious and philosophical wisdom about the virtue of self-control. Moderation in eating is a skill which nearly every modern person needs, like the ability to drive or mastery of the Internet.

This is not a painful discipline, not with so much tasty and healthy food readily available, but the virtue is in scant supply. People have mostly responded to bounteous food as they have to all other varieties of industrial plenty, by buying ever more and looking for ever lower prices. When it comes to food, that approach is disastrous. Undisciplined munching and feasting leads directly to obesity, while the heedless desire for low prices and vast quantities encourages producers to skimp on quality – witness the current scandal of mislabelling horse as beef – and to concoct products which please the taste buds but harm the rest of the body.

The demand for junk food in an economy of plenty is an alarming cultural sign, and so is the supply. What are food producers doing? Some of what they do is good – food is safer and more readily available than ever before – but the largest companies all follow a narrow commercial logic, aiming above all to sell as much as possible and to generate as high a profit as possible. If nutrition doesn’t pay, they basically ignore it. If sugar, salt and umami increase sales, they add more. In practice, this approach amounts to the promotion of gluttony.

Producers need a nobler objective. They should recognise that the customer is not always right, that it is often better to ignore consumers’ preferences than to pander to their self-destructive appetites. They should enthrone nutrition as a higher goal than profitability, just as airlines put safety before profit. They should not manufacture junk food. If people want to stuff themselves on empty calories, they should have to prepare their own nutritional poisons.

Finally, governments have been slow to recognise that obesity is a social problem which they can help address. In the last few years, legislators and regulators have started to wake up. But the current menu of plans and programmes which attempt to educate consumers and restrain producers still looks thin in comparison to the mountains of fat.

An economic analysis of obesity can help explain why the system makes too much bad food too readily available, but I think moral analysis is more illuminating. Individuals have not cultivated restraint, corporations have put the lesser good of profit before the greater one of promoting health, and governments have shirked their responsibility for ethical leadership. There will be no substantial changes until the moral challenge is faced head-on. Neither science nor the marketplace can substitute for willpower.

13 comments

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Come on people. We were all taught in grade school that “you are what you eat”. But of course, we need papa government to legislate and promote good health habits for us. So not only do we need government to prescribe our habits, we need producers to make a product, not for competition,sale or profit, but for our betterment? As long as capital makes profit, it will do so from selling products that are in demand. “What should individuals do? They CAN and SHOULD count calories,” but they won’t so lets legislate everyones personal habits, for their own good of course. A dangerous and slippery slope to tread on the theory of “It’s for your own good”.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

“Now, although inadequate nutrition still blights the lives of more than a billion people in the world, residents of developed economies enjoy food in excess.”

As you enjoy food in excess, you are enjoying the nutrition in dearth. More than enough food doesn’t mean the balanced nutritions. In many cases, it means the opposite.

“Neither science nor the marketplace can substitute for willpower.”

Many times, the willpower is not the natural willpower, it is the marketplace.

“Finally, governments have been slow to recognise that obesity is a social problem which they can help address. In the last few years, legislators and regulators have started to wake up. But the current menu of plans and programmes which attempt to educate consumers and restrain producers still looks thin in comparison to the mountains of fat.”

Generally agree, but obesity is easier to be caused by carbs, not fats. I believe science and marketplace will help to resolve this problem. Governmental control is also important but it has limited power to apply. The most relevant and important is to build more choices privately for smart people to have selection meeting their own needs. In many cases, people have a good idea, but they don’t have a good choice and they don’t have time, either. Balanced nutritions though is the preeminent in dieting, but it is not an easy thing to carry out, considering to fulfill possibilities that people can find. The question is here. By the way, how to have a good idea on dieting is neither an easy thing. Another question is here. So we have two questions.

Posted by gee.la | Report as abusive

Is anyone really OK with this kind of idiocy? Some government twit says “You are too fat” and you are forced to slim or else? How about let me decide?

Posted by Dangerous_Dan | Report as abusive

This article is the dumbest one I’ve EVER READ. Poor people aren’t fat because they have too much food, they are fat because the “quality” of the food they can afford is sub-standard.

From High Fructose Corn Syrup to Monosodium Glutamate – the poor are told that “there’s more food” and “it’s cheaper.”

Sure if you eat sh*t that makes you fat and sick. Go read “Wheat Belly” – it’s on Amazon. GMO frankenstein-wheat is KILLING Americans and causing cancer; oh, and making you fat. Portion size is irrelevant or over-rated. Your body can’t process the “toxic food” and stores it as fat.

Over-eating as the new inferiority? I’m now convinced Edward Hadas is a patrician with a belief in his own superiority; and with a sense of entitlement the size of the Bismark.

And he might be one of the SOCIOPATHS too…they’re everywhere. It’s their “Age” after all.

Posted by Foxdrake_360 | Report as abusive

“What should individuals do? They can and should count calories, read labels, avoid ‘junk food’ and so forth, but above all they need to turn to the traditional religious and philosophical wisdom about the virtue of self-control.”

This is a rather lazy and ill-informed, although unfortunately common, answer to the problem of obesity. An increasing amount of scientific evidence, bolstered by the anecdotal evidence provided by hundreds (maybe even thousands) of people who’ve lost weight and kept it off for extended periods of time, shows that “willpower” is pretty worthless for losing weight (if it exists at all). The things that do help people successfully monitor their diet and exercise levels over time to achieve and sustain a healthy weight are scientific and psychological education, structuring one’s life in a way that promotes health by avoiding or “reframing” temptation, learning constructive ways of responding to cravings and negative and unproductive self-talk (an example of such unhelpful negative self-talk might be telling oneself that one is immoral (rather than simply human) for responding to overwhelming biological urges, highly manipulative processed “food” chemistry and marketing, and social conditioning), and getting physical and mental ailments that cause obesity or raise one’s chances of developing it effectively treated.

“Obesity is a matter of free choice – no one forces people to get fat – but few people are happy with the result.” It’s probably true that nobody in the US is “forced to get fat,” but that’s not the same thing as saying that people make a conscious choice to become obese. It’s not true for everybody, but many obese people, especially those who are morbidly obese, have mental and/or physical health problems that have contributed to their weight or make it exceptionally difficult for them to lose. Unfortunately, joint problems, endocrine issues, chronic depression, ADHD, and a multitude of other health problems that have been linked to the occurrence of obesity can’t be willed (or prayed) away. It seems to take some people all the willpower they have just to force their rebelling bodies through every day or cling to sanity by their fingernails. What they really require is actual thought- and fact-based treatment. And some compassion, if there’s any to spare on the moral high ground occupied by the “all it takes is a little self-control.” ‘Cause I suspect that radically altering one’s eating and activity habits actually would be a pretty “painful discipline” for a person who finds basic activities painful and fatiguing or who is so depressed that it’s difficult to not get out of bed or find reasons to not commit suicide. Not everybody who’s fat has such problems, of course, but many do – and you can’t always tell who they are just by looking at them. I’m also curious as to how much real “choice” people who are poor, too poorly educated to know what a healthy diet actually likes or how to tell when they’re being marketed garbage, living in places where it’s downright dangerous to walk or bike, and who lack access to much affordable “healthy” food actually have. People like this exist; I’ve met them. Assuming they’re not being thwarted by sick bodies or minds, they probably have some choice, but staying at a healthy weight is likely to be a bit more of a challenge for them than it is for the well-educated, middle-class suburbanites who stop by the Whole Foods almost as much as the gym and check in at Weight Watchers every Saturday morning, does it not?

Governmental and industrial support would be tremendously helpful in curbing the obesity epidemic in the US, but I seriously doubt appeals to morality are going to work. In addition to the rather dubious connection between morality and weight, there’s that funny problem that people have of casting their own actions as “moral” or accepting that they’re fundamentally “immoral” people who can’t change. Ignorance and self-interest are more appealing and have shown pretty good results. There’s an increasing amount of evidence that flooding the market with adulterated foodstuffs, planning cities in a way that isn’t health-friendly, and feeding kids on a diet of fat,sugar, and additives isn’t good for people or for business. I think that if we want a healthier society, we need to keep educating individuals about managing energy intake and output in the most effective ways possible and support effective ways of lowering obesity rates in our local communities. We also need to educate individuals, industries, and governments about the short- and long-term costs of eating, producing, and subsidizing the wide array of unhealthy and often adulterated foodstuffs.

I need to pull myself away from my computer and go for a walk. Perhaps the author of this opinion piece can find the time to pull his head out of his philosophy and go, stow his judgements on the subject of obesity in his high horse’s saddlebag, and educate himself about the science and psychology of obesity and the experiences of obese people who have lost or tried to lose weight.

Posted by kingsnake | Report as abusive

Once again, Mr. Hadas, issues worthy of further consideration.

There are fewer and fewer of us susceptible to traditional religious and philosophical wisdom about the virtue of self-control. Our society is instead more and more one that expects instant gratification and the worst of problems to be solved in sixty minutes like on TV.

So moderation isn’t our strong suit. What can be done? Well, we have to bring together everyone with “skin in the game”.

If taxpayers want to lower lifetime medical costs, they must be better educated as to factors that disproportionately increase such costs and prepared to do whatever is necessary to avoid such costs. Toes will be stepped on. Decisions must be made

“We, the people” cannot afford to become a “diabetic nation”, and yet we are well along that path. Associated financial expenses are incredible as is the physical suffering.

Our choice is to either act to minimize future health expenditures or continue to pay “whatever it costs”. I don’t think the fast food industry should be free to poison us or otherwise make us unwell. The FDA is supposed to keep harmful medicines off the market and not allow unwholesome meat, fruits or vegetables to be sold.

Americans should have have meaningful access to nutritious and healthy food (and “fast” or “convenience” food) at reasonable cost. There’s no discrimination if products with unhealthy ingredients or preparation methods (fried turkey or fried ice cream anyone?) are limited in portion size and taxed highly.

It took far, far, too long, but America has made major strides in reducing the part of it’s population that smokes through high taxation and education as to the horrible manner in which people with tobacco-induced lung cancer, mouth cancer, etc. expire.

Our youth need instruction as to contraceptive use, recognition of STDs, and the effects of crack, etc. on teeth, skin, internal organs and physical appearance. We do not instruct in school how “in your face” tattoos, body piercings, unprotected sex and single motherhood sabotage young lives of promise.

It is taxpayers who must be the “supporter of last resort” for those who cannot support themselves or their family. Too many youths today are clearly not doing their part to be welcome in our civil society.

One-third of our young as they leave High School are too fat to be accepted for military service. That means no free training for the economically disadvantaged and thus no chance of advanced education via the G.I. Bill. We need to restructure our educational process such that the end product better meets society’s known needs.

Study halls and/or detention should be replaced by mandatory stretching periods and calesthenics or other aeroebic options (sports, etc.) Showers afterward promote good hygene.

The purpose of public education is to prepare our young to be productive citizens, and that requires training both mind and body. Sports like basketball, water polo, hockey, track, tennis singles, ping pong and soccer offer appropriate levels of energetic activity and develop eye-limb coordination. Baseball, tennis doubles, golf which aren’t should have no place on campus.

There should be no food allowed on campus that is not nutritionally adequate and beneficial. Exceptions could be made for those with medically legitimate intolerances and allergies. Moderation in eating is as essential to a long and productive life as skill behind the wheel or mastery of the Internet.

Each child should be taught how to prepare quick, nutritious snacks and meals from simple and economical staple foods. Latch key children will thus be less impacted by the lack of an adult at home, be less likely to go hungry or get into trouble with “nothing to do”; and many eventually go away to college where such skills will serve them well.

There should be strict “hooky curfews” during the day to keep unsupervised children off the streets with NO exception for unescorted “home schooled ” children. Society must protect children from temptation (we don’t leave keys in cars any more) and property owners from being victims of “crimes of opportunity”. Our police can do their job much easier if every kid in the street at certain hours is automatically a truant to bring in.

If there is to be universal health care, them there should be universal health accountability. Those over a certain “excess” of weight at any age without disability would face non-renewal of drivers licenses, delays in tax refunds, and other incentives to attend weight loss clinics in the same way that we have driver’s clinics for those who don’t want to pay the occasional traffic ticket.

After paying for such classes enough times, we will get the “word” that neighbors and friends need to exercise together evenings at little or no expense. Our “sense of community” is increased whenever Americans “rise to meet a common challeng together.

If the costs of unhealthy living are to ever be avoided, we must make it more and more difficult to “live unhealthy”. Failure is not an option. No one should be “free” to “self-destruct” at the expense of their neighbors. That just ain’t friendly.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Park your automobile, buy a mountain-bike, dont buy junk food, only buy what you can carry, stay off bread & beer.
Adhere to strict cash & calorie budget – nothing tastes as good as skinny feels – amen

Posted by jackdanielsesq | Report as abusive

being unhealthy is part and parcel of the US economy. Many who sit in the Board of Directors for large food conglomerates also do the same for the Industrial Medical complex and Insurance complex. Bad food=Prescribed drugs/doctor visit=more bad food=stay in Hospital=billing to Insurance=more bad food…so on. Now the government is so permeated by representatives from this situation that they want to penalize people for using good nutrients. A sordid situation.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Good points, but I believe it’s still deeper than that.
Anyway you look at it, food is a reward, with the higher calorie items tending to be the biggest rewards. As a culture, we’re told we can have instant gratification and can have it all and expect to be rewarded just for showing up. In other words we take food for granted. It’s always been there for most of us and other than the price, there’s no limit on how much one has access to. That’s what comes with having a nation rich in natural resources and with access to world markets where there are hardly ever any shortages even of foods not in season.
As other countries become Americanized and also take supermarkets and big box stores as the norm, they will be doomed to the same fate within a generation or so.
Not becoming fat, especially as we age in our culture, does take a lot of willpower and effort to watch your diet and get enough physical activity to stay healthly and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
I think we’re very quickly heading to a two class culture of the fit and the not-fit, with very few in the middle. In fact, I think the ones in between are really just in transition to one state or the other. With rising healthcare costs and obesity driving a lot of that, rising deductables, and uncovered medical costs, good health may really turn out to be the new standard of wealth in our lifetimes.
Getting in shape may be the best single investment you can make for yourself in the upcoming years.

Posted by mikemm | Report as abusive

This is a very shallow analysis that assumes two things that have not been proven. 1. is that the rise in obesity is directly a result of junk food and 2. that it’s also come about as a colossal failure of virtue.

There are many places in the world, including parts of the American south, where plenty of people get extremely fat on home cooking. Tonga being one, where once scarce feast foods are now regularly available.

Second, humans are biologically hard wired to eat when food is in ready supply. There are almost no animals known to zoological literature that self-regulate perfectly in the face of abundance (the robin being one). This ‘collapse’ of virtue has affected the whole developed world, parts of the Middle East and large swathes of the Pacific, despite different cultures and norms. And, oddly enough, only since 1980. So perhaps the obesity epidemic isn’t a collapse in virtue at all, but something else.

Honestly, if people want to write about subjects like obesity, could they please do as much research as they would bring to any other subject, and not fall back on easy and false stereotypes.

Posted by ChloeDawson | Report as abusive

I started writing a response to this article, but decided it needed a full blog post instead: http://bodycrimes.wordpress.com/2013/03/ 15/become-an-obesity-expert-no-knowledge -required/

Posted by ChloeDawson | Report as abusive

Immediately Edward Hadas states that every individual is in direct control of choosing whether they become obese or remain at a moderately healthy weight size. Of course happiness varies from person to person in regard to their weight. These first statements presented by the article are facts I agree with because each person is generally born healthy but of course as life takes its course we go through childhood with our diets controlled and influenced by our parents usually up until we are in our late teens then we are in full effect of our food consumption and weight. Nevertheless, the perspective or attitude we grow up with toward food shapes our lifelong relationship with food some being healthy and of course some more challenging. In the United States as mentioned in the article we are the most unhealthy country when it comes to the food we eat. I do not ultimately blame the people of our country for choosing the foods we eat because the media plays a very important role for promoting an unhealthy lifestyle with food consumption beginning with the processed food they promote and leading to advertisements about dieting. And from personal research diets are proven to always fail.Therefore, a cycle is created where many people eat the unhealthy food we see advertised followed by then joining a diet.Consultants from the National Institutes of Health National Task Force on the Prevention

and Treatment of Obesity claim that “… research is primarily funded by companies that make money by promoting short-term weight-loss methods, contributing, perhaps, to questionable objectivity in the reporting of research findings.”(Robison 1-4) Overall I agree with Hadas and his argument about the media and corporations being considered in making money rather than the personal health of millions of people. We need to refocus our health endeavours directly toward government through media services such the way we are influenced to eat bad foods. Personally in agreement from the beginning of the article every individual should realize that the choice is ours on deciding what makes us healthy and happy so its fair to say to we must take full advantage of all the food we have available and find a personal satisfactory balance food regardless of any sources emphasizing specific eating habits .

Robison, Jon. “The Absolute Advantage.” Weight, Health, and Culture. 2006: 1-13. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.

Posted by KEOKI | Report as abusive

Immediately Edward Hadas states that every individual is in direct control of choosing whether they become obese or remain at a moderately healthy weight size. Of course happiness varies from person to person in regard to their weight. These first statements presented by the article are facts I agree with because each person is generally born healthy but of course as life takes its course we go through childhood with our diets controlled and influenced by our parents usually up until we are in our late teens then we are in full effect of our food consumption and weight. Nevertheless, the perspective or attitude we grow up with toward food shapes our lifelong relationship with food some being healthy and of course some more challenging. In the United States as mentioned in the article we are the most unhealthy country when it comes to the food we eat. I do not ultimately blame the people of our country for choosing the foods we eat because the media plays a very important role for promoting an unhealthy lifestyle with food consumption beginning with the processed food they promote and leading to advertisements about dieting. And from personal research diets are proven to always fail.Therefore, a cycle is created where many people eat the unhealthy food we see advertised followed by then joining a diet.Consultants from the National Institutes of Health National Task Force on the Prevention

and Treatment of Obesity claim that “… research is primarily funded by companies that make money by promoting short-term weight-loss methods, contributing, perhaps, to questionable objectivity in the reporting of research findings.”(Robison 1-4) Overall I agree with Hadas and his argument about the media and corporations being considered in making money rather than the personal health of millions of people. We need to refocus our health endeavours directly toward government through media services such the way we are influenced to eat bad foods. Personally in agreement from the beginning of the article every individual should realize that the choice is ours on deciding what makes us healthy and happy so its fair to say to we must take full advantage of all the food we have available and find a personal satisfactory balance food regardless of any sources emphasizing specific eating habits .

Robison, Jon. “The Absolute Advantage.” Weight, Health, and Culture. 2006: 1-13. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.

Posted by KEOKI | Report as abusive