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May 15, 2012 09:57 AM

NYT: "A Mathematical Challenge to Obesity"

An interesting article discussing the obesity issue in the U.S. Well, at least I found it intersesting.

Money quote from the article:

Did you ever solve the question posed to you when you were first hired — what caused the obesity epidemic?

We think so. And it’s something very simple, very obvious, something that few want to hear: The epidemic was caused by the overproduction of food in the United States.

Beginning in the 1970s, there was a change in national agricultural policy. Instead of the government paying farmers not to engage in full production, as was the practice, they were encouraged to grow as much food as they could. At the same time, technological changes and the “green revolution” made our farms much more productive. The price of food plummeted, while the number of calories available to the average American grew by about 1,000 a day.

Well, what do people do when there is extra food around? They eat it! This, of course, is a tremendously controversial idea. However, the model shows that increase in food more than explains the increase in weight.


Read the whole interview at

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  1. I think the biggest change is really the rise of mass marketing. Since the end of WW2, marketing departments have been trying to convince Americans that they deserve "the good life": expensive cars, vacations, and eating out. We have so many shows about gourmet food that people think that's how they should live instead of eating at home. When you redefine "normal", all previous assumptions go out the window.

    1. The mathematical angle is interesting, but the hypothesis that obesity is due to an abundance of food is simplistic nonsense. While it is true that if a person is getting insufficient food to sustain themselves, they will lose weight, it does not follow that they will gain weight merely because they have an abundance of food available. They have to choose to eat to excess. They do this to an increasing degree because the content of food in the US has been changing. In particular, it is loaded with sugar, which is a drug and a poison similar to alcohol, only without the acute intoxication associated with alcohol. So we give it to children, and they get hooked on it.

      This has been discussed in other threads on this site. See Dr. Lustig for the details.

      4 Replies
      1. re: GH1618

        OTOH, it's also been scientifically proven that if presented with more food than necessary, someone will eat all that's served, even when TOLD that there is more than what they need in what they are being presented (see Center of Science/Public Interest, they've done a bunch of these). Give someone a big dish of pasta, they finish the dish. Portion sizes have exploded alongside the abundance of food. There is no "small" size anything anywhere at most restaurants, and the giant cups of soda people fill up on at the gas station aren't helping matters (plus a lot of them with artificial sweeteners, making the body want even more food/something to get what the brain promised but which the body was cheated out of receiving). I think the whole thing is just out of whack and there is no single problem.

        1. re: rockandroller1

          I'm not buying your assertion that "it's scientifically proven ...". There may be a study with that conclusion from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, but you haven't bothered to link it, and as I didn't find it on their home page, I'm not going to look for it. That is because one study does not establish scientific "proof." Proof isn't even the right word for scientific research. When a research study reaches a conclusion, other researchers will review the work to see that it meets their scientific standards, and that a thorough effort has been made to eliminate confounding factors. Then they may try to reproduce the results, or to show that there may be confounding factors which make the conclusion suspect. When enough studies have been done, carried out and reviewed independently, and diwcussed at meetings of researchers in the field, a consensus may be reached. A consensus is not "proof." Scientific theories are always subject to revision or replacement in the light of new evidence.

          Taubes discusses this aspect of scientific methodology in a recent article on his website. It is an example of why he is considered among the best science writers working today — he understands scientific methodology and does not accept simplistic analyses at face value.

          1. re: GH1618

            Regardless of "proving" or "citing," portion sizes have dramatically increased since the 60s.

            Sodas used to come in eight, 12 and 16 oz bottles, 16 ounces being reserved for the "big kids" or adults. Most children today can down 16 ounces and still grab for more. Big Gulp and Super Big Gulp-size soft drinks are now standard for most adults.

            McDonalds meals for adults used to be their single-patty burger, regular fries and either a soda or shake on a splurge. Along came the Big Mac in the late 60s, then the large sized fries. It may or may not be coincidental that it came along at the peak of the Green Revolution, but factory farming doubled agricultural capacity from 1965-1975 as well.

            McDonalds also did play a major hand in increasing food production. In order to continue expansion, they needed a steady predictable and uniform supply of food ingredients. Combining product research and working with large suppliers, productivity increased in processing techniques as well as shortening growth spans and increasing yields/acre for protein sources and uniformity in crops. Their influence changed the food industry. In essence, food was becoming more readily available. Compound increased yields with cheap labor in the food industry, the marketing/availability, and the result is maximizing consumers' propensity to - consume.


        2. re: GH1618

          Sugar is hardly "a drug and a poison." If you cook your own food, it's pretty easy to limit your sugar intake to the occasional cookie or scoop of ice cream. If you choose to consume mostly processed foods, and have to have a candy bar and several sodas every day, you are making bad, and unhealthy choices.

        3. I had fun with the simulator (linked from NY Times article). I plugged in a target weight of 360 lbs (I'm currently 180 lbs) and daydreamed about all the things I'd eat to achieve the required 7,600 Cal/day !!

          1. It's the overproduction of PROCESSED food in the U.S. that's driving the obesity "epidemic." Obesity is the result of the overproduction of insulin, NOT consuming fat, but since "fat = unhealthy" has been drilled into heads for forty years as the result of a biased study people load up on low-fat processed crap and think they're eating healthy. Advertise "low fat!" on the box or bag and people will load up. Never mind that it's usually loaded with sugar, even the "savory" stuff.

            1. He's a physicist ("M.I.T.-trained," no less) and he "didn’t even know what a calorie was"?

              9 Replies
              1. re: MacGuffin

                The SI unit of energy is the joule. The food Calorie is about 4.2 kilojoules. An alternative unit of energy used in some engineering fields is the BTU.

                notes that the exact size of the calorie varies with the temperature of the water (e.g. when heating 1 gm of water 1C), so it is not particularly useful to physicists.

                1. re: paulj

                  I (unlike, until recently, Dr. Chow) know what a calorie is. I also know that I learned what it is in physics--first in the sixth grade, then again in high school, and yet again as an undergraduate. We may not have used it but it was always in physics classes that it was introduced and explained.

                  1. re: paulj

                    I agree that calories is not a useful physicist unit measurement.

                    Calories came into play in chemistry and thermodamnamics... err... I mean thermodynamics. Exo- and endothermic reactions and the lot. I remember just enough to be dangerous. lol

                  2. re: MacGuffin

                    I thought the same thing! I learned what a calorie really is in high school physics.

                    1. re: bluex

                      But did you use calorie in any calculation or measurement? It is mostly presented for historical reasons. I glanced through several of my college physics books and could not find mention of it. The joule is the unit of energy that working physicists use, in large part because it integrates with other units. That is 1 joule = N * m = (kg m/s)^2 This makes it easy to relate this unit of energy to work done by moving something, or electrical processes.

                      I suspect that the author had heard of a calorie in high school or earlier, but had not done anything with it in college or latter. He had to at least look up how it relates to a joule.

                      How many of us are aware that there is a difference between a calorie and a Calorie? That we see on package labels is actually the kilocalorie?

                      1. re: paulj

                        "But did you use calorie in any calculation or measurement?"

                        That's not the point! He claimed he didn't know what it was--that's ridiculous. And it turns up in general physics in college as well. And yes, we learned the difference between a calorie and a Calorie in the sixth grade--apparently, the author would have us believe that he managed to earn a Ph.D. in physics without having heard of either one.

                        1. re: MacGuffin

                          an article about how calories are measured, or calculated.

                          1. re: MacGuffin

                            What is ridiculous is making such a fuss about this, without even asking the person who made the statement for an explanation of what was meant. As a physicist, it is unlikely he had any occasion to use Calories. And, by the way, he didn't say he "hadn't heard" of a calorie, so you are making a straw man argument.

                          2. re: paulj

                            You'r right. This is a tempest in a teapot.