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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 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/15/sci...

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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.

                      2. You can't understand a complex problem with a single simplistic finding.

                        I have read that the agriculture policies of Earl Butz caused more food to be produced more cheaply, and that caused over consumption. I read this probably a decade ago. (Sorry I can't produce a citation or link.) But surely this is only part of the puzzle.

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: sueatmo

                          Do prices of corn and other basics reflect such a change?

                          The policy change under Butz was dropping the idea of paying farmers not to plant fields. It had been an attempt to stabilize prices by limiting supply. From the Wiki article on Butz, it appears that Pollan tries to blame him for all the bad corn related things.

                          One graph of corn prices that I found showed a roughly stable price for many decades (60s to 2005), with no drop that could attributed to government policies. However when adjusted for inflation there was a steady drop in corn prices. But with the promotion of corn ethanol, corn prices have risen in the last half decade.

                          There is also a danger in focusing exclusively on obesity in the USA and US government policies. USA is part of a world market; it is the biggest grower (and exporter) of corn, but other items like sugar, rice, and wheat it is only one of several major players. Obesity and diabetes are a growing concern around the world.

                          1. re: paulj

                            If I read these tables correctly, the acreage devoted to corn has varied from year to year, but has not grown significantly over the 20th c. But yield increased 9x.

                            And the area devoted to 'principal crops' has actually dropped since 1929.

                            Agricultural statistics are complicated, and can be easily misinterpreted if you don't understand the details, or have an ax to grind.

                            1. re: paulj

                              I'm not seeing your point here.

                            2. re: paulj

                              What, exactly, is the "danger"? For Americans, it is the US problem which is our responsibility.

                              Obesity is a problem elsewhere, but it's their responsibility.

                              1. re: GH1618

                                The "danger" lies in exclusive thinking. You can't understand the rise of obesity in the U.S. all by itself. And, the rise in productivity might seem to be a cause in the U.S. but the rise in productivity might not have occurred elsewhere, so it could not be a causative factor. Except (see first sentence) maybe the interrelationships work to exert the same influences on other countries.

                                I am always suspicious of conclusions about a complex issue that seem to point to a simple or single cause.

                                1. re: sueatmo

                                  I don't find anything here the least bit dangerous. And I completely disagree with your second sentence. You are trying to introduce complexity solely for the sake of argument, it seems. The population of the US is sufficient to get all the scientifically selected samples one might need to do statistically valid studies, and a very large majority of the US population seldom travels outside the US — many never. There are just three broad areas in which one might look for answers: genetics, behavior, and diet. The primary cause is somewhere in there (if you can think of another, please name it), which is not to say that there is only one factor.

                          2. http://www.usda.gov/factbook/chapter2...
                            USDA 2002 Factbook chapter on food consumption patterns.
                            It is based on USDA ERS data, which estimates food consumption in various categories, starting with production figures, and subtracting losses/wasteage. I had previous found that data in spread sheet form.

                            is a BBC review of obesity, looking at UK patterns going back to the 1920s (the start of modern consumerism). I've heard similar things on the BBC Supersizers Go ... series.

                              1. An excellent, 4 part series, called "The Weight of the Nation" is available for free viewing on HBO's website. The rise in obesity rates is linked to sharp increases, over the last few decades, in:

                                Cheese consumption
                                Added fats in the food supply
                                US corn production
                                TV viewing
                                Added sugar in the food supply
                                Meat consumption
                                Suburban living

                                11 Replies
                                1. re: Rmis32

                                  How about overuse of prescription and OTC drugs and food additives, which might cause a sort of "chemical confusion" in the body? I personally was just fine, weightwise, until I was frightened into taking a prescription drug (which was later deemed to have been unnecessary), which piled 30 pounds on me in 3 weeks and has since left me gaining weight far more easily than before. Yet, I have never seen references to this in these sorts of discussions.

                                  1. re: Rmis32

                                    Larger serving/portion sizes and/or larger quantities in packaging (think Costco, Sam's Club), lower cost of certain types of food relative to one's buying power and increases in avenues of accessibility to food somehow play into this as well (7-Eleven, McD's drive thrus, Starbucks, etc.). Social changes like longer working hours and women entering the work force count as well. My son goes to the same schools that I went to. The emphasis on P.E. and after school athletics has plummeted from my time. This is huge for my son and his peers. The number of factors that play into our nation's weight gain are so numerous that It the items mentioned by you and me are probably the beginning?

                                    1. re: bulavinaka

                                      Does your son walk to school as you did?

                                      I'm surprised by how many cars line up at neighborhood schools to pickup or drop off kids. In third grade in Minneapolis I walked the .6 miles to school 4 times a day (lunch at home). I suspect I got more exercise from that (and playing on the sidewalks at home) than I ever got from PE.

                                      The city is reworking 4 blocks of a street near us, using funds (state or federal) intended to improve walkable access to schools - by adding a sidewalk on one side. This is in an area that developed in the 50s and 60s without strong infrastructure requirements.

                                      1. re: paulj

                                        He started out riding his bike to school. When I found out how little activity he was getting there, the bike is no longer an option. He walks about .6 miles each way, and another two laps around the elementary school right by our house before coming home.

                                        Another big social change relative to school is how so many parents send their kids to schools other than the public one intended for their kids, which wanders into another bee hive of issues. How it affects my kids relative to this thread is that while the density of kids living in our neighborhood isn't nearly as high as when I was a kid, the number and ages are still sufficient to create a "kid's play" environment. However, because all of the other kids go to different schools in other parts of town, they are all on different schedules and also have developed different groups of friends. Thus, the other kids do a lot of play-dating. The term, "play date," is relatively new to me. What ever happened to, "Knock-knock. Hi Mrs. Garcia, can Richard come out to play?" "Okay - be home for dinner, Richard. You can bring your friends too." That's such a foreign scenario to the current generation of kids around here...

                                    2. re: Rmis32

                                      Other things that have risen sharply in lockstep with the rise in obesity:

                                      Cable TV Subscribers
                                      Cable TV Channels
                                      HBO Subscribers
                                      HBO "Documentaries"
                                      PCs in Homes
                                      Internet Users
                                      Facebook Users
                                      Food Websites
                                      Chowhound subscribers
                                      Chowhound posters

                                      1. re: acgold7

                                        Chowhound poster here (many would debate my validity) - burp - setting down beer and chips. :)

                                        Video games are the light bulb and gamers are the moths. I am the folded newspaper.

                                        edit: I did drag my kids with me for a nice early bike ride along the beach and to the park.

                                        1. re: acgold7

                                          You are making an assertion out of the blue with nothing to back it up. It is not likely that there even exist data which could support or refute that assertion.

                                          Here is a link to an article which contains a grapg showing when the abrupt change in obesity trends occured:


                                          The abrupt change in the obesity trend came in the early 1970s for overweight children age 6 to 11, and about a decade later for obesity in adults. Any good theory of obesity must account for these changes.

                                          In any case, mere correlation, even if shown, is not sufficient to establish causation. There must be a plausible explanation why the relationship is causative, and a diligent effort to refute the hypothesis and to account for confounding factors.

                                          1. re: GH1618

                                            I wouldn't try pin too much on the upturn points of that ObesityGraph. The time scale is too coarse and too uneven to do that.

                                            1971-74 1976-80 1988-94
                                            3, 4 and 6 year intervals, with a 2 and 8 year gaps.

                                            1. re: GH1618

                                              I think you probably meant to attach your response to the post above mine, as we are making the exact same point....

                                              1. re: acgold7

                                                I meant yours, because the post by rmis32 seems to be merely restating the points made in "The Weight of the Nation." But it applies there, too. The correlation to the abrupt change in the trend must be demonstrated. Hand-waving won't do it.

                                                I haven't seen "TWOTN," however. I have read the article on it in Newsweek by Gary Taubes, which I find more accessible and to the point.

                                                1. re: GH1618

                                                  Um, yeah, we agree. That was the point I was making as well, by listing some other silly things that happened at the same time....

                                                  Cheese consumption? Come on.....

                                                  It is equally provable that HBO documentaries cause obesity. Co-variation does not imply correlation; correlation does not imply causality, as any first-year statistics student can tell you.

                                        2. Here's a blog entry with links to a scientific paper dealing with one aspect of the obesity debate - is fructose really bad. I would have posted this on another thread, but that's been closed. Followup comments probably belong on that blog rather than here.