J. Stanton of Gnolls.org touched off a dispute in the comments of a previous post that I think merits further thought and discussion. As background, J and I are friends. Here’s photographic proof: J and I at the dinner table at my vacation home. The next day, just a couple of months in advance of his and my own AHS12 presentation, we sat down for a video interview that was quite well received. And this last July we got together at his place at Lake Tahoe for a bit, and then again just last month right before holidays, though no pics of that. So, this is all in good clean fun, just in case you had any doubts.
I guess J and I disagree on the root cause of the obesity epidemic. My position is that it’s a perfect storm of palatability/reward, eating too much, too often, and most particularly: the relative decrease in the cost of a “calorie.” Further, now that we are understanding more about the gut biome and its role in hormonal signaling, I speculate that there’s some sort of “vicious circle” or “positive feedback” going on, up to a point.
I’ll let J state his own case, here in the comments he’s already put up that I’ve pasted below, anything he wishes me to add, or that he puts below in this post’s comments.
Robb Wolf (from the Facebook post):
Gotcha. What I’m still intrigued by however is WHY people overeat. I’d throw my hat largely in the “hyper palatable food + neuroregulation of appetite” camp.
I don’t believe the evidence supports this hypothesis…or, at least, this isn’t the beginning of the causal chain.
Let’s recall the graph of obesity in America, which was basically flat before 1979, at which point it takes a dramatic upturn. As I pointed out in my AHS2012 presentation, food didn’t suddenly become tasty in 1979. (And people didn’t suddenly become gluttonous and lazy in 1979, either.) Your brain doesn’t just break one day because you put too many spices on a potato, or ate too many chocolate truffles, or whatever. It takes long-sustained hyperglycemia to damage the VMH…and if we claim that was caused by too much “hyperpalatable” food, we’ve just created a circular, self-justifying hypothesis.
Adele Hite’s wonderful “As The Calories Churn” series at eathropology is instructive, because any hypothesis of the nature of obesity must start with the question “What did we eat differently, starting around 1979?”. Most hypotheses, while intellectually plausible, fail trivially against the data.
Alas, the video of my AHS2013 presentation on metabolic flexibility is lost, along with everyone else’s (my bibliography is here) but it’s becoming more and more clear that empirically measurable defects of energy production at the cellular level are, if not the proximate cause, at least farther up the causal chain. The brain is usually just attempting (and, eventually, failing) to maintain homeostasis of an already-broken system.
To use an analogy: you can make a car stop running by disconnecting the spark plug wires, but that doesn’t mean the reason for most car trouble is disconnected spark plug wires. (And yes, I believe obesity and MetS are strongly multifactorial. Nor are they the same thing.)
And John ^^^ is correct: appetite is strongly influenced by nutrient content. Reward is not an intrinsic property of food: it is a property we assign to food based on our nutritional and metabolic state. This is well-understood by anyone familiar with the extensive scientific literature on hunger.
I use the whole “reward” thing very loosely, not the technical definition, whatever it is.
I think what happened in the 70s is that food got cheap, fast food became ubiquitous, people began eating away from home more often, one could buy a 32 oz soda for the price that a 12 oz used to cost.
So I think fundamentally, the cause of the obesity epidemic is cheap food energy. The palatability comes into play because people perceive they are getting a great deal, such satisfying stuff for a relatively small portion of their disposable income.
I forget the exact figure, but since 2000 the number of restaurants per capita are up about 15%, and what do all those chain restaurants specialize in? Large portions as a tradeoff for good service.
So, follow the money, I guess.
The interesting question is: which way around is that causality?
The classic narrative is basically religious: evil corporations tempting us into sin with their giant servings of cheap calories. However, I believe the evidence points to the narrative being the other way around: corporations created these larger-sized portions in response to consumer demand.
Again, I have to start with the data. Spending on “food away from home” increased dramatically through the 1960s and 1970s, while obesity was flat: the trend flattened right around 1980, right when obesity took off. (The graph is in my AHS 2012 presentation.) I can’t bring myself to blame the availability of cheap fast food when the data doesn’t support that interpretation.
For instance, McDonald’s didn’t start selling Super Size meals until 1994 — and other chains didn’t follow suit until even later. Did the fast food industry just not realize, for decades, that they could tempt people into consuming so much? Or, perhaps, was there insufficient demand for such giant portions in 1960, or even 1970?
I have to question the data J references in that last comment because it does not match my own clear recollection and experience at all. I was born in 1961. Fast food was a rare deal. Sure, there might be a Dairy Queen, Foster’s Freeze, maybe an A&W drive-in complete with roller skates in town, or a couple. It was a treat, drive throughs didn’t exist, and there wasn’t one—or three—on every street corner. TV advertising had not become ubiquitous for cheap food. My very first recollection of advertising of food for kids, beyond perhaps candy commercials during cartoons on Saturday morning, was the McDonald’s commercials of the 70s with Ronald, Hamburglar and all the other characters. I also recall the first marketing campaign based upon value for little money with that jingle over getting change back from your dollar—or four dollars, for a family of four.
In those days, there were basically hamburgers and cheeseburgers—very small by today’s standards—and the Big Mac was seen as a huge burger; whereas, now, it’s a small fry or, a “fillet-o-fish.” Fries came in a paper sac and a regular soda was today’s “small,” 12oz. …In some theaters, now, they require that you order “child size” in order to get a normal, 12oz drink.
Here’s the first Big Mac commercial, circa 1968.
I can still recall from the early 70s what a “phenomenon” the Big Mac was. It was like some silly excitement over the indulgent gluttony of it, combined with the low price. Here’s the caloric content of various burgers, starting from the first mass marketed burger, the McDonald’s Mark 1, Mod A Hamburger (see fastfoodnutrition.org for a list of all)
- Plain McD’s Hamburger: 250 kcal (you can still get it; how many limit themselves to that?)
- Plain McD’s Double Hamburger: 390 kcal
- McD’s Big Mac: 540 kcal (it about doubled)
- Burger King Whopper: 650 kcal (had my first in about 1976 or 7 at their first establishment opened in Reno, NV; they have a Double Whopper too)
- McD’s Quarter Pounder: 510 kcal (this solidifies McD’s in offering burgers at twice the caloric intake of their original flagship)
- Wendy’s Double: 800 kcal (but they have a triple, too)
- Wendy’s Triple: 1060 kcal (my first biggest burger, about 1978, Sparks, NV, Fist Wendy’s opening in the region)
- Carl’s Junior Six Dollar Burger: 900 kcal (and yep, you can get a double)
I can’t see how any honest assessment of both what you saw with your own eyes in the 70s—as this ramped up—and heard with your own ears doesn’t equal simply more and more calories for less and less real dollars (as relative to your overall budget; i.e., accounting for inflation). What else?
- Pizza delivery was unknown as the ubiquitous thing it is now. Perhaps it was pioneered by some mom & pop, somewhere.
- Inexpensive eateries were independent cafes that served comfort food, maybe Denny’s; but Denny’s has never been particularly known for enormous portions. Now, there’e Applebees, Chilis, and all manner of others vying for that profitable market in enormous portions of cheep food served up by a largely entry-level, unskilled cook and wait staff. Yes, the business model is huge portions as a tradeoff for excellent service.
- Have you noticed the platters of food served in some of these places as a plate of food? I see portion sizes that are clearly in excess of the entire daily energy requirement of the recipient.
My argument is not corporate greed. I well understand that capitalism and business is about delivering what people want to buy, and it’s a push-pull. Sometimes, you just know what people want and set about to give them more of it for less and less because if you don’t, your competition will. Economics and business 101. Other times—and this is the harder problem—people don’t know what they “want,” and so it is to you to come up with an idea and then convince them they want it via marketing/advertising. Superstars like Henry Ford, Ray Kroc, Steve Jobs and others were masters of the latter and why they’re remembered. They dind’t just serve existing markets, they expanded existing markets and created whole new ones.
It’s both. People didn’t want a Big Mac. It was created and marketed to them and once over their audacity, they tried it. It’s still a damn tasty burger, in my view. A Billions of Dollars idea, with competent marketing to back it up…and that latter is always the part seemingly not well seen or understood. This is how quasi free-enterprise works. But, my point has been: human bodies are not cars, flat screen TVs, bedroom sets, entertainment centers, smart phones or any of the other things we love to be delighted with in receiving a little more and more value of, for a little less and less relative disposable income.
And so I conclude the following, in reverse order of causal chain:
- People gain obesity levels of excess fat by eating too much food, too often, too long term.
- People eat to excess because they perceive they are hungry. Hunger is an urge, while need of food is a rational calculation. In H-G times these were roughly aligned. The former served the latter.
- In modern times, the former—the hunger urge—has been short circuited because of the ubiquity of food, its relative cheapness, food engineering to plug into that urge…and potentially, a downward spiral effect where a compromised gut biome results in adverse hormonal regulation (that last possibly being a multi-factoral thing in itself, from pathogenic blooms to want of vitamins and minerals).
It’s the economics, the cheapness of food, that I just don’t see discussed with any rigor. Moreover, I think the obesity epidemic got its foothold in the post WWII era of live it up, and only began showing up in the data where you could see it on a chart in around the late 70s. I certainly noticed a girth trend as I was going between 0 and 18 years old in the 60s and 70s. The curve, or trend, was there in the 60s and 70s, but not at the resolution needed to see it clearly in retrospect, while looking at data supposedly collected with a 2014 perspective on obesity, in 1970.
So basically, over my life I’ve seen fast food become ubiquitous to the extent that when sitting in any fast food joint, you can look out the window and see a few other joints. In that same time, the caloric intake for an average order has doubled or tripled while the cost in real dollars has gone down by half and more.
Add to that all the chain restaurants from Chili’s to Olive Garden, that specialize in enormous portions for cheap.
Add to that the average shopping cart you see in the supermarket, filled with all manner of sugar water and sports drinks, frozen pizzas, wings, Eggo’s, Hot Pockets and on and on—and you don’t think economics is a huge part of the equation? Take half the volume of that same cart in meats, fish, fowl, fresh vegetables and fruits—that require “processing” at home for meals, plus planning—and other needed things like stock, spices, herbs, substrates like rice, noodles, or grains—compared with no other required processing beyond pushing buttons on the microwave. That “half basket” of Reeal Food costs lots more money and lots more trouble to make a meal of. Do the math.
Or, just have it your way.
…But, one more thing to consider. It seems to me that y-axis obesity plotted against x-axis poverty to wealth on country or environment scales would be U-shaped. At the extreme end of poverty you will often find cheap white flour, refined sugar and vegetable oils as staples and essentially everything. Perhaps the Pima Indians are a good example of the havoc that might ensue. On the opposite side, the wealthy side, you have America: people that can eat all manner of enticing goodies cheap and get as fat as they want.
…Ever been to the Mediterranean region? They have all manner of enticing things, but they’re all mom & pop joints and a nice sandwich jambon beurre on a fresh crunchy baguette will set you back as much as the price of a Big Mac meal complete with fries and a “regular” sugar water drink, with quadruple the calories.
…Perhaps at the bottom of the ‘U’ are countries like Bolivia, where Mc Donald’s closed its last restaurant for lack of interest and profits, and where traditional foods and care and preparation and social familia are still upheld as core values; as yet, impervious to marketing and food engineering. Give ’em time and they’ll come around, I’m sure.
McDonald’s restaurants operated in Bolivia for 14 years, according to Hispanically Speaking. In 2002, they had to shutter their final remaining 8 stores because they simply couldn’t turn a profit—and if you know fast food companies, you know it’s not because they didn’t try.
The Golden Arches sunk plenty of money into marketing and campaigning—trying to get the food-loving Bolivians to warm to their French fries and burgers, but it simply wasn’t happening.
Some 60 percent of Bolivians are indigenous. “Fast” and processed foods are simply a foreign concept to them. Why would you pay someone to provide you with a less-than-delicious and unhealthy alternative to real food? This attitude is one that the U.S. fast food nation could learn a thing or two from.
Opposition to McDonald’s in Bolivia didn’t have to be super organized; they didn’t have to protest or use petitions. Instead, they simply made healthy choices and the company couldn’t drum up enough business as a result.
To come full circle, I think that the root fundamental cause of obesity is a shift in priorities. But, it’s not like anyone specifically decided that. It’s an opportunistic shift because in the context of a wild human, just like any wild animal, chief concerns are food and reproduction. And even though H-Gs practice a division of labor implicit in the very name we have for them, it’s still a chore. They still always have to be focussed on food, and if you’ve looked at National Geographic over the decades, food is more important than clothing.
It’s been a long time since the average person had to make choices between the time and efforts spent relatively between food, clothing, and shelter. We spend a lot of time, attention, and money on the latter two, to this day; but almost no one need spend much time, attention, or even money on the former when they have “better things to do;” and these days, who doesn’t? And that’s why we’re fat, in a nutshell. Better things to do.
We haven’t realized that we’re not flat screen TVs, or new cars. We’re organic. They’re inorganic. We don’t need McDonald’s to go away. It’s already here and you can’t put the cat back in the bag. But, you can keep it all in context.
You can will a change in your priorities; and someday, it might become re-naturally reborn; by which I mean a nostalgic embrace of what we know at our core makes more sense. That’s the social part. The science part could be the gentle reverse nudging, a slow pendulum swing the other way, when a better understanding of the gut biome gives us a lot of clues as to why this whole thing got so out of hand.
And potentially a healthy gut will turn us all into the equivalent of Bolivians who eschew McDonald’s.