April 19, 2012

Fat is everywhere, it's just unevenly distributed

 Distilling many decades of research, “Weight” chronicles how we’ve eaten our way into disease and sometimes despair. About two-thirds of American adults now qualify as overweight or obese, according to the C.D.C. 

But here’s the scariest (and trickiest) part, which deserves much more attention than it has received and must be factored into our response: we may be doing nothing more or less than what comes naturally to us. Our current circumstances and our current circumferences may in fact be a toxically perfect fit. 

Following in the heavy footsteps of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “The End of Overeating,” “The End of Food” and much else, “The Weight of the Nation” makes an especially persuasive case that gluttony isn’t Americans’ problem. Agriculture and abundance are. 

Over the last century, we became expert at the mass production of crops like corn, soybeans and wheat — a positive development, for the most part. 

We also became expert at feedlots for livestock and at processing those crops into salty, sweet, fatty, cheap and addictive seductions. This has downsides. 

Densely caloric and all too convenient food now envelops us, and many of us do what we’re chromosomally hard-wired to, thanks to millenniums of feast-and-famine cycles. We devour it, creating plump savings accounts of excess energy, sometimes known as love handles, for an imagined future shortage that, in America today, doesn’t come. 

“We’re simply not genetically programmed to refuse calories when they’re within arm’s reach,” said Thomas A. Farley, New York City’s health commissioner, when I spoke to him recently. He is one of dozens of leading physicians, academicians and public-health experts who appear in “The Weight of the Nation.”

John Hoffman, an executive producer of the documentary, told me: “Evolutionarily, there was no condition that existed when we were living with too much fat storage. We’ve only known a world of plenty for maybe 100 years. Our biological systems haven’t adapted to it.” 

This is probably summed up best by Michael L. Power and Jay Schulkin in their book “The Evolution of Obesity.” “We evolved on the savannahs of Africa,” they write. “We now live in Candyland.” 

Our systems aren’t just rigged to gorge.
No, they're not, and yet people in first world countries, in particular, insist on gorging, and all of those advances in food production - over production - have benefited the already over nourished.

I don't see how this "oh gosh, we devour food because it's there" argument contributes to the problem of resource and economic inequality, nor the evolution to instant-over-gratification societies, filled with people who, apparently, have lost the knowledge that we eat to live, and preferably live well, not live to gorge. 

I hope the book and the four part HBO documentary have more to offer than this trite core point, I'm sure they do, otherwise it will be a total waste of a great title - The Weight of the Nation - and love handles for all.


  1. Anonymous11:19 PM

    “We’re simply not genetically programmed to refuse calories when they’re within arm’s reach,”

    I'd like to see that supported by empirical studies, as it would follow a trip to the supermarket would see the shelves empties in no time flat.

    I would have thought we are genetically programmed to eat when we are hungry. That's when I eat, but I have found though the inductive process that when I eat a modest amount it totally ruins my appetite, what a shame. I simply don't feel like eating again for at least a few hours.

    Funny though, drinking has the complete reverse effect.


  2. "I'd like to see that supported by empirical studies, as it would follow a trip to the supermarket would see the shelves empties in no time flat."

    Yes, exactly, and evidence would need to establish that entire populations have this gorging problem, and it's not true - evidently.

    The "failure" to have genetically shifted our programming to this newish state of abundant food argument is strange when held up against the onslaught of research claiming that, in a mere few generations, humans have developed no end of medical and genetically based conditions that engender never-ending weight gain and inability to move once in a while. You know, the research that keeps providing fodder to anyone who claims they can't shed a couple of pounds, even though they've tried "every diet" and eat "almost nothing". Only twenty years ago almost no one had these medical or genetic problems.

    Can't have it both ways.

    They also seem to be confusing abundance of real food (improvements in agriculture) with abundance of processed stuff that can be ingested by humans.

    Then there's marketing, microwave ovens, the capitalist need to send more and more women into the paid workforce, the apparent universal loss of cooking skills (other than watching, with awe, others practicing the craft), the pure convenience and tastiness of cheap and chirpy convenience foodstuff. Let's not forget the lost ability to know what one serving size of anything actually looks like, compared to food servings dished up and eaten in one go. (Ditto with alcohol - bloody no one has a clue just how little is the volume of "one drink"!!)

  3. In yesterday's paper: the liver possibly acts to limit how much weight people put on, even if they gorge on fatty food - the liver eventually sends out appetite-is-satiated signals. That would also put paid to the 'we can't stop' in times of abundant availability of food. Does not work for sugar laden food though ...