The Problem Behind the Obesity Problem Keeps Getting Bigger

I went to school at a time when overweight was much rarer than sensitivity. We used to play a prank where we asked newcomers if they knew a way to lose ten pounds of ugly fat. Cut off your head, we’d roar.

The error in scientific method that underlies this feeble joke is called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Long after school days are over, it is still the fundamental logical error dogging analysts of the global obesity crisis. Obesity is an easy problem to spot, but that doesn’t make it “the problem” that has to be solved, as distinct from a sign of a bigger problem that’s hidden from view.

On January 13, Statistics Canada released two of the most careful and precise reports ever on the dimensions of the problem. But scarier than the health and fitness problems the reports point out is the prospect that panic could lead to supposed fixes that make the problem worse. That’s what happened when obesity hit the big time during the 1990s, provoking a craze to replace over-consumption of saturated fats with overconsumption of empty carbs and salt. Oops, did we forget that weight gain comes from more calories in than out, or that obesity is primarily a health, not an appearance problem, or did we overlook the possibility that high calorie diets come from an obesogenic food system rather than disorders in personal eating habits?

For those reading nutrition and calorie labels instead of newspapers last week, here’s the skinny on what Stats Can found. A typical middle-aged male weighed 171 pounds in 1981, but weighs 191 pounds now. Three out of four male boomers in their 60s and four out of five females carry too much weight, especially around their tummy, just as they enter the years when chronic diseases come home to roost, the Canadian Health Measures Survey of adult fitness reported.

The survey of children, at an age when people traditionally are at their thinnest, is more alarming. A typical 12-year old girl weighed 94 pounds in 1981 and 105 pounds now, with more than two extra inches around the waist. Children are “taller, heavier, fatter and weaker,” and this may well result in “increased health care costs and loss of future productivity,” the study concludes.

Another way to put this is to say that being overweight is the least of the problems that come with obesity. Since foods that over-deliver on calories usually under-deliver on nutrients – people are much more likely to get fat from guzzling pop and gorging on chips and dip than wolfing down green peppers and broccoli – health disorders are compounded in bodies that are simultaneously overfed and undernourished. A long and expensive list of medical problems fall like a cascade from this food system disorder. Best understood are the chronic human diseases (diabetes, heart disease and several cancers, for example) commonly linked to poor diet and unhealthy weights.

Rarely-mentioned but even more expensive are the environmental diseases from a food system that over-consumes enough natural resources to make about one and a half billion people on the planet overweight or obese – about twice the number of people who are starving. Impacts of the excessive taking from nature range from global warming and water pollution to infectious diseases such as avian flu that are linked to livestock overcrowding — all hidden costs of artificially cheapened food that make obesity affordable, indeed, more affordable for the poor than healthier diets.

Diagnosed this way, obesity becomes a system problem that requires system-wide sets of solutions that benefit both human health and the environment.

One way to think about the problem in a new way is to realize that obesity comes from eating too little food, not too much.

Whole foods, especially vegetables and fruits, fill the belly with calorie-free water and fiber while filling the body with a wide range of nutrients and micro-nutrients absent in conventional grains and animal products. Eating more of such real foods is a big part of the alternative to both human obesity and what I’ve taken to calling environmental obesity — an atmosphere stuffed to busting with excess carbon, and waterways swollen and barfing from excess nitrogen and livestock manure, for example.

This original sin of bad diets – too many calorie-dense but nutrient-light edibles and too many high-energy inputs to grow, ship, grease-fry and package them – could not last long without government subsidies that convert these very high-tech and expensive-to-make edibles into ones that come out cheap at the checkout counter. Nutrition experts such as Adam Drewnowski estimate that a calorie of a healthy food costs as much as 100 times more than a calorie of nutrient-free filler.

In North America, financial incentives in agricultural policies and lax regulations in environmental policies account for this magical transformation in pricing. Most government subsidies go to grains, the filler for sweet nothings for humans and cheap feed for livestock that produce cheap meat. Lax regulations for GE crops and pesticide use favor cheap corn, the source of corn syrup that’s redefined food over the last few decades.

As overweight and obesity top the list of human health problems during the coming decade, a way needs to be found to bring these unseen forces into the light of day. We need to cut the fat, but to cut wisely, we need to consider that obesity is fundamentally a political, not an eating disorder.

(Adapted from NOW Magazine, February 4, 10, 2010.)


  1. [...] interesting take on the recently released obesity statistics – people are filling themselves with too much high-calorie, low-nutrient food, and that the key to dealing with the problem is to eat real food, not junk. [Wayne [...]

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