(warning: the below is a bit of a rant!)
The obesity epidemic is not just one of the greatest (mental) health problems of our time, set to become a more prevalent problem than hunger and more expensive to health systems than smoking, but it is also spawning new magical beliefs. Given that nearly a third of the elderly population of Anglo-Saxon is obese, or close to it, there is a large constituency of voters and pundits out there who want to believe their obesity is not of their own choosing. Let us look at the modern forms of magical stories that cater for this wish, just as in an earlier age people believed in ancestor spirits and witchcraft which also explained bad things in their lives as due to something unrelated to their own behaviour.
The most prevalent ‘magic’ story surrounding obesity is that it is not the result of eating too much and exercising too little, but rather a result of ‘improved metabolism’ whereby people get more out of the food they consume and thus get fat more quickly.
There are many variants of the metabolism story, and, like ancient stories of magic before them, use the labels their audience expect and respect, which in modern times means the labels of modern science.
One goes by the name of ‘insulin signalling’ and notes that the form of calories that we ingest has other effects than merely getting food into our bodies. It is noted that alcohol, trans-fats and sugars don’t quite have the same effects on how quickly we feel full as other forms of calories, like protein. In the same vein, the ‘processed food’ story holds that food that is more processed, ie chopped into smaller bits and cooked so that its content is more easily absorbed by the stomach, similarly leads us to more quickly be ready to eat more and also means that we use less calories to digest our food. Both hence are stories that boil down to saying that the type of food we eat makes us feel full less quickly and make us work less hard ‘internally’ than alternative foods also available. Stories in this vein often include techy-sounding phrases like ‘leptin receptor pathways’ and ‘stomach enzymes’.
What is wrong with these stories, you may ask? Won’t there truly be insulin-related effects of food and isn’t there bound to be a difference in what kind of food makes us feel full?
The issue is not the biological mechanisms themselves, but rather the idea that they ‘explain’ the obesity increase as an outcome of something no longer involving personal choices. It is the sleight of hand that quite plausible micro-mechanisms give an ‘alternative’ theory of obesity increases that involves an implicit use of magic. It requires the audience to look away at the crucial moment.
Take the idea that sugars and trans-fats make us feel less full than proteins and thus lead us to stop eating only after ingesting more net calories than we would get if we ate more meat. This in no way explains why people choose to eat more sugary foods and transfats rather than more proteins. Indeed, the ‘scientific discovery’ of the mechanisms via which people feel full has not made the slightest dent in the steady increase in obesity! Hence individuals with full knowledge of how they could make themselves feel full without eating as many calories nevertheless ignore this knowledge and instead eat more cakes, hamburgers, chips, tacos, cheese, chocolate, etc.
Do you thus see the sleight of hand perpetrated by the ‘insulin signal’ pushers? And I am here not talking about the individual lab-scientist who is working through a particular mechanism, but rather the ‘popular scientists’ who point to such studies and perform the sleight of hand with it, like David Berreby here, pushing the quote by Atkinson that ‘The previous belief of many lay people and health professionals that obesity is simply the result of a lack of willpower and an inability to discipline eating habits is no longer defensible’.
The sleight of hand is to go from ‘some foods make you feel less full’ to ‘obesity is not a choice’. Whilst the first half of the statement is true, the second part in no way follows at all.
Just ask yourself: have our ancestors not lived under different food circumstances in different centuries, some with diets rich in protein, others rich in trans-fats, others rich in sugars, nevertheless all with much lower obesity rates than today? Of course they have. The Northern Europeans, using their genetic advantage of lactose-tolerance, for centuries had diets with lots of milk-fats and milk-proteins (butter and cheese). The staple diets of Latin America on the other hand were notoriously protein-poor, and the main sources of concentrated sugar (honey, sugar cane, and sugar beet) were not available to whole populations (like the Innuits whose diet is notoriously heavily meat-based). Yet in all these populations, obesity is believed to have been a fringe-problem compared to now.
Think a level deeper: did rich 1950s Americans and Europeans not already have access to as much processed trans-fats and sugars as they needed to become obese? Of course they had. But they chose not to eat them in the same quantities. And was 19th century Victorian England not already awash with recipes for very fatty pies, sugary tarts, and protein-rich roasts? Of course it was. Again, the sub-populations who could afford to eat as much as they wanted (the rich) chose not to.
So think again about that sleight of hand: by concentrating on a seemingly interesting tit-bit of biological information, such as a feedback mechanisms between the feeling of hunger and the composition of food, you are subtly seduced into no longer critically asking yourself whether it really ‘explains’ obesity increases. You are invited to go along with the implicit thought bubble that obesity is not really a result of somewhat knowledgeably stuffing yourself more than you know is good for you, but rather being the unwitting victim of the magical accident of what happens to be put in your food. Those poor victims of food processing! How easy it is to forget that people choose to leave the salad on their plate (which would make them feel full and that would cost them more calories to process than it would give them) and instead choose another processed cake and some creamy pasta!
Once you realise that human food history is of course awash with different diets and that no magical diet on offer in the self-help shops has yet managed to turn the obesity tide and hence that you really can’t pretend that obesity is due to foods being available now which were unavailable in earlier times, you should easily be able to spot the logical fallacies in the many other magical explanations on offer. And there are many of those.
Take this beauty: it turns out that obese people have more plastic-related substances in their pee than others. One such substance is called ‘bisphenol-A’. It is in many foods and other things we get into contact with (like the cans we store some drinks in). It too might have some effect on our ‘metabolism’, effectively lowering it down a little, thereby becoming an ‘obesogen’. Maybe the obesity increase is just the result of more plastic in the food-chain? Sounds plausible, no? Indeed, you have to give credit to the inventiveness of the explanation.
Where is the sleight of hand? Again, ask yourself why obese people, once they ‘discover’ this potential avenue via which they have been ‘fooled’ into having a lower metabolism and thus getting fat more easily, do not en masse change their diet? Why dont you see other substances used to line the cans in our diets if the effect truly was substantial? Ask yourself whether bisphenol-A type substances would not occur naturally and have been part of the food chain for hundreds of years without ‘causing’ obesity before? Ask yourself whether there wouldn’t be obvious ways to increase metabolism via other foods and activities that would completely trump the fairly weak effects of ‘bisphenol-A’? Ask yourself if the official Food authorities would be unaware of the effects of such substances and would allow anything but miniscule and ineffective trace amounts of ‘bisphenol-A’ in the human food-chain?
I am not even going to give you the answers to these questions for by now you should realise that if the ‘obesogen’ explanation sounded plausible to you, then you were again seduced by the lure of magic: of course ‘bisphenol-A’ is just another red herring. You indeed were once again invited to stare blindly at the words ‘metabolism’ and ‘obesogens’, conveniently forgetting the role of choice and history in terms of whether or not you have truly been an unwitting recent victim of those evil ‘obesogens’.
Take another beauty, by Professor Jonathan Wells, who spins a tale of truly breath-taking magical proportions. His essential contention is that obesity is the result of a capitalist conspiracy. The conspiracy first created hunger about a century ago, by having nasty capitalists rob poor ignorant (and previously not-starving) peasants of their own food sources. We, the descendants of that wave of hungry peasants now find ourselves in a world of plenty where the capitalists offer all that tempting food to us. Having deep memories of our hunger, passed on in uteris (in the womb) for generations via all sorts of ‘gene receptor’ mechanisms and ‘epi-genetic’ mechanisms, we react as if we are still hungry and binge-up.
The story is as ridiculous as it is beautiful. The sleights of hand are so many that one could write a book on a debunking of it. Where to start? Shall we start with the myth that the pre-capitalist world was a food-abundant place wherein farmers were not on the brink of starvation, suppressed by the land-owning nobility? Or the counter-observation to the causal mechanisms, in that income-mobility is such that those are who rich now are also the descendants of these poor hungry farmers, but yet, despite being able to more easily afford to be fat, choose not to be? The bold contentions of this guy (a professor at UCL no less) are really breathtaking. This particular claim could have come straight out of the old USSR: “capitalism contributed to the under-nutrition of many populations through demand for cheap labor”. Wow. Lenin, eat your heart out!
The list of ‘magical explanations’ that along the way cater for whatever other chip on your shoulder you may have (anti-capitalism or anti-modernism, or whatever ‘ism’ you wish to subscribe to) that explains obesity goes on and on, each more fantastical than the others. Obesity has thus been blamed on too much artificial light, particular viruses, air conditioning, and genetic factors. The scientific-sounding labels include such exotic specimen as ‘organotonics’. Personally, I find myself laughing out loud when working through the supposed causal mechanisms of how these ‘external biological’ factors are supposed to explain the recent increases in obesity and abscond us from considering the role of our individual choices, but there seems to be an eager audience out there ready to believe the next feel-good story along these lines.
All this is not to say that the causes of obesity are easily understood or that an understanding of biological mechanisms might not help us find that elusive diet pill, but center stage in an understanding of the problem must be our own choices: despite all our current knowledge of what makes us fat we keep choosing to eat more than we should and to exercise less than we should. We fail to adjust our habits, to avoid temptations and to surround ourselves with cues that would help us exercise more and eat less. We in full knowledge of what we could be doing, choose not to. Understanding why large groups in our populations ignore decades of dietary advice and choose to have clogged arteries, lower libidos, increased risks of diabetes, reduced mobility, lowered social status, and a generally lower quality of life in return for the instant gratification of that next juicy bite is surely a more promising avenue for understanding the causes of obesity than indulging in the next ‘its all magic’ story.