Magical explanations of the rise in obesity?

(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.

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54 Responses to Magical explanations of the rise in obesity?

  1. john r walker says:

    Health Authorities have been warning, sternly, about ‘fat’ for years and as a consequence super markets are full of stuff that loudly says : 98% fat free…. but that do not mention that it is 40% sugar . I think you should give some credence to the influence health authorities have had on peoples eating habits, no?

    • Paul Frijters says:

      Great example of another magic-story! Just think about the causality you are proposing here: do you really think that that 40% sugar content will come as a huge surprise to people buying those tasty products for decades on end, being surprised week after week how they could possibly be gaining weight? Imagine the self-justifications you then have to believe are true: “But I was only eating low-fat joghurt these last 10 years”! “I just dont understand it, I could swear those candy bars I have been buying now since the 1980s had labels saying ‘only 2% fat'”. “Oops, another kilo this month. That’s the 50th one in a row. I really just have no clue what could be going on….if only I was properly informed of the cause!”

      Pure magic, John.

      The only mechanism I can see for how one can blame the information-campaigns of health authorities for the rise in obesity is if those campaigns made people more body-conscious and thereby indirectly making the temptations harder, i.e. itself leading to lowered self-esteem and thus increasing the demands for self-control. Its a huge stretch though: content labelling is normal is basically all rich countries and obesity is not. So even that long-shot is most likely another red herring.

  2. Mel says:


    Stephan Guyenet provides an answer to the question you ask in your final paragraph. Guyenet is a neurobiologist and biochemist by training and an obesity researcher at the University of Washington. I don’t think there is any great mystery about this and Guyenet gives a good common sense answer.

    • Paul frijters says:

      This guy thinks 70% is genetics. Considering that obesity increases are mainly a phenomenon of the last 50 years and that there is huge variation across countries with similar genetic ancestry, we should refer to this as the “local alien invasion hypothesis”.

      • Mel says:

        You obviously didn’t understand the point being made.

        There is also more to his explanation if you check posts other than the first one, food reward etc…

        • Paul frijters says:

          Throw in ‘lepton receptors’ and it might start to sound true!
          I know his point perfectly well. He’s not the only one to have pushed the genetic angle. To explain a change with something that hasn’t changed is just silly. Nor is it useful apart from pandering purposes.

  3. Hang on a minute. If you exclude all external factors because ultimately people make their own decisions about what goes in their mouth (and they can’t plead ignorance), what are you left with?

    “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”

    Sounds like real business cycle theory, or should I say, real obesity cycle theory? People are fat because will all individually decided to get fat? At roughly the same time, in many countries, all around the world (with some exceptions, which are obviously the critical way we can learn about obesity at a macro level).

    You then need to answer the question – why everyone decided to get fat at the same time?

    Let’s look at what we know. We know that there are obesity clusters in our social networks – fat people mingle with fat people (and marry them). From Guyenet (Mel’s link) we know “…numerous traditionally-living cultures around the world remain lean throughout life, with very few overweight individuals, even if they have sufficient food availability, yet these same groups readily become obese once they modernize”

    There seems to really be some kind of external (environmental/cultural) factor at play – a little bit of the ‘when in Rome’ type of behaviour. You guys eat crappy food and sit on your arse, maybe I’ll do it to.

    To have a model that allows for an obesity epidemic we just need agents that react to the behaviour other others in their environment. Say an agent that will tolerate being 10% fatter than the average of their social circle. Then as the environmental conditions change, people will get a little fatter, but then others will ‘reset’ their benchmark and get a little fatter and so on.

    This process need not be limited to the sole dimension of food (though there are many dimensions within eating culture – size of servings, snacking, preparation etc), it might encompass broader lifestyle dimensions such as sedentary pastimes.

    My version of this cultural propagation story allows for variation in country level obesity because of dining/eating culture. Those countries with a strong dining culture – by which I mean many strongly upheld rituals around dining such as, timing of meals, drinking, culturally significant dishes etc – seem to have withheld the obesity crisis simply because there was little scope to change eating behaviour. Sometimes this coincides with rejection of sedentary cultural norms, like road investment, in favour of investment in mass transit and cycle paths.

    One big test for this theory is the rise of wealth in Asia. Will the adoption of western dining habits be a symbol of wealth, and if so, will the accelerate an obesity crisis? Or will traditional foods, and mealtime rituals still dominate?

    PS. I think this part is a bit deceptive
    “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.”

    As far as I know being wealthy was historically a sign of wealth because only the genuinely wealthy could get fat! Of course, this may have been one short period in just one part of the word pre-20th century.

    • Paul frijters says:

      Yep, cultural is what you are left with. Messy, personal, uncomfortable.
      Blaming an obesity epidemic on a change in food habits is not very deep, unless you think it is accidental and easily reversible. 30 years of dieticians suggest otherwise. So we have to think deeper.
      Put it this way: what is it about some ‘traditional cultures’ that allows its members to resist temptation that has been lost in ours? Any ideas?

      • Isn’t the more general question why particular cultures adopt some habits /rituals/behaviours and not others? There are plenty of theories about fashions, fads etc and the propagation of norms. But a theory that says ‘obesity’ will not spread but baseball will (which is basically the case in Japan), would require enormous amount of information about the ‘starting position’ of society – a genuine butterfly effect of cultural fads.

        • murph the surf. says:

          The average height of people in asian countries which have experienced the benefits of economic growth over the last 30 years has increased.
          Is this also inexplicable ?
          Is this an outcome due to cultural values or is it just possible that enhanced protein levels in the average diet have resulted in the phenotype according to the genotype more closely?
          Oh and as an unsupported observation I would like to add that asians in the same countries are becoming much more hefty as well.In Japan they have had to modify the seats in jumior schools to fit their elongating children.
          Must be the most complicated way to cause trouble for your parents.

  4. I wonder if Paul is aware of the idea popular with the libertarian/small government Right that the US government promoted food pyramid is the source of all problems by elevating carbohydrates over protein? It suits their ideology that everything bad in the world comes from too much government.

    A large number of libertarians have tried the extremely high protein Atkins or paleo diets: this has been discussed many times at Catallaxy, and it is confirmed in the US in this blog post here.

    • sdfc says:


      I tried the low carb, high protein diet and lost 15kg in a few weeks. I wouldn’t recommend it over the long term but for quick weight loss it seems to work pretty well.

    • Tel says:

      Vilhjalmur Stefansson, one of the early popularizers of the zero-carb diet was hardly someone to declare himself Libertarian. He was regarded by others as a Jewish socialist, but for a socialist he spent a lot of his life as far from society as possible… or at least far from modern society, being completely comfortable amongst the Inuit eating meat, fish and fat.

      What he did prove beyond a shadow of doubt was that belief in the “food pyramid” as the basis for good health is a load of cobblers. You wonder why we still teach it to helpless kids. Won’t somebody think of the children?

  5. Michael says:

    So how do they manipulate the willpower of lab mice when they get them to eat more of the food they shouldn’t and exercise less than they should and get fat? If you can crack this elusive willpower switch then you could cash in big time. The weightless industry is massive.

    You also failed to address another likely cause – that fat people are pre-destined to be fat (punishment for sins since starvation would attract too much attention to the divine intervention since capitalism has solved scarcity).

    • Paul Frijters says:

      The lab mice story is another hilarious distraction. We should start at the other end though: what are you possibly going to learn about humans from the fact that lab mice are heavier now than they were 20 years ago:

      1. Some humans are more mice than others?
      2. Animal rights activists should investigate?
      3. We should put people in cages and feed them what they fed mice 20 years ago?

      The ‘pre-destination story’ is just another magical cop-out. You might as well say we are all pre-destined to steal, rape, and murder. Add in a few neurotransmitter receptor stories, link them casually to racial differences across countries and Bob’s your uncle, 70% of changing crime rates ‘explained’!

      Don’t get me started on the ‘its the government’s fault through their food pyramids’ story. There is an endless supply of such fairy tales.

      • Michael says:

        Surely you except that not everyone has an equal understanding of nutrition – some people do understand what food makes them fatter and some people have less information. Some people have more control over what food is available to them. Some people have more control over what forms of exercise they can indulge in/are forced into. Environmental factors would seem more attributable as a cause than “willpower”. That seems like the cop-out to me. Lets ignore all the societal changes and environmental changes like cities without footpths and put it down to willpower which has somehow been sapped in some population but not others in the last 20 years!

  6. desipis says:

    Are they any less unreasonable than the magical explanations of “free will” and “rational behaviour” that get evoked to justify liberal economic philosophy? Industries spend billions of dollars to develop products and marketing strategies that undermine people’s ability to behave in their rational self interest. They don’t spend that money because these things don’t work.

    The more liberal philosophies of the west have created a culture where not only self destructive behaviour is considered acceptable, but where inducing others to engage in self destructive behaviour is considered a laudable career. It’s not surprising to me that liberal cultures suffer from the effects of gluttony far more than ones with a stronger sense of community or self discipline.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      I just today reviewed a book by an economist that actually pretty much makes that argument (though not discussing obesity all that much in particular)! There might well be something to this loss-of-self-discipline idea, but still begs the question why the rich haven’t been much more obese in previous times. And why you actually see more self-discipline in so many other areas.

  7. john r walker says:

    Honestly its a medical/social problem, not a moral fiber problem.

    Refined sugar -which only became widely, and cheaply, available in comparatively recent times- is a addictive, dangerous substance, for some people.

    And the problem also has a path dependency aspect- the founding nation for Anglo trading culture largely has a famous indifference to what it eats. In the anglo world buying your ingredients and then cooking them, is only done by the posh and foreigners, on TV

  8. derrida derider says:

    OK Paul, lets assume obesity occurs because the mases are weak willed and need a strong leader to guide them forward to their destiny, or because God is punishing them for Adam and Eve’s original sin, or because of a lack of obesity-consciousness among the workers fostered by the ruling class to extract more surplus value.

    So what? People are as weak willed as ever. What you have to explain is why this weak willedness NOW results in obesity where it didn’t before, because until you can do that you’re not in a position to say what we can do about it. Jeremiads against the sinfulness of this present generation may give a comforting feeling of self-satisfaction but they’re no basis on which to form government policy.

  9. Paul Frijters says:

    John, DD,

    I am not all that interested in being moralistic about obesity. As personal choices go, its one that has limited effects on others, primarily via public health expenditures that disproportionately go to high BMI, thus entailing a subsidy from the rest. I already in 2006 said it would be good if health premiums took account of BMI so as to stop the cross-subsidy, but ultimately it is a societal choice whether or not to subsidise it. Apart from that public money angle I don’t see why one should be moralistic about it.

    I am interested though in understanding what is going on (see my previous posts on the subject:, finding it now and then humorous, now and then a nuisance to have to wade through all the self-serving magic stories.

    I find the issue of self-restraint an interesting avenue and one that clearly is not constant throughout time or cultures at all. Self-restraint is something taught. It is indeed an interesting question why that would have changed in recent times and places and not other times or places. Anglo-Saxon societies now probably see more self-restraint on sexual and criminal matters than at almost any other point in time, but clearly the same is not true for the temptations of food. And its not just Anglo-Saxon countries. A decidedly non-Anglo Saxon country like Mexico has the same obesity issue. Its a genuine puzzle.

    I am as perplexed about people who currently run the ‘I truly have no idea what is making me fat’ story as I was as a kid by people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens or to have seen Elvis alive smoking a joint with Munroe.

    • john r walker says:

      Obviously you get fat by consuming a lot more calories than you burn, but there are other factors going on .

      Western societies have been groging on for thousands of years , long enough for selection for some degree of tolerance to have taken place.
      Refined sugar was a luxury item in the 16C and it did not become wide spread until the 18-19C . There are surprising amounts of sugar in manufactured foods that don’t seem ‘sweet’- It is at least plausible that the current problems are revealing that a lot of the population do not have the ability to cope with the sheer amount of refined sugar ( and seed based oils) in the modern diet.

  10. boconnor says:

    My theory:
    – the energy in / energy out equation is true
    – people (across all cultures) are naturally lazy but are constrained by their physical environment which either assists their laziness or prevents / reduces it
    – over the last 60 odd years the number of people who have moved into urbanized, sedentary jobs, passive recreation (TV, computer gadgets) and private (instead of public) transport has increased.
    – it’s not just the eating of high sugar food etc, it’s the sedentary choices we make. Which we make because we enjoy being lazy. That is, watching TV, playing with our gadgets and driving in our cars is more fun than having to walk 10Km to get your next meal.
    – it’s easier to bend to the physical environment than to change one’s innate behaviour
    – the output side of the equation has dropped much more than the input side has gone up.

    So, take an obese person from their desk job and drop them into a physical job where they also must walk, ride or use public transport to get to work and they will get smaller. Do the reverse, and they will get bigger. But of course we can’t force people into physical environments that would benefit them.

  11. derrida derider says:

    As an aside, I’m not so sure that the rich weren’t fat in times past – as someone pointed out above obesity was a status good, which indicates it was hardly unknown. And of course in many cultures very fat women were and are prized as highly pulchritudinous (though that may have been more about displaying the fact that they could not work and so their ONLY value was as owned women – like having a peach and roses complexion in Victorian England, or having bound feet in China. Sex and economics is complicated).

    Of course even the Victorian rich did a helluva lot more walking than we do, which may have offset their diet a bit.

  12. Don Arthur says:

    If it’s all about self-discipline then Italians are, on average, more self-disciplined than Americans.

  13. Luke Elford says:

    Like DD, I’m extremely sceptical of the idea that, in Victorian England, wealthy people who were able to eat as much as they wanted to chose not to. To the extent that they did not become fat as a result, it surely reflects, as DD notes, higher rates of physical activity than today combined with the fact that exercise doesn’t seem to provide much if any stimulus to appetite. But of course we can’t know for sure, because there’s no good data. However, there were surveys conducted in Britain in the 1930s which suggest that rich people ate significantly more than people do on average today. From an article in BBC History Magazine (

    “What evidence do we have about obesity in the interwar years?

    “There are no statistics of obesity rates, but several 1930s dietary surveys document excess consumption among professionals and high income groups with daily intake of about 3,500 to 3,600 calories per man. This contrasts sharply with only 2,000 to 2,300 calories per day among the low paid and unemployed and was well above the recommended 2,700 calories for sedentary workers.

    “An abundant middle-class diet frequently resulted in weight-gain and there was a flourishing market for popular weight loss manuals, several of which became best sellers during the interwar years.”

    3,500-3,600 calories is a LOT of food. To the extent that these people weren’t very obese it again reflects higher rates of physical activity.

    By the way, Paul, do you have a credible source for your claim that digesting a salad would use up more calories than the salad contains? The belief that certain foods are “negative calorie foods” is widely held, but according to Wikipedia, there is no scientific evidence that these foods have a negative caloric impact. This BBC story quotes experts sayings it’s bunk:

    • Luke Elford says:

      Er, “experts saying it’s bunk”.

    • Luke,

      1930 is of course not quite Victorian, but more seriously I dont see what you are trying to argue. You seem to suggest that the rich could not afford to be obese? Or that the higher level of physical activity then is not in the choice set now? You seem to be making my case rather than the converse.
      As to salads, a ‘home’ lettuce salad has zero calories. Throw in a carrot and red cabbage and a quick google search tells me we are up to 15 calories. Just on chewing and fetching the salad from the bar, let alone processing the thing in our stomach, you can go through 15 calories. Your ‘experts’ are thinking of much richer salads than I am! Salad dressings are of course lethal, mostly oil.

      • john r walker says:

        Ahem -Olive oil , lemon juice or vinegar and Dijon mustard is not lethal. (unless you are a pom) :-)

      • Luke Elford says:


        Your argument was that in Victorian times, and even in the 1950s, those who could afford to eat as much as they wanted instead showed self-restraint. I presented evidence that in Britain in the 1930s, the wealthy were eating far more than was recommended for them, and indeed, much, much more than people eat today. That’s not direct evidence of obesity—evidently there isn’t any—but it’s strongly suggestive. And of course it’s only one data point—but it’s one more data point than you’ve provided.

        The point about rates of physical activity is this: if people are not showing self-restraint, they are simply eating until they feel well and truly full, and simply exercising as much as they need to go about their daily activities. If physical activity doesn’t stimulate appetite much (and there is evidence to this effect), it’s possible for people who aren’t showing self-restraint to not become obese if simply going about their daily activities requires lots of energy.

        At any rate, the evidence from 1930s Britain suggests that the wealthy were consuming much more than their physical activity rates required, even though their requirements were much higher than today (the recommended 2,700 calories is a lot of food by today’s standards).

        If you’d bothered to read the link, you’d have seen that it was about negative calorie foods in general, not salad in particular, so salad dressing is not an explanation. You wrote:

        “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).”

        In your story, people have already collected the salad, or had it delivered to them, so you can’t count the energy involved in going over to the bar. Moreover, you specifically refer to processing, which means chewing and digesting.

        • Paul Frijters says:

          ” Professor Oddy, the social historian and author of The Rise of Obesity in Europe: a Twentieth Century Food History, said: “Nowadays, our increasingly sedentary lives paired with the proliferation of a wide range of unhealthy foods have combined to create a very difficult environment for people to reach and maintain a healthy weight.”

          In the 1960s only 1 per cent of men and 2 per cent of women in England were classed as obese compared to today’s 25.2 per cent of men and 27.7 per cent of women.

          At the end of the 1950s, the average man weighed 10.2 stone (65kg) and the average woman 8.7 stone (55kg). Today the average weights are 13.2 stone (83.6kg) and 11.1 stone (70.2kg) respectively. ”

          “Oddy” seems to be your man when it comes to stats of the early era. You tell me how to interpret a 1% obesity rate in the 50s as anything but pretty solid indication that over 90% of any wealth group in that era (and the previous decade) were not obese?

          Apart from that, the articles you reference make my point: plenty of food available for the sedentary and higher income groups (the highest income groups are not usually in these surveys – a problem for surveys nowadays too), but obesity is see as something abnormal, leading many to try to lose weight, something that ‘Oddy’ says is now less prevalent: the social norms have adapted.

          Did you really expect that in Victorian England (and the period up to 1950) you’d find more obesity amongst the wealthy than we find now in the general population? Lack of statistics of course does not mean we dont have good indications that you could turn into statistics if you wanted. You can count the obese on paintings of gentrified areas of that time if you want! Some journal would probably even take it.

        • Luke Elford says:

          “You tell me how to interpret a 1% obesity rate in the 50s as anything but pretty solid indication that over 90% of any wealth group in that era (and the previous decade) were not obese?”

          From the article I’ve already linked to:

          “After 1939, the introduction of extensive rationing and regulation of food supplies resulted in reductions of sugar, meat and fats as consumption shifted to bread, potatoes and milk. This massive state intervention, which was only possible in the context of total war, amounted to a major turning point in the history of the British diet.

          “The policy has been described as a revolutionary transformation because it largely eliminated the disparities between the social classes with regard to energy and nutrient intake documented in the 1930s.

          “Middle-class calorie consumption declined and there is extensive evidence of grumbling about the lean, monotonous diet of the period, while wartime diarists fantasised about generous helpings of meat, bacon and eggs, buttered toast washed down with coffee laced with sugar and cream. Activity levels rose due to longer working hours, increased walking, reduced motoring with petrol rationing and schemes such as Dig for Victory.

          “This erosion of class differentials in food intake persisted after the end of rationing in 1954 and weight gain was no longer confined to the highest income groups. The episode points towards the limits of personal responsibility with regard to dietary restraint and highlights the significance of a heavily regulated food regime in the 1940s.”

        • Luke Elford says:

          “Did you really expect that in Victorian England (and the period up to 1950) you’d find more obesity amongst the wealthy than we find now in the general population?”

          Well, you haven’t provided any relevant evidence, but no, as I’ve already explained, I think their necessarily high rates of physical activity made it easier for them to avoid weight gain even if they lacked self-restraint with respect to food intake because the effect of physical activity on appetite is small. Oddy would seem to agree in as much as he says that “our increasingly sedentary lives paired with the proliferation of a wide range of unhealthy foods have combined to create a very difficult environment for people to reach and maintain a healthy weight.”

          At any rate, a bit under half the current rate of obesity hardly corresponds with your generalisations about the rich of the time choosing not to eat too much.

  14. john r walker says:

    My brother in law is a Professor of Pharmacology his view is that the exact cause(s) of the problem are not known, it is more complex than just caloric intake.

    Dismissing factors such as the kind of calories, genome, and environment as “magic” is not helpful … we really do not know enough to say true/false at all.

  15. Paul Frijters says:


    I do call it magic to make the leap from properties of food and hunger-response mechanisms to taking out the role of choice. The ‘its 70% genetic’ line is a great example of this kind of thing. Its an unhelpful and pernicious tendency in this literature, particularly the pop-sci one that leads one to the failed policies of more information and bans on fast-food.

    I think we’ve stopped really disagreeing. I dont have hard data for the last 300 years but you seem to agree with my stylised understanding of the historical record that obesity was a rarity in previous times and cultures (even amongst the wealthy), etc. You point to the importance of reduced physical activity in daily work, which is probably in the mix, but given that there are countries with the same reduction in work-related physical activity without the increase in obesity, it is clearly not the only factor either.

    • john r walker says:

      Who said anything about taking choice out of the mix?

      PS what is fast food as a classification, if it isn’t about the kind of ingredients in it?
      in France practically lived , on prepared easy fast food: goats cheese, Saucissons, some bread, clementines ( and a bit of wine) … we lost weight without trying.

    • conrad says:

      If you dig through some of the older literature on the “it’s mainly genetic” mumbo-jumbo, then one of the fun things you’ll find is how the framing of this has changed. In the older studies (including the classic prisoner study), it was always framed such that genetics *stopped* you putting on weight. There might well be some truth in that for some people who have various digestive disorders or just really inefficient digestion. But these days, it’s framed in entirely the opposite way, where somehow or other, genetics makes you fat.

  16. john r walker says:

    I think Troppo needs a Cooking category.

  17. Mel says:

    Well, alright, let me have another go and this time I’ll dispense with the confected pleasantness as it didn’t seen to assist Paul in his learning process. Here goes:

    Paul, you haven’t actually said anything interesting. Not a single thing. You have nothing at all to elevate the debate over obesity. In fact all you’ve done is dumb the discussion down by:

    (a) calling obesity a mental health problem without bothering to provide evidence for this novel theory, and

    (b) banging on about people make choices that they ought know are bad for them.

    Your mental health claim is simply boring. A large percentage of people will become obese if they live in a first world western environment. A smaller number of people who consume exactly the same food and exercise just as little as the obese will not become obese. Other folk, an increasingly smaller percentage, will have a diet and exercise regime that keeps them thin. Mental health is at best a marginal issue regarding which of these groups you belong to. The only thing that is has changed is the environment, broadly defined. The answer to the cause of obesity thus lies in the environment and its interaction with our bodily blueprint.

    You bang on about choice and then accuse others of magical thinking. Choice implies free will and a belief in free will is the magical belief that human thought and action is not governed by rules of causation. If you believe in free will then don’t be laughing at folk who believe in leprechauns, astrology and sky fairies as all four are preternatural belief systems.

    All you’ve done is clumsily complain about body science types giving a narrow “body sciencey” explanation for obesity. Well, big bloody deal. If you consult a sociologist about obesity you’ll probably get a sociological explanation and if you consult an historian you’ll get an historical explanation. This happens in every interesting fields of study. If you consult a psychiatrist about your anxiety he’ll probably give you Xanax, if you consult a psychologist he might teach you relaxation therapy and if you consult a psychoanaylst you might end up talking about what a bitch your mother was when you were a child.

    I mean, this really is a no shit, Sherlock moment, not the Eureka moment you think it is.

  18. Mel says:


    “… my stylised understanding of the historical record that obesity was a rarity in previous times and cultures (even amongst the wealthy) … ”

    Oh for fucks sake, there is a huge amount of evidence for obesity in previous times and with 30 minutes googling you’ll find heaps. Obesity was not as common as it is today, but wherever a food surplus exists you’ll find obesity.

    One of the numerous complaints about the French aristocracy was its gluttony and obesity, indeed “the people over the fat” is a well known revolutionary catch-cry that anyone with any interest in that period is probably aware of.

    Various cultures including the Aztecs had a well developed set of beliefs about obesity and the portrayal of obese people, from stone carvings of Venus to various wood carvings and pictures in innumerable cultural traditions is tediously common.

  19. Don Arthur says:

    Paul – It’s one thing to say that different people behave differently in the same environment but to talk about ‘choice’ invokes some kind of theory about the causes of that behaviour.

    Sometimes I whether the concept of ‘choice’ will end up having a role in our most successful theories of human behaviour (those with predictive power) or whether it’s really a folk theory concept.

    Perhaps it’s a concept that really belongs in moral and legal discourse and the quick and dirty models of economics rather than in the behavioural sciences.

  20. Mel says:

    Ultimately, Don, social researchers need to come clean about whether they believe in free will or not. If researchers declare this from the outset we might spend less time talking at cross purposes.

    I think the word choice is problematic in research because it implies free will- which is an unscientific preternatural concept, whilst an ideology of free will is a necessary part of every culture as it is a signal that increases self control.

    Call it a paradox, if you will.

  21. Don Arthur says:

    I don’t think social researchers need to worry about free-will. They just need to explain why people behave one way rather than another.

    The concept of free-will matters when we decide whether or not to hold someone morally or legally responsible for their behaviour.

    Part of what this debate is about is whether or not we should hold the obese morally responsible for their weight and its health consequences. People who do hold them responsible are less inclined to support public policies that impose a cost on the non-obese.

  22. Ingolf says:

    Paul, I happened across this article about obesity. Thought you might find it interesting too.

    • conrad says:

      “In fact, many researchers believe that personal gluttony and laziness cannot be the entire explanation for humanity’s global weight gain”


      and then we start losing reality, with the first argument being:”as the American people were getting fatter, so were America’s marmosets.” + other animals.

      Perhaps if we all start eating marmosets, the problem will be solved (they will have to run harder, and will lose weight, although perhaps all those stress hormones will make them fat again).

      • john r walker says:

        bugger marmosets, eating babies is a better option.

        The reference to a virus causing weight gain is a new one to me.

        • conrad says:

          The modern world is terrible now we have less disease, worms and other infestations to help curb our inevitable weight gain. If only worm-medicine proof worms would come back, think how happy we would all be.

      • john r walker says:

        True story-A few years ago some blokes were busted in South Africa selling magical weight loss tablets, they really did work, drawback was the tablets contained tapeworm eggs. :-)

        There are two indisputable environmental changes, that are significant- refined sugar was until quite recent times a rarity. It is cheap, very high in calories and in large quantities has metabolic effects – type two diabetes maps well to sugar consumption. The other change is we do not exercise and to make matters much worse when not exercising we tend to munch on snacks that are high in sugar/oil/fat and not much else.

  23. Jill Hill says:

    I think the most important thing is monitoring your health, your families and setting a positive influence throughout your friendship and family circles. If your circle becomes accustomed to being unhealthy, it will be a struggle to turn the tide on health issues.

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