Friday, November 20, 2009


Why are people fat? People are fat because they take in more calories than they need for their particular activity level and metabolism. There's more to eating than just calories, but as a professor of mine used to say, for a gross oversimplification, at least it's correct on the basic facts.

Americans are getting fatter. Much, much fatter. The Center for Disease Control has a color-coded time series of maps of the U.S. showing the percentage of people in the state who have a Body Mass Index (BMI) over 30, which is the official cut-off point for obesity, for the years 1985 to 2008. I present a few snapshots of the bad news here.

1988: Here we are 20 years ago. There are a lot of states that don't even bother to report this data back then. Are they embarrassed? More likely, they aren't convinced it's a serious problem.

The fattest states around have between 10% and 14% of their citizens reported as obese, and that list includes California. There are a bunch of states where the obesity rate is under 10%, including very populous states like Texas and New York. Even if we just consider this data from the states that reported, it's hard mathematically to get a national rate we can state with confidence. The maximum probably couldn't be higher than 12%, and it might even be 10% or less, depending on how skinny the skinniest states are.

1994: This is the first year when every state reported the numbers to the CDC, though it might be that Rhode Island didn't report. The story has changed significantly. Now, "the skinny states" have between 10% to 14% obesity rates, and the fat states are between 15% to 19%. In the six years since the last map was drawn, nearly every state got noticeably fatter, most especially Texas, which went from one of the skinniest to one of the fattest. States like California and Florida stayed relatively stable in the 10% to 14% range, but no state got significantly skinnier in that six year span.

2008: Jump ahead 14 years, and everything has gone to hell. Colorado stands alone as the skinniest state in the union, having an obesity rate between 15% and 19%. Back in 1994, that was the rate for the fattest states. A huge swath of the center of the country is now between 25% to 29% and some Southern states and West Virginia are over 30%. The CDC gives the percentages for each state to the nearest tenth of a percent on their website, and using a weighted average, we can say with some confidence that 26.1% of Americans are currently obese.

What the hell happened in 20 years? Being fat is certainly a matter of personal responsibility. The food industry would like you to believe that personal responsibility is the beginning and end of the story. For a gross over-simplification, it is at least correct on the basic facts. Let's look at the two main parts of the problem, not enough exercise and too many calories, and see if we can spot what made the huge difference of doubling the obesity rate in the span of just twenty years.

Too little exercise: What's the big difference between 1988 to 2008?

Are Americans working too hard? Not that much harder than they were working in 1988.

Is it TV? In 1988, TV had already been wasting people's time for at least three decades. Cable TV may have made it a little more effective of a time waster, but it can't account for the huge change.

Videogames? This is a more likely culprit. Videogames in 1988 were still pretty much aimed at kids, now a lot more adults play them than back in the day. The technological improvement from the Nintendo to the modern systems is much greater that the technological change in television over the same span.

The Internet? Bingo. In 1988, the Internet is still DARPAnet for all intents and purposes. Today it is a time vampire that rivals TV and videogames combined.

(By the way, gentle reader, you are not currently wasting time. You are reading my informative and entertaining blog. Obviously, anyone can see the difference.)

Too much food: Why are we taking in too many calories? Why is it so much worse in the space of 20 years?

There are several trends in the American lifestyle that can account for this. There are a lot more families that rely on two paychecks, and there are a lot more people like me who live alone. Without someone staying at home, finding the time to cook meals from scratch is getting harder and harder, and the American food industry has come to the rescue, in the form of fast food and microwaveable food and convenient snacks that don't have to be cooked at all. In terms of vital nutrients, these convenient foods are generally lacking. In terms of calories per dollar, they are an incredible bargain.

A lot of this bargain is because of government policies of subsidizing certain sectors of the food industry, most especially corn. This excess of corn becomes feed for animals who don't normally eat corn, like cattle and even fish raised in factory farm conditions, and these animals become fatter, partly from diet and partly from lack of exercise, not unlike teh Americans that will eventually eat them. Corn is also turned into high fructose syrup, which is added to the vast majority of convenient foods.

Humans are biologically hard-wired to like the tastes of fat, sugar and salt. In nature, these were not the easiest foods to get. In the modern world, it's a snap to get any of these, sometimes all three in a convenient package that give you a lot of calories for your shopping dollar. For one specific example, I was looking to see if there was a somewhat healthy food that could give you as many calories for the same cost as a Snickers bar. Because of a particular bargain at Trader Joe's, the 19 cent bananas, four bananas is very close to the same calories per dollar as a Snickers bar.

Of course, eating four bananas at a single sitting is an act of gluttony, while eating a single Snickers bar is a tasty treat, because Snickers Really Satisfies™. Though, if it satisfies, why are they packaging a new gigantic size Snickers bar often available near the checkout stand? Shouldn't more of something that "satisfies" be technically too much?

(Going in the opposite direction, Mars puts the little Snickers and Milky Way bars that you give out at Halloween into bags and calls then "fun sized". As my friend Jodi once said picking up one of the tiny little things, "Where's the fun in that?")

In terms of the cost of food stuffs, the American food industry is delivering a bargain, and if time is money, they are giving us great savings there as well. But if we add in the hidden costs of what the American diet is doing to the health of the nation, it becomes clear that what they are doing is not out of the goodness of their hearts, and all these bargains really aren't any favor at all.


Margaret Benbow said...

"Humans are biologically hard-wired to like the taste of fat, sugar and salt." Yes. And these flavors comfort them. I come from one of the Fatty states, where bratwurst and beer and cream pie are practically nursery foods--and where there's seriously stressful underemployment. People are trying to comfort themselves with overeating these basic flavors, as though they were scarfing down sticks of butter and pouring 10-pound bags of sugar over themselves. And it would be cruel to laugh.

Matty Boy said...

While I'm usually a wine drinker, let me say a kind word about beer. No fat, no sugars, low sodium.

It has other problems, noticeably calories from alcohol, but with the Big Three Taste Bomb ingredients, it walks away with a clean bill of health.

Karen Zipdrive said...

Oklahoma is that fat because there is absolutely nothing to do but eat and lay around.
One more reason why I am Oklahomophobic.

Abu Scooter said...

I'd submit that there's another critical factor at play: poverty.

Take another look at the Javascript map closest to the top of that page, and step through the years. Beginning in 1990, the high-BMI areas originate in three states -- Mississippi, West Virginia and Michigan -- then spread out.

MS and WV have always been very poor states. Michigan's fortunes, meanwhile, have declined along with the US auto industry.

In any event, I wouldn't expect these numbers to even stabilize until, rather than "resources," workers are recognized as human beings again.

Karlacita! said...

There's also something yucky afoot, which is that the BMI measurement has been downshifted to a lower number than it was before.

And because it does not take into account frame size, musculature, or body fat percentages, it incorrectly counts people who are quite healthy (for instance, athletes) as fat or obese.

I read an interesting article a few years ago in a medical journal, which pointed out that the mortality rates for people at the supposedly correct BMI are higher than the rates for people who are "fatter."

Follow the money, my friends. Medicalizing a symptom and calling it an epidemic benefits whom?

Dr. Zaius said...

You mean that we could all lose weight if our states would just change color? Remarkable!

Anonymous said...

I think you need to closely examine the amount of sugar and corn subsidy that the U.S. Government gives to those two industries.

In the early 1980s, the subsidies to corn in particular shot through the roof. Because our taxpayer money goes into over-subsidizing that type of food ingredient, it becomes the cheapest ingredient besides water. So what happens? Food companies decide that corn syrup and sugar are the cheapest ways to make food taste good.

They *DUMP* it into the food, and it is everywhere. It is so prevalent that it becomes difficult to find prepared food that isn't sugar/syrup-loaded.

By this, they inflate the uninformed masses like big puffy balloon people. They might as well just strap us to tables and inject us with it.

If we stop subsidizing these unhealthy ingredients, they will be less "dirt cheap" and less prevalent, resulting in fewer calories at the table.

These are our taxes at work. We are *paying* them to do this to us.

The head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was asked:
"Why don't you try to change subsidies so that less healthy things like sugar and corn aren't pumped into all our food? Isn't the healthy eating habits of the citizens part of your area of control?"

He answered:
"No. That is not part of our mission. We are not responsible for the nation's healthy eating. Our mission is to ensure that our agriculture business thrives."

Well, he left right after that part of the interview. He must've been on his way to the bank, to cash that giant check in his back pocket from Big Corn.

Anonymous said...

I've seen a chart showing obesity prevalence in the U.S. (as a percentage of population), overlaid with a chart showing corn subsidies (in normalized dollars).

Obesity follows corn subsidy rates with incredible precision. Every time the subsidies "spike upwards" a little bit ... you just wait about 5 years and the obesity spikes in perfect synchronization.

*THERE* is your answer.

Nothing else.

That is all there is.