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March 6, 2012

We’re Here! We’re Gluttons! Get Used To It!

by Brad Warbiany

Over at Megan McArdle’s place, she’s on a leave of absence for some as-yet-unnamed project. In her stead, Katherine Mangu-Ward picks up one of Megan’s common refrains about Americans and obesity:

Fat people know they’re fat. They know why they’re fat. And they know that being fat kinda sucks.

This may seem obvious, but think about how many anti-obesity initiatives — federal, state, and local–are aimed at promoting the message that being obese or overweight has terrible consequences and/or warning grazers and gorgers off specific food choices.

Two new papers from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo economist Michael L. Marlow take on this weird gap between the problem government anti-obesity efforts seem to be trying to solve and problems that actually exist. Obesity is an expensive, sticky problem, no doubt about that. But Americans themselves aren’t deluded on that point. The fat=bad message has been sent and received, thank you very much. Yet government interventions like menu labeling requirements, public awareness campaigns about the dangers of sugary soda, zoning regulations to limit the prevalence of fast food restaurants, programs to eliminate “food deserts” and bring supermarkets to poor neighborhoods are multiplying. They fail, writes Marlow in a Mercatus Center working paper out this month, because they are little more than taxpayer-funded sermons to the chubby, chubby choir.

One of Megan’s constant points is that for most people, weight is almost destined by genetics to stay within a certain range. Try to stay outside that range very long, and you have to rely on near-superhuman willpower. And it’s an argument that probably holds a certain amount of weight in an evolutionary biology world. If food is constantly scarce, there’s really no genetic basis to select for overeating or not, as everyone is forced by scarcity and constant activity to remain slim. But in the abundance of modern America, that external scarcity doesn’t exist. Calories are cheap and plentiful, to the point that obesity is a major problem for America’s poor — not something you see in most countries.

I’ve had to fight this battle personally for the last decade, as my weight has risen and fallen. Now, I’m unlucky in the sense that I think my “natural” weight puts me in the overweight category of BMI, but perhaps lucky in the fact that even when I’ve been in the obese category, I don’t look gargantuan. At 6’5″, my body can hide a lot of weight.

Since high school, my weight has fluctuated anywhere from 210 to 275 pounds. I don’t put much stock in BMI, because the best shape I’ve been in my life — exiting high school after 7 years of regular martial arts training — I was 225 lbs. That’s a BMI of 26.7, squarely “overweight”… And I was nothing of the sort. I dropped through college as I shed muscle mass to about 210 leaving college (still at the BMI number of 25), and then got a job where I made enough money to afford a lot more food & beer. Since then, I’ve been up to 260+, down to 230, up to 275, and now down to 240 (and dropping).

How have I reached those weights? Well, it’s not because I didn’t know what I was ingesting. It’s because I didn’t care. I know some people (like my sister-in-law) for whom food isn’t really a driver of life. I don’t understand those people. I love food. I really love beer. And when I say food & beer, I’m not talking about mixed field green salads and Michelob Ultra… I’m talking about deep dish pizza and double IPA. I want to eat, and I want to eat a lot. My name is Brad, and I am a glutton.

Right now, I’m trying to take that weight off. And I’m doing so by the simplest method — counting calories. A few weeks back, I had out-of-town coworkers over for pizza & beer, and overindulged a bit. The next day, when getting into a political debate with one of my coworkers over the drug war, he mentioned that overeating was like an addiction, and how it must carry so much guilt along with it. I interrupted — the previous day I had basically skipped breakfast & lunch to prepare for the evening, and that pizza & beer (& wings & garlic knots… MMMMM!!!!) evening was 3400 calories, one meal being itself 1200 over my new daily allotment. And I had to tell him that there was no guilt involved. I can eat that much and feel normal, not guilty. In fact, it’s the calorie restriction that feels unnatural — every day I’m hungry and dreaming of food. It’s not a fun way to live!

I know I’ve been at unhealthy weights. When I’ve been at the upper end of the range, I haven’t needed government to tell me that I was trending towards unhealthy & disgusting; I have a wife. Government hasn’t done much to make me thinner, either. While I appreciate the fact that so many restaurants here in CA now have to post calorie counts on menus, it’s not like this information was hard to find before. And the calorie counts wouldn’t make any difference to my behavior _unless I already wanted to lose weight_. It’s purely convenience. My brother-in-law is roughly the size I was when I was at my heaviest, and has no desire to change right now — the fact that California mandates restaurants post this information doesn’t change his behavior at all (as it doesn’t change most peoples’ behavior).

Why are so many Americans fat? Because we like to eat — and we can afford to do so. Willpower is hard — we haven’t needed it for most of human history, when food was scarce. And food is delicious. I like salad, but few things are as satisfying as an italian beef sandwich and some nice salty french fries. On the “Right”, we often suggest that everything would be great about socialism except for the fact that it runs absolutely contrary to human nature. As a result, every government that’s tried socialism has failed in spectacular fashion. Well, everything’s great about dieting except that it runs absolutely contrary to human nature. Is it any wonder that government attempts to make us thin have failed?

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6 Comments

  1. I think you’re looking at this from a very middle-class perspective… where information and food choice are abundant. Most people (even middle-class people) have a lot of constraints on their food decisions (such as preparation time), and do not simply eat what they like.

    If we each had a personal chef who could do all of our shopping for us and figure out how to make health food taste good, then things would be a bit different.

    Comment by ricketson — March 6, 2012 @ 9:43 am
  2. As a corollary to the above comment, the idea that we know what we’re doing is only applicable to adults. A lot of the interventions described above are probably focused on children, and encouraging them to change their ways before they develop the habit of over-eating.

    To use your examples above, a double IPA is an acquired taste. At least it’s not a Porter!

    Comment by ricketson — March 6, 2012 @ 9:53 am
  3. Another thing…

    The idea that “we like food, therefore we’re fat” does not hold up to cross-cultural comparisons. For instance, the French are notorious for their love of food, yet their obesity rate is much lower than America’s.

    Comment by ricketson — March 6, 2012 @ 9:59 am
  4. The French aren’t fat because they haven’t bought into the most ridiculous dietary idea ever foisted on the American public, that fat is bad for you. Fat is only bad for you if you live on the stuff. Fat is good because it gives you lots of energy and if you start cooking your meal by throwing a stick of butter in a pot, you get fuller MUCH more quickly than if you start your meal with some low fat no-taste alternative, and your brain is more quickly satisfied. Of course, it doesn’t require will power. Unfortunately, the French ARE beginning to get fat. It is estimated about 40% of the French are now overweight. I blame french fries. They are taking over the world. And frankly, I don’t know any adult who doesn’t understand that living on French Fries makes you fat so the idea that there are these constraints that force people to eat 2000 calories worth of french fries in one sitting is ridiculous. If you go to McDonald’s and eat the salad, you don’t get fat. But our brains don’t want the salad. They want the french fries, they are looking for calories because tomorrow there could be no food. Ummm. French Fries, must have some. Brains, Brains. Great column. Congratulations on the successful use of your will power!

    Comment by Lizzie — March 7, 2012 @ 3:23 pm
  5. ricketson,

    Sorry for the delayed response — I’ve been sick as a dog the last day and a half. Anyone get the plate of the truck that ran me over?? I missed it.

    I think you’re looking at this from a very middle-class perspective… where information and food choice are abundant. Most people (even middle-class people) have a lot of constraints on their food decisions (such as preparation time), and do not simply eat what they like.

    If we each had a personal chef who could do all of our shopping for us and figure out how to make health food taste good, then things would be a bit different.

    One of the diets I used (Atkins/South Beach), I’d agree with you. Living on meat, dairy, and fresh veggies is expensive.

    But I disagree with the assertion that food choice and dieting is purely a middle class option. During my current diet, I’ve been eating breakfast at McDonald’s (sausage mcmuffin w/o egg & a hash brown) many days, and drinking homebrew nearly every night. I specifically chose the diet I’m on (purely calorie-counting), because I can eat utter crap as long as I stay below 2200 calories a day. It suits me ;-)

    And the perverse incentive is that it’s easier to follow my diet by eating fast food than by going to non-chain restaurants or even by cooking at home. Every major fast food chain publishes their calorie counts for every item online. I have an easier time counting calories at McDonald’s than I do at, say, my local Thai place which is probably healthier to eat.

    As a corollary to the above comment, the idea that we know what we’re doing is only applicable to adults. A lot of the interventions described above are probably focused on children, and encouraging them to change their ways before they develop the habit of over-eating.

    This is true. As a libertarian, I do think there’s a hole in our philosophy as to how we handle the issue of children, since most libertarian philosophy is based upon the rights of adults.

    But you don’t teach people willpower by banning what they crave until they’re 18 and then going willy-nilly — you teach willpower by making their cravings obtainable and educate them to the negative impacts of indulging. One can claim that this should be a mandate of the public school system, but along the same lines it should be a primary goal of every parent.

    And it wasn’t my parents or my school that made me eat like a glutton — it was the fact that I was very active in martial arts from the age of 11 until the end of high school, gained almost 100 pounds (not fat) during the course of high school while actively working out, and was probably consuming 4000+ calories a day to do that. Being athletic and a growing teenager means I was packing in calories anywhere I could get them all day long. It was only when I started living a more sedentary lifestyle and grew a bit older that I realized I couldn’t do that any more.

    To use your examples above, a double IPA is an acquired taste. At least it’s not a Porter!

    FYI the double IPA actually has more calories [typically] than a porter…

    The idea that “we like food, therefore we’re fat” does not hold up to cross-cultural comparisons. For instance, the French are notorious for their love of food, yet their obesity rate is much lower than America’s.

    To an extent, I agree. When I visited France, the one thing I noticed about the fat people I met is that they all spoke perfect English…

    Reminds me of a joke:

    Asians eat mostly vegetables and rice, and they’re thinner than Americans
    The French eat cheese, fat, and drink wine, and they’re thinner than Americans.
    So eat whatever the F*** you want… It’s speaking English that kills ya!

    But again, I think as Lizzie points out above, that’s changing. The French are less wealthy than Americans, live a less car-dominated life, and [generally] live in smaller homes w/smaller refrigerators with less chance to store food. From the folks I’ve known who have lived over there, it’s common practice to buy your food on the way home from work and cook it immediately because you don’t have as much room for food storage. If you don’t have a lot of food sitting around, it’s harder to overeat.

    IMHO we also do have cultural differences about food compared to us. In America, our culture has always been “Bigger is Better”. This is true in cars, houses, etc. It’s a product of living in a low-population-density nation and high wealth. I think post-WWII, restaurants competed on quantity rather than quality. There was a bigger push towards “All you can eat” at that time. If you look at the modern restaurant Claim Jumper, they clearly are feeding people WAY more than anyone really needs at any given meal, and doing so inexpensively. And I’m sure it’s also driven by a bunch of parents saying “clean your damn plate — there’s starving kids in Ethiopia!” to every kid. I know I feel guilty when I don’t clear my plate.

    —————————

    But most of your points above don’t change the fact that overweight people know they’re overweight, and know why they’re overweight — because they eat too much. And government telling someone how to eat isn’t as important as someone deciding that they want to change their habits. As I pointed out with my brother-in-law, we were both overweight. For a long time, we both overate (because we frankly love food). I chose to change — he hasn’t. Until he *chooses* to change, he won’t lose weight. And that choice is completely different than knowing he’s overweight, which he certainly knows.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — March 7, 2012 @ 5:06 pm
  6. Thanks for the response. I hope you feel better soon.

    Comment by ricketson — March 8, 2012 @ 10:46 pm

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