The Root of American Obesity Problem Explained by a Mathematician

Americans have been wringing their hands about the problem of obesity for decades (for some of us, while munching on snacks), but never before has the problem been attacked from the perspective of ... math!

In 2004, mathematician and physicist Carson Chow was tasked with figuring out why more and more Americans are getting fatter. When he started, Carson said that "[he] knew almost nothing of obesity. [He] didn't even know what a calorie was."

But he could clearly see a trend: Since 1975, the average weight of Americans jumped by about 20 pounds and the national obesity rate went from 20% to 30%. So what gives?

Claudie Dreifus interviewed the math whiz for The New York Times:

Did you ever solve the question posed to you when you were first hired — what caused the obesity epidemic?

We think so. And it’s something very simple, very obvious, something that few want to hear: The epidemic was caused by the overproduction of food in the United States.

Beginning in the 1970s, there was a change in national agricultural policy. Instead of the government paying farmers not to engage in full production, as was the practice, they were encouraged to grow as much food as they could. At the same time, technological changes and the “green revolution” made our farms much more productive. The price of food plummeted, while the number of calories available to the average American grew by about 1,000 a day.

Well, what do people do when there is extra food around? They eat it! This, of course, is a tremendously controversial idea. However, the model shows that increase in food more than explains the increase in weight.

Link (Photo: Michael Temchine/NY Times)

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This country may have MORE food than years ago, but ACCESS has always been the same. I don't recall there ever being food shortages.

What is different is peoples' attitudes towards moderate eating and exercise. That has gone completely downhill.

This isn't rocket science.
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I think that applies to the phenomena of a person coming in with their personal opinion and thinking it somehow trumps facts.

Take a look at this graph:

Milk prices plummet after the early '70s

This corresponds to the policy shift in the article.

"What is different is peoples’ attitudes towards moderate eating and exercise."

So, what changed their attitudes?

A whole society doesn't change overnight spontaneously. Wars, prosperity, famine, policy decisions, or the like change the environment, and attitudes change in response.
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There may be something to this.

When I was growing up (50's and 60'), I don't remember much food in the house, and what we had was closely guarded by my mother. There wasn't a whole lot of snack food available either, not all that much in the stores and hardly ever in the house.

Exercise wasn't a priority in past generations. People were sedentary if they could be. Work wasn't a whole lot different - there were desk jobs and manual labor, maybe the proportion was different, but still there was no priority anywhere for people to exercise. People exercise more now than ever before.
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What a wonderful and insightful critique of a professional study of the problem. I'm glad you've provided reams of data to back up your refutation!

Oh, wait.

Availability has increased due to prices falling. Particularly availability of sugar from corn and bread from grains. Maybe you've not thought this through, but those two things? Pretty significantly damaging when overindulged-in.
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Food is now a commodity to be bought and sold for a high profit, and like any other commodity, this means marketing and advertising to create a need where one might not exist. Yes, we need food but we don't need endless snacks, cookies, crackers, fast food, pizza, monstrous portions of fries, sugary soda, etc.

At the same time, it's up to the consumer to decide how they'll respond to advertising, so they're not off the hook just because they're bombarded with ads for food they don't need.
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