8 Mistaken Answers to Obesity

Conventional wisdom gives us an ample supply of mistaken answers to obesity. Roland Sturm, a senior economist with Rand, provides an outstanding accounting of some of these flawed presumptions in a CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

Here are some that he highlights:

  1. Disparities Cause Obesity. Some researchers have suggested that rising social and economic disparities are partly responsible for the increasing prevalence of obesity. But rising rates of obesity are uniformly affecting diverse segments of population grouped by race, ethnicity, income, education, or geography. Though different segments started with different rates, Sturm presents compelling data to show that all segments are moving up in parallel.
  2. The Obesity Epidemic Started in the 80s. Sturm points out that this conventional wisdom is false. In fact, BMI has been rising in children since at least the 1950s, in young men since the 1920s, and for men in their 40s, it’s been rising since about 1900.
  3. Colorado Is Beating the Odds. The CDC maps of ever increasing obesity rates have led to a widespread belief that Colorado is somehow resistant to the growing rates of obesity. Sturm asserts that Colorado is following precisely the same path as Mississippi, merely delayed by about a decade.
  4. Longer Workdays Are Contributing. The stress of longer workdays is often blamed for contributing to the rise in obesity by leaving people with less free time for physical activity and meal preparation. The facts tell a different story. A steady increase in leisure time, due to shorter working hours, has been one of the most consistent economic trends of the last half-century. People are also spending less time preparing meals to give themselves more free time.
  5. Americans Are Exercising Less. The popular notion that Americans are exercising less is unsupported by facts. Leisure time devoted to physical activity — sports, walking, hiking, biking, gyms — has consistently increased for years. Offsetting this activity is more time spent in passive transportation time (e.g., riding in cars) at the expense of activities in the household and at work.
  6. Eating More Fruits & Veggies Will Fix It. Eating more fruits and vegetables is a cherished goal of many initiatives that claim to target obesity. Sturm dryly points out that eating more food, regardless of how many nutrients it provides, will not reduce obesity. In fact, fruit and vegetable consumption has consistently increased while obesity rates have risen.
  7. Healthy Foods Are Unavailable and Too Expensive. Though processed and prepared foods have become especially cheap, fruits and vegetables are now more widely available and affordable than ever. Consumption has gone up.
  8. Putting Supermarkets in Food Deserts Will Help. Evidence is scant to nil that the built environment generally and supermarket placement specifically has a big effect on diet quality. Supermarkets are just as efficient — perhaps more — for delivering junk food as they are for delivering healthy food.

So what do we really know about factors that are driving obesity? Sturm offers up four reliable insights.

  1. Cheaper Food Means More Eating. Abundant, cheap, and convenient food at our fingertips leads Americans to eat more. Across the board — healthful or not — all kinds of food are cheaper and more abundant than ever. People eat what you put before them.
  2. Less Consumption Would Help. Both social and commercial marketing efforts to get us to eat more healthful foods will not likely turn the tide on obesity. We need to eat less, not more. Salty Snacks, cookies, candy, and sugary soft drinks are foods that contribute more than the recommended daily calories to an average American. Perhaps the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation has made the biggest real contribution to what is needed by removing 6.4 trillion calories from the American marketplace.
  3. Neighborhoods Affect Exercise More Than Diet. Though it’s not simple to achieve, the built environment is more likely to have an impact on physical activity than on diet. Some of the effort misplaced on food deserts might have more effect if devoted to promoting more routine physical activity.
  4. Conventional Wisdom Is Unreliable. Sturm’s overarching theme is that conventional wisdom is spectacularly unreliable in dealing with obesity. Presumptions must be tested and evidence must be required for efforts to reverse the dynamics of this health problem.

As a disciplined economist, Sturm brings a refreshing viewpoint to obesity. His review is well worth a careful reading.

“Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness.” — Marshall McLuhan

Click here to read Sturm’s publication and here to read more in Science 2.0.

The Answer, photograph © Eric Peacock / flickr

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