Focusing on a Single Cog in the Vast Obesity Machine

Machine Turn QuicklyIt is a vast machine that produces the excess of obesity afflicting public health. Yet over and over again, we see a very narrow vision for reversing it. It’s the high fat foods! No, it’s the sugar! Tax soda! Sugar, salt, and fat in ultra-processed foods make the problem! But following these rallying cries yields very little.

The Mexican Experiment

Mexico introduced taxes on sugary drinks and junk food back in 2013. By preventing obesity, it was going to do marvelous things. A study published in PLOS Medicine told us that by 2022, it would prevent 189,300 cases of diabetes. That’s not all. It would prevent 20,400 strokes and save 18,900 lives.

Want more? How about saving money? The PLOS Medicine analysis said the tax scheme would save roughly a billion dollars in healthcare costs.

Reality Begs to Differ

That ten year window for utopian outcomes is coming to a close and Reuters reports on a very different picture for the results in Mexico today:

“Despite efforts to limit sales of junk food to children and tax consumption of sugary drinks, Mexico’s diabetes problem is worsening.

“In two years, the proportion of the population suffering from the disease jumped a full percentage point to 10.3% – one of the highest rates in the world – as more than a decade of poor eating habits started to be reflected in government statistics.”

Bringing a Micro View to a Macro Problem

Obesity System MapThe machine that produces relentless growth in obesity is vast. It is not a single constituent in food, nor is it Michael Moss’s holy trinity of sugar, salt, and fat.

Other micro answers include bans on advertising junk foods. Of course, these bans rely on a definition of junk foods. The convenient description is food high in sugar, salt, and fat.

But the vast obesity machine will not be daunted. It will reformulate, repackage, and adapt in myriad ways. It works to produce products that people will consume in ever increasing quantities because they are tasty, convenient, and ubiquitous. So long as it’s legal to produce food that tastes good, the machine will keep working as it always has – to feed our appetites.

Naive attempts to ban some forms of food marketing will likewise make little difference. The obesity marketing machine is embedded in our culture. We buy houses with vast pantries to feed us. Enormous refrigerators keep large amounts of food fresh at hand. We drive large vehicles with cup holders to hold our extra-large sugary coffee drinks. We can scarcely survive a meeting or event if generous portions of food are not at our fingertips.

Can We Change the System?

The real question is not can we reduce the consumption of this or that food. Rather, we need to ask if we can change a system that prospers from selling us ever larger quantities of food that is pleasant and easy to consume. Can we shift from a business model for the food industry that prospers based on growth in the quantity of food that it sells?

Can the food industry prosper by selling us food in smaller quantities with healthier qualities? The present approach is killing us.

Click here for the report on Mexico from Reuters. For further perspective on whole systems approaches to addressing obesity, click here and here.

Machine Turn Quickly, painting by Francis Picabia / WikiArt

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June 17, 2021

9 Responses to “Focusing on a Single Cog in the Vast Obesity Machine”

  1. June 17, 2021 at 6:51 am, Al Lewis said:

    What about having our employers conduct wellness programs and give us financial incentives to lose weight? That seems to work really well.


  2. June 17, 2021 at 7:21 am, David Brown said:

    “Nourishment”, Ross Hume Hall wrote in the Introduction to Food for Nought in 1976, “has undergone a startling transformation …

    “A highly individual system of growing and marketing food has been transformed into a gigantic, highly integrated service system in which the object is not to nourish or even to feed, but to force an ever-increasing consumption of fabricated products …

    “Man can never be more than what he eats, and one would expect that a phenomenon with such profound effects on health and wellbeing as a radically changed system of supplying nourishment would be thoroughly documented and assessed by the scientific community.

    “Such is not the case … Failure to monitor and to appreciate the results of rapidly moving technology produces a brutal effect … ”

  3. June 17, 2021 at 12:31 pm, John DiTraglia said:

    “Can the food industry prosper by selling us food in smaller quantities with healthier qualities? The present approach is killing us.” sounds to me suspiciously like ” Yet over and over again, we see a very narrow vision for reversing it. It’s the high fat foods! No, it’s the sugar! Tax soda! Sugar, salt, and fat in ultra-processed foods make the problem!”
    “But following these rallying cries yields very little.”

  4. June 25, 2021 at 8:29 pm, Patrick Bradley said:

    The tax of has not failed – it was too small.

    Since the 1950’s per capita consumption of sugar drinks increased by 700% in Mexico and the obesity epidemic began.

    After Mexico introduced the 10% tax on sugary drinks consumption fell 7.6% – a drop in the ocean.

    In the United States added sugar consumption per capita peaked in 1999 at 100gm per day and fell to 76 gm per day by 2008 – a 25% reduction. Two-thirds of this decrease (37.4 gm per day to 22.8 gm per day – a 40% reduction) was due to decreased sugary drink consumption.

    New cases of type 2 diabetes fell from 8 cases per 1000 persons per year in 2008 to 6 cases per 1000 persons per year by 2016 . The incidence of obesity that had been steadily increasing over several decades levelled out between 2006 and 2012 in native born adult Americans although the incidence of obesity in 2 to 5-year olds showed a small decrease after 2007.

    These positive changes in the United States must have been due to greater public awareness because taxes on sugar sweetened beverages were not prevalent at the time.

    The obesity epidemic is like the Titanic. It will take more than a little shove to turn it around and it will take a long time.

    • June 26, 2021 at 6:42 am, Ted said:

      I hope, sincerely, that your plan works out better than the Titanic.

  5. June 27, 2021 at 4:46 pm, Valerie said:

    Is there any evidence that eating only unprocessed food reverses obesity? Or even prevents obesity?

    I know the idea seems intuitive and appealing (blaming fat people for their problems is always in fashion). But I am unaware of any RCT in humans proving that the intervention would even work.

    The closest thing I can think of is the 100 mile challenge, where people pledge to eat only food produced within 100 miles of their home for one year. It automatically eliminates all processed foods. Weight loss is not a side effect.

  6. June 29, 2021 at 8:22 am, Valerie said:

    A 14-day experiment on 20 subjects. That’s your best evidence?

    Any reduction in calorie density will lead to a short-term decrease in caloric intake (ad libitum). That’s been well established, in many experiments, in both animals and humans.

    But does it lead to a long-term reduction in weight? A long-term improvement in health? Experiments on animals strongly hint that appetite adjusts to manipulation of calorie density. Animals just “learn” to eat bigger amounts, and end up eating just as many calories in the long run. That’s not going to reverse obesity.

    To me, this just goes to show that researchers are not serious about obesity. For what other disease would you push public policy based on such flimsy evidence?

    • June 29, 2021 at 1:40 pm, Ted said:

      Valerie, you seem to be looking for an answer that does not exist. Many people think they have the answer for reversing obesity and preventing it in future generations. Some researchers are among them. Others are humble, curious, and intent on finding better answers. We do indeed need more of this.