Altered Food Supply: Cause or Effect of Obesity?

Dissonance (Directional Lines)One of the fundamental assumptions we make about the origins of the rise in obesity is that the food supply has changed in ways that trigger more obesity in more people. You might say it is the foundation upon which most public health experts and policy makers build their thinking about this problem. But what if alterations in the food supply are as much an effect as they are a cause of obesity?

In Search of a Narrative

Our search for a healthier food supply began back in the 1980s with a belief that the American diet was full of fatty foods that were killing us. All fat was bad. Low fat living was the way to go.

In the battle to defeat obesity, experts believed that low-fat diets had unique merits, and the first edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans enshrined this idea.

The Lean Cuisine brand was born and thrived. Innovations like fat free cookies under the SnackWell’s brand thrived. Potato chips made with indigestible fat that came right out of the other end of our bodies were an innovator’s dream (and a toilet’s nightmare). Two decades of low fat food reformulations rippled through the food supply.

Coincidentally, obesity prevalence began to rise in a big way.

Experiments with Unexpected Results

It took a while to figure out the low fat proposition might have been a “big fat lie,” but when that became obvious, the food industry pivoted to follow new narratives from nutrition policy advocates. Carbs were the new bad boys. Especially sugar. Or maybe the real enemy is ultra-processed foods. Or maybe we need to shift to plant-based foods, while avoiding bad carbs. So maybe ultra-processing might be OK if it gives us plant-based meat and  dairy substitutes.

And remember, sugar is bad, but maybe low-calorie sugar substitutes are even worse. Somehow this has all become very confusing.

Obesity and Our Reaction to It Shapes the Food Supply

Let’s be clear. All of our ideas about the origins of increased obesity are nothing more than speculation.

Nonetheless, we have come to suspect that obesity may be at least as much of a cause of changes in the food supply as an effect of it. Most likely, we think, the relationship is bidirectional.

Not only does food policy in response to obesity bring changes to the food supply. But also, appetites change in response to obesity. Demand for food changes. Food makers give consumers what they want. So the food supply changes.

Click here, here, and here for other perspectives on the food supply and causes of increased obesity prevalence.

Dissonance (Directional Lines), painting by Olga Rozanova / WikiArt

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May 7, 2023

4 Responses to “Altered Food Supply: Cause or Effect of Obesity?”

  1. May 07, 2023 at 6:39 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Thank you, Ted. You’ve crafted an important reminder that biology and our environment don’t care about our feelings wishing for simple solutions to our maladaptation to the current food and energy environment!

    And you likely read this 5-year old piece before, but I find it a helpful reminder for when our pattern-recognizing brains get overly committed to narratives.


  2. May 07, 2023 at 8:59 am, Allen Browne said:

    Perhaps Dr Lee Kaplan is right “Obesity drives overeating!”

    Wha this for sure is we just do not know.


  3. May 07, 2023 at 9:27 am, David Brown said:

    In the ‘The social origins of obesity within and across generations’ paper the authors posit, “Given that human life is fundamentally performed in a social context, it is entirely plausible that social factors influence the development of obesity…”

    Annadie Krygsman notes that “… laboratory and other domesticated animals have also been subject to the increased prevalence of obesity, despite having largely unchanged living conditions for many years.”

    Since the increased prevalence of obesity is a global phenomenon and affects animals fed by humans, it is more likely that some aspect of animal and human food rations is at fault.!po=17.8571

  4. May 07, 2023 at 12:49 pm, Cochran Neva said:

    Always the voice of reason…and science. Such an interesting perspective that no one considers. Thanks.