Foraging for a Root Cause in the Tangled Mess of Obesity

Root TrollsAlmost two centuries ago, the world was in the midst of a cholera pandemic and the prevailing belief was that “bad air” was the cause. Near Broad (now Broadwick) Street in London, an especially bad outbreak occurred, killing 616 people. The key to stopping it was to figure out that it was not bad air. Rather, a contaminated water pump was causing it. So it is completely understandable today that many people with a sincere desire to overcome a global pandemic of obesity want to focus the root cause of this tangled mess.

There’s just one little problem. People who spend their lives focused on studying the science of obesity will tell you it is unlikely that there is a single root cause for the rise of obesity around the world. In fact, the problem emerges from complex biological, social, economic, and environmental problems that interact and adapt as the pandemic progresses.

Obesity System Map

The Complex Interactive Systems that Fuel Obesity’s Rise

The Bad Air of Big Food

With great confidence, Tamar Haspel poses and answers this question. “Whose fault is obesity? Most of the blame rests with one culprit.” It’s the food industry, she says. She is hardly alone in thinking along these lines. “Bad food” causing the rise in obesity is the equivalent of “bad air” at the root of the cholera epidemic.

But the definition – of bad food and the misdeeds of the food industry – keeps changing. Right now, the dominant narrative is that we can trace everything back to ultra-processed foods. Back in the 1980s, though, high fat diets were the problem in the spotlight. Then the focus shifted to sugar and carbs. Other theories keep arising to name the defect in our food that makes it bad. Maybe it’s fructose that’s the root of the problem. Or perhaps it just tastes too good. We hear from people who are certain that the real problem is an excess of omega-6 fatty acids in the food supply.

God bless them, there are even people who want to name social justice as a problem at the root of the obesity pandemic. At least they are not entirely stuck on the “bad food” paradigm.

Can We Please Get Unstuck?

Our plea is simple. To the people who are so frequently eager to tell us emphatically that we need to come down hard on the big bad food industry, take a deep breath. We hear you. The industry certainly contributes to our problem. But bad air did not explain the cholera epidemic, and obesity is a far more complex problem than cholera.

Take a look at the system map of contributors to obesity, above. Food is surely part of the story, but it is far from all of it. Foraging for “the root cause” of obesity is leading us far astray in efforts to more effectively prevent obesity.

Click here, here, here, and here for further perspective.

Root Trolls, painting by John Bauer / WikiArt

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April 7, 2024

4 Responses to “Foraging for a Root Cause in the Tangled Mess of Obesity”

  1. April 07, 2024 at 8:07 am, David Brown said:

    Actually, I am the only one who has asserted that omega-6s are a problem, because it’s the truth. In 2021 Australian zoologist Anthony Hulbert, PhD wrote, Over the last half-century, the modern human food chain has emphasised omega-6 and diminished omega-3 intake, largely because of: (i) a shift from animal fats to vegetable oils, (ii) an increase in grain-fed meat and dairy, and (iii) a decline in full-fat dairy products from grass-fed livestock (an important source of omega-3). In the opinion of the current author and others, these diet trends are likely to be responsible for the increased incidence of obesity and other modern epidemics of chronic disease, but that is a story for another time. You can read that story in Hulbert’s 2023 ‘Omega Balance’ book.

  2. April 07, 2024 at 9:59 am, Allen Browne said:

    Yup! It is complicated and heterogenous – and that is just the way it is. It’s not the person’s ( or their mother’s) fault! For most we now can control the disease and make the person healthier. But prevention is a ways off.


  3. April 09, 2024 at 11:27 am, Christie said:

    Seems you avoid bringing in human behavior and personal responsibility as factors in obesity. People are not forced to buy ultra processed foods.

    • April 10, 2024 at 4:14 am, Ted said:

      Christie, thanks for the reminder that some people still think assigning personal responsibility for a medical problem like obesity is helpful. It’s not.