Obesity

The Obesity Epidemic

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on August 15, 2015

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A suburban market near Florence, Italy, a few days ago. This market is frequented only by local residents and it provides good evidence that the Italians, on the average, are not so fat. Most people you see walking there are in reasonably good shape and I tried hard to find someone truly obese, but I didn't see a single one.  It turns out that, indeed, Italy is less affected by obesity than most (although not all) countries of the Western World. But things are rapidly changing; Mediterranean diet notwithstanding, even in Italy people are more and more gaining weight and becoming obese. The obesity epidemic seems to be another one of those problems that keep getting worse and that we just don't know how to solve. 

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The obesity epidemics: another problem we don't know how to solve

We all know that the world suffers an obesity epidemic, hitting in particular the rich countries of the West. But what exactly makes people fat? You could say that it is because they eat too much and exercise too little and that would be, obviously, true. But should fat people be demonized because they can't control their appetite? Being overweight, and, in particular, being obese, brings all sorts of health problems; being also told that it is your fault just adds further misery to an already painful condition (*). Yet, this is a common attitude (See DeShazo et. al.). But consider that a whole scientific field has been developed with the specific purpose of creating food so tasty that people can't stop eating it. And we have a whole industry, the food industry, dedicated to making people eat more, and another, the medical industry, trying to make them eat less. A no win situation, if ever there was one.

There is more to say about the damage done by the modern, hypertechnological food industry. Food is not only a question of how many calories it contains, but also of the nutrients it contains. And there is a reason why we often use the term "junk food"; it is because this food contains plenty of calories, but few nutrients (see also this post of mine). So, it may be that people try to compensate for the lack of nutrients by eating more food; another likely reason for the obesity epidemic (see, e.g.  Swinburn et al.). Obese people are actually malnourished (see, e.g. Hyman).

But there may be more to this story if we consider the situation from a "systemic" viewpoint. Human beings are complex systems and complex systems are known to react in a non-linear manner to external forces. So, facing an obese person, if you are thinking in terms of systems, you won't just say "this person eats too much". Rather, you would ask, "what could have unbalanced the metabolic homeostasis of this person?"

To illustrate this point, let me compare the obesity epidemics to climate change (that we could call a "high temperature epidemic"). The Earth's atmosphere is a typical complex system that reacts in a strongly non linear manner to external perturbations (called, usually, "forcings"). The main forcing causing global warming is the increase in the concentration of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, CO2. It is not the only forcing agent, but surely the most important one in unbalancing the atmospheric homeostasis.

Note how all it takes is a small increase in CO2 concentration (little more than a hundred parts per million) to generate a major change in the atmospheric temperatures. It is a point that many people find difficult to understand; not unexpectedly because we are not used to think in systemic terms. But even a small change in the complex atmospheric system can generate a cascade of reinforcing feedbacks that create the disaster we call "climate change." That's the way complex systems work.

Now, could it be that something similar is taking place with the obesity epidemic? Could there be a single agent, or, anyway, a main one, that triggers a cascade of reinforcing metabolic feedbacks that turn normal human beings into land whales?

It can't be excluded, but identifying such a substance, if it exists, is a major – nearly impossible – task. A recent review by Simmons et al. reports a table of 23 putative obesogen substances, chemicals that go from heavy metals to saturated fat, including pesticides, hormones and more. And then the same authors report a table of 38 more possible obesogen additives, but never tested in this sense. A grand total of 61 possible additives that could make you fat; and I am sure that there are many more not listed in the paper.

The sheer number of possible culprits makes one's head spin.  But, in a sense, that can be seen also as promising. What if one of these chemicals plays the role of CO2 in the atmosphere? That is, could one of them be the main trigger of obesity? It would be great if we could point to a specific substance and say: "Look! This is the stuff that makes people obese! Stop putting it into the food we eat!" And, from then on, we would see no more land whales in shopping malls.

Unfortunately, things are not so simple. As I said, the human metabolic system is much more complex than the climate system and, therefore, it is hard to identify such a substance, assuming it exists. The best that can be done is to test the possible obesogens one by one, but what if their effects are reinforced by feedbacks created by their combination? To return to the climate example, by examining the climate system, we could conclude that water vapor is one of the causes of global warming, because it is a greenhouse gas and it is abundant in the atmosphere. But, no, the increase of water vapor concentration is not the cause of global warming, it is an effect of it. We can say that because we know the climate system much better than the human metabolic system.

 

Then, even if we could identify one or more substances that play a major role in triggering obesity, it may be impossible to remove them from food. Stuff such as heavy metals are just all around us; we have been creating or extracting them over centuries of industrial activity. There is no way to remove them completely from the ecosystem.

And, finally, even if we manage to have scientific proof that a specific substance is the main cause of obesity, we would likely see the food industry gearing up for a major denial campaign. It is easy to imagine politicians stating, "Look, I am not a scientist, but I believe that there is no proof that bis-tetraphenil-dyazin-watchamacallit causes obesity." and then you would hear in the news, "Fatgate: food scientists confess they have faked the obesity data in order to keep their research grants!"  And so on…..

In the end, it seems that the problem with obesity is the same we have with other gigantic problems we face: climate change, the food supply and many others. Often, we are not smart enough to understand what causes them and, even if we do, we are, unfortunately, smart enough that we can stop all attempts to solve them. It seems that we are creating a world so complex that it is becoming impossible for us to manage it.

Let me conclude, however, with a note of optimism (of a sort). Obesity has the advantage over climate change that people can experiment with it by themselves. So, a lot of different diets are being tried, from Vegan to Paleo, and everything in between. With all this experimenting going on, eventually we'll learn something about what makes people fat and how to avoid it. This is, after all, the way the universe manages complex systems: it just discards what doesn't work; it is called natural selection. It would be nice if we could apply the same strategy to climate change; too bad that we have just one planet.

(*) The author of this post has a body mass index (BMI) of 26.2, and that puts him on the lower side of overweight. 

h/t Roberto Rondoni
 

Welcome to Blackswansville

From the keyboard of James Howard Kunstler
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Originally Published on Clusterfuck Nation July 6, 2015
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While the folks clogging the US tattoo parlors may not have noticed, things are beginning to look a little World War one-ish out there. Except the current blossoming world conflict is being fought not with massed troops and tanks but with interest rates and repayment schedules. Germany now dawdles in reply to the gauntlet slammed down Sunday in the Greek referendum (hell) “no” vote. Germany’s immediate strategy, it appears, is to apply some good old fashioned Teutonic todesfurcht — let the Greeks simmer in their own juices for a few days while depositors suck the dwindling cash reserves from the banks and the grocery store shelves empty out. Then what?

Nobody knows. And anything can happen.

One thing we ought to know: both sides in the current skirmish are fighting reality. The Germans foolishly insist that the Greek’s meet their debt obligations. The German’s are just pissing into the wind on that one, a hazardous business for a nation of beer drinkers. The Greeks insist on living the 20th century deluxe industrial age lifestyle, complete with 24/7 electricity, cheap groceries, cushy office jobs, early retirement, and plenty of walking-around money. They’ll be lucky if they land back in the 1800s, comfort-wise.

The Greeks may not recognize this, but they are in the vanguard of a movement that is wrenching the techno-industrial nations back to much older, more local, and simpler living arrangements. The Euro, by contrast, represents the trend that is over: centralization and bigness. The big questions are whether the latter still has enough mojo left to drag out the transition process, and for how long, and how painfully.

World affairs suffer from the disease of terminal excessive complexity. To make matters worse, much of the late-phase complexity operates in the service of accounting fraud of one kind or another. The world’s banking system is mired in the unreality of so many unmeetable obligations, cooked books, three-card-monte swap gimmicks, interest rate euchres, secret arbitrages, market manipulation monkeyshines, and countless other cons, swindles, and hornswoggles that all the auditors ever born could not produce a coherent record of what has been wreaked in the life of this universe (or several parallel universes). Remember Long Term Capital Management? That’s what the world has become.

What happens in the case of untenable complexity is that it tends to unravel fast and furiously. That’s exactly why avalanches and earthquakes happen all at once, not stretched out over a six week period. The global financial scene not so different. It’s just another matrix of linked mutually-supporting relationships that can implode if a few members weaken.

One question worth reflecting on is whether the implosion is actually well underway on-the-ground in real economies, with just the scrim of illusion to make the surface appear intact. That surely seems to be the case in the USA, where the so-called economy has already avalanched into a rubble heap of part-time scut jobs, defaulted college loans, underwater mortgages, and groaning pension funds — with an overlay of pointless and endless motoring.

Over in Euroland, the Greek “no” also implies that every other sovereign nation wallowing in deep financial shit will demand a haircut (and a disinfectant shower). Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and even France cannot possibly meet their debt obligations. Their citizens are being taunted with currency controls, too, and they have every bit as much potential to go ape-y as the Greeks. Notice you haven’t heard much from their leaders and financial ministers in recent weeks. They are all standing on the sidelines watching the Greeks go through the wringer — but you can be sure they are all making plans of their own.

The failure of the European experiment will be extremely demoralizing to the hopeful citizens of that continent, who emerged from the bloodbath of the early 20th century to become the world’s premier peaceful tourist theme park. I don’t know that they necessarily have to go back to fighting each other on battlefields with things that blow up and destroy human flesh, but they surely have to decentralize and re-fashion some kind of simpler, local way-of-life if they expect to remain civilized.

It’ll happen everywhere. The Japanese are next, of course, and they may be the most fortunate, since they retain more than a few shreds of memory for exactly that mode of life: the Tokugawa shogunate (the Edo period, 1600 – 1853), a manner of high pre-industrial economy and culture that might have persisted indefinitely had not Commodore Perry come knocking on their door, so to speak, in his “black ships.”

Ukraine is about halfway back to being medieval with excellent potential to overshoot even that. The Euroland PIIG(F) nations don’t have the energy resources to extend Modernity, even if the banking system wasn’t terminally ill, and then on top of that they have the ethno-demographic quandary of creeping Muslimization — plus the additional flotillas of desperate boat people arriving daily.

America, count your blessings. Tattoos, obesity, drug use, and shiftlessness are all basically behavioral choices. You don’t need a finance minister or a central banker to overcome those problems.

 

James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.

FOOD RANT!

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Aired on the Doomstead Diner on June 13, 2014

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Snippet:

…For today, I figured I should get off the topic of Monetary Madness and Geopolitical Jousting percolating through the daily Newz Reports in the MSM and Blogosphere Punditry to look at another facinating topic of collapse, FOOD. What you eat, how much you eat, where it comes from, how much it costs, who produces it, how far it travels to get to your dinner plate…Food is a fucking Cornucopia of topics to cover for the Doomer!

If you live in the FsoA, or in fact most countries in Europe these days, the first topic that comes to mind when you think of Food is…FAT PEOPLE! Fat People everywhere! Sitting next to you on the bus, train or plane with their flab spilling over into the seat YOU paid for is a real pet peeve of mine. Man, if you can’t fit your bulk into one seat, you should have to buy two! Somebody who weighs 300 lbs takes twice as much fuel to jack up into the air as I do, why is this person paying the same price as me? If Airline tickets were sold like Air Freight, you would pay by the pound, or kilo for you Euro listeners out there. This would encourage regular airline passengers to STAY SKINNY! It might have a downside of encouraging Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia in the flyers as well, but I think the downside risk there is pretty small…

For the rest, LISTEN TO THE RANT!!!!

RE

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