I think the reason I’m so interested in obesity as a public policy issue is that its basically unsolvable. Its cause is multifactoral (rising incomes, falling physical activity, fewer family meals, etc.) and its solution is basically a list of things we as a society are not willing to do (restrict marketing, raise taxes on sugar, end subsidies, etc.). So we circle the problem like neanderthals hunting mammoths, poking at it with little sticks, hoping to hit a tendon.
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. They bring on authors and researchers in areas related to food, and ask them what they’re working on and what they’ve found. The conversations cover a wide range of topics including history, politics, economics, marketing and education. Most of them are fascinating. Here’s a couple tidbits I’ve picked up listening to these podcasts on my commute for the past few weeks.
- Obesity began to rise in earnest in the early ’80s, right about the time when the Farm Bill stopped paying farmers to not-grow crops and started paying them to grow as much as they could. As the number of calories available to every man, woman and child in America grew from 3,200 per day to 3,900 per day, the food companies ensured that it all got processed, marketed and consumed. The more I learn about economics, the more convinced I am that this, above anything else, is why we’re all fat.
- Everyone compares Big Food to Big Tobacco, but there are a number of other industries that might make interesting corollaries. Car companies, for example, resisted seat belts for decades before they accepted, then actively marketed, them. Same with air bags.
- The most interesting comparison I heard related the ongoing food fight to the battle for gun control. If you think of the life cycle of each gun from design to manufacture to marketing to final sale, most government interventions have been exclusively aimed at the final point. Instead of regulating the relatively small number of gun manufacturers and sellers, the US aimed regulation at the huge number of gun owners and users. It’s not a fair comparison to food, obviously, but it demonstrates that there are a number of legal interventions that may be much more impactful than aiming at end users.
- In spite of all the research and experience on obesity, it’s surprising how little is still known about it. Performing nutrition experiments on humans is an ethical minefield (‘Yeah, we’re gonna need you to live in a lab, gain 40 pounds and fill out a bunch of questionnaires. Aight?’), not to mention prohibitively expensive, so basically all we know about obesity is from fattening and starving a bunch of rats.
- Weight stigma is a large and growing issue in workplaces (and courtrooms) across America. Both men and women report being discriminated against because of their weight. Women report constant verbal harassment, whereas men report being passed over for promotions.
- Some states are sending kids home with ‘BMI report cards‘. Surprisingly enough, this has proven problematic.
- Weight loss pills, for reasons as corrupt as they are disappointing, are regulated as food, not drugs. Therefore anyone can manufacture pills, put them in a bottle and tell you that they’ll help you lose weight. Most of the ones currently on the market are slightly modified speed. Maybe we should be thankful they have any content at all.
- Food companies are becoming increasingly sophisticated in marketing to children without their parents’ knowledge. They’re already designing online games websites that include marketing, and they get the kids’ cellphone numbers so they can text them with ads. This is some Blade Runner shit.
Personally, I think the obesity epidemic isn’t going to be solved by academics, public health advocates or politicians. It will be solved by pharmacists. The first company to release a pill that reliably suppresses appetite, speeds metabolism or makes broccoli taste like marzipan will make billions. For a problem that encompasses as wide a range of issues as obesity, sometimes all you need to know is one thing.