Sunday, August 30, 2009

Whence Obesity?

I'd be interested in real invesigative research into the causes of obesity, but here are my suspicions: it's a combination of economics and modern life - but mostly economics.

Corporations selling food like money (it's a corporation's job to make money, as much as possible)
  • The more people eat, the more food they buy
  • Agribusinesses like this, it makes them money
  • Agribusinesses encourage you to eat more (and fight tooth and nail any government policies intended to get people to eat less - read Marion Nestle for some shocking data on this).
  • People who eat more get fat
Corporations selling food like high margins (make more money)
  • Corn is subsidized by the government
  • Thus corn is unnaturally cheap
  • Thus you can make a lot of money selling things made with corn - high margins
  • In particular, corn syrup - it's in everything. Particularly the cheap things.
  • Poor people buy stuff with lots of corn syrup because its sweet and cheap
  • Processed sugars, including corn syrup, makes you fat.

Maybe at some point the health care costs will change our policies, but I think agribusiness will be dragged into accepting this kicking and screaming. Health care costs are there, but they really don't affect their bottom line enough for them to want to change their behavior.

If I Were King, I would find a way to include the cost of disease based on overeating into the costs of foods, so there is a motivation by businesses not just to sell more food but also to keep people healthy. Also, we need to stop subsidizing large farmers and certain crops like corn. That's just incredibly counterproductive, and is based on very old rationales having to do with struggling family farmers, not agribusiness.

But I don't believe these kinds of changes can get very far as long as business runs government, because politicians need money. I would love to find a way for politicians to get their word out and get votes without the poisoning need for money. Solve that problem, and a whole slew of other problems solve themselves. I know it's not simple - even if the politicians themselves don't spend the money, "political action committees" and specially-funded "positioning ads" will do the job for them. I don't have good answer, but I do think this is a key problem.

P.S. At the Santa Cruz boardwalk they were selling (and people were in line for) deep-fried cheesecake and deep-fried Twinkies. OMG.

P.P.S. Just after I posted this I read Paul Krugman's editorial on health care:
We tend to think of the way things are now, with a huge army of lobbyists permanently camped in the corridors of power, with corporations prepared to unleash misleading ads and organize fake grass-roots protests against any legislation that threatens their bottom line, as the way it always was. But our corporate-cash-dominated system is a relatively recent creation, dating mainly from the late 1970s.

And now that this system exists, reform of any kind has become extremely difficult. That’s especially true for health care, where growing spending has made the vested interests far more powerful than they were in Nixon’s day. The health insurance industry, in particular, saw its premiums go from 1.5 percent of G.D.P. in 1970 to 5.5 percent in 2007, so that a once minor player has become a political behemoth, one that is currently spending $1.4 million a day lobbying Congress.

That spending fuels debates that otherwise seem incomprehensible. Why are “centrist” Democrats like Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota so opposed to letting a public plan, in which Americans can buy their insurance directly from the government, compete with private insurers? Never mind their often incoherent arguments; what it comes down to is the money.

1 comment:

Andy Cohen said...

David, I'm currently reading "The End of Overeating" by David Kessler. I'm less than halfway through, but so far, it's a fascinating discussion of the various dimensions of appetite (with animal behavioral studies to back up each claim), and an examination of the way the food industry optimizes its products to exploit those appetites.

The only problem is, when he describes exactly why a "hyperpalatable" food is so compelling... it makes me hungry.