Monday, 6 January 2014

What Made Us Bigger? Maybe You Weren't Expecting This....

After writing about fat tax in my last Blog post, there were a few comments suggesting that we don't have a nation of over-eaters - we, in fact, have a lot of depressed people turning to junk food, and that obesity is a symptom of psychological maladjustments.

I feel satisfied that I argued that that isn't the case by explaining the cost-benefit analysis related to eating bad foods - and, of course, one only need to look at the vastly increasing sales levels of beer, fast food, junk food and ready meals to see that consumption has been volitional. But to take it further I thought I'd consider what has caused this proliferation in appetite and consumption to gradually increase as it has.

When I was a young boy there was only one size of fries in McDonald's, and the same was true of milkshakes. Nowadays you can have 'medium', 'large', 'extra large, 'supersize' and maybe even larger (forgive me, I don't recall all the variations exactly, but you get the point - portions have grown). This leads to the inevitable 'which came first? - what we could call the 'Chicken' Supreme and 'Egg' McMuffin question. Did increased weight and big demand cause increased meal sizes, or did increased meal sizes cause increased weight and big demand? I'm not sure, but the former explanation strikes me as being more likely, as it doesn't seem probable that McDonald's would have just increased their portions on a whim to get us fat - much more likely that they responded to demand (perhaps there was an increase in two portions bought).

That being the case, though, what caused the cause - that is, what caused the increased weight that caused the surge in demand? Here's a plausible answer, which I'm not sure is right, but it might well be, judging by eating habits I've observed and things I've heard people say. My suspicion is that the primary cause of increased obesity is low fat foods. While that sounds counter-intuitive, I think it stands to reason - after all, we know beyond reasonable doubt that increased contraception is a catalyst in increased unwanted pregnancies, and that the introduction of low strength alcoholic drinks is a catalyst in increased binge drinking*, so it stands to reason that the same would apply to junk foods.

What's probably happening is that low fat or low sugar junk foods make it more rational to be overweight than high fat and high sugar foods. Here's why. If you buy a really high-in-fat meal like a lamb moussaka from Tesco's or a doner kebab from your local kebab shop, you've probably added as many grams of fat to your body that several bags of crisps or ready made pizzas would add onto you. Tom might not think it worth putting on those extra grams of fat for the pleasure of just one lamb moussaka or donor kebab, but if for the same amount of weight gain he can eat 3 ready made pizzas and 3 bags of crisps he might well think that those extra grams are worth it for the totality of pleasure that all that junk food brings. Suppose, though, that a lot of people would still rather eat more healthily that follow Tom's thinking - even 3 ready made pizzas and 3 bags of crisps might not tempt them. But then along comes low fat crisps and low fat pizza, along with low-fat desserts, low sugar soft drinks, and so forth. Then things change. Now the deal is; for a few grams of added fat, Tom can have a lot more pleasure, eating loads of low fat crisps, pizzas and desserts - and with this possibility in front of him there would come a point when he thought it worth the weight gain for such a lot of pleasure.

So, although it's rather counter-intuitive, I think, along with rising incomes, less exercise, more leisure time and possibly fewer smokers (these are all lateral factors, I'd say) the most likely explanation for increased obesity might well be an increase in available low-fat and low-sugar foods and drinks - amounting to a tipping point whereby many people have gone on to prefer a sustained weight-inducing indulgence with the pay-off of plenty of eating pleasure, and in the process being prepared to add a bit of weight around the hips, stomach and chin. 

* The reason being: contraception means safer sex, which means more people having sex, which then increases the number of unwanted pregnancies (apply this logic to low strength alcoholic drinks and the same applies)

** Photo courtesy of