New Study Argues That Fatties Are Fat Because There's Too Much Food Around

America, land of bounty, is strewn with fat traps aimed at unwary and innocent civilians.
Publish date:
May 14, 2015
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The obesity epidemic just won't die. A recent working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research took on the age-old question of why people are so very fat with a multivariable study. One of their key takeaways: People are fat because there's too much food around.

Research like this is complicated, and this study is no exception. There are certainly a number of problems with it, starting with a lack of critical analysis of obesity as a concept. While it cites the specter of obesity as a horror overwhelming the health care system and ruining the lives of millions of Americans, it doesn't cite a strong body of research on the subject — including a growing understanding of the fact that health and weight are not as tightly tied as previously believed.

The paper operates under the assumption that obesity is bad, and, ergo, that we need to find out why it happens so we can prevent it. While understanding the science of weight gain and loss is indeed academically interesting, the fact that this research is then used to berate fat people is a pretty serious problem. Research shows that fat shaming doesn't work, and that includes shaming from medical professionals convinced that being fat is the cause of all ills.

It also relies heavily on the Body Mass Index, which Lesley covered extensively in a definitive takedown. As she explained, the BMI was originally developed for the purpose of averaging populations, making actuarial predictions, and analyzing people for longitudinal studies. Not for use on individual patients. In fact, researchers who refined the BMI specifically stressed that it was not appropriate for individuals because it didn't factor in unique variables, like the fact that a five foot female bodybuilder weighing in at 200 pounds may have a different body fat percentage than a five foot woman at the same weight who follows the CDC recommendations on weekly physical activity.

Moreover, it examines the fat population between 1990-2010, claiming that the BMI increased by 37 percent over that period, and that "severe obesity" increased by 59 percent. The problem is that these numbers are not quite so simple, because the BMI was reclassified in 1998, making 25 million people fat overnight.

The paper ostensibly explores economic factors and their contributions to weight gain, which makes it a multivariable study: It's not taking the simplistic "calories in, calories out" approach often seen with weight. Researchers considered issues like economic class, physical activity, and a number of other variables — along with the presence of restaurants and "supercenters" like Costco and Walmart that sell bulk food at low prices. And when they say "restaurants," they ain't talkin' the French Laundry.

Supercenters and restaurants were fingered as the biggest culprits behind the "obesity epidemic," suggesting that "all this food," as Scientific American put it, is the problem. The one in five children and one in six adults in the US experiencing food insecurity will no doubt be gratified to know that an excess of food is making us all fat. Thankfully even the researchers admit that the "problem" is one of distribution, with food deserts and lack of access to fresh food being important factors as well — when you have limited options, you have to work with what you have.

But last year, the same agency suggested spiking prices for "unhealthy" foods to force fatties to go find something else to eat. The problem is that it's not that simple. Aside from the fact that limiting consumer choice in the name of public health concerntrolling is beyond questionable, fat people can't magically turn to new sources of food. Socioeconomic factors like eligibility for food stamps, physical access to "healthy" foods (in terms of time and proximity alike), flexible income, and more can play a huge role. Making a flat of Nutella at Costco more expensive doesn't mean people won't get fat. It just limits their options.

This isn't the first incidence of trying to delineate good and bad foods and price them accordingly, or limit access to bad foods altogether. New York's ludicrous "soda ban," also covered by Lesley, was a pretty prime example, and an ominous one.

I’m not generally a fan of the term 'nanny state' because I think it’s woefully misused to condemn people (of whom there are literal millions and millions in the US) who rely on some form of public assistance — be it Medicare or food stamps or the ability to deduct their mortgage interest on their taxes — in order to live. But New York City’s sugary beverage ban sure seems to fit some kind of 'nanny state' description, as it operates to prevent (or at least make inconvenient) the ability of individuals to self-determine whether they want a really huge soda or not.

The study desperately wants to suggest that access to bad foods should be limited, but also that fat people lack self-control — that, for example, bulk food enables excessive consumption of the ominous bad foods consistently stalking our horizon and looking for opportunities to settle around our abdomens in bands of fatty fatness. At the same time, it points to ready access to fitness centers and high gas prices as factors associated with a lower risk of obesity.

The problem here is the failure to connect the dots on the connection between class and environment. As even the most casual of glances at major cities will reveal, working class people are more likely to live in food deserts. They're also more likely to live in commercial/residential use neighborhoods, like the ones that house supercenters and chain restaurants — oh, fast food, that demon of American society, tearing apart the very fabric of our existence!

Meanwhile, wealthier individuals have access to a wider range of food choices, tend to have more time to dedicate to exercise (as well as more of a focus on those "beach bodies"), and are less likely to smoke. All of these things, according to the study, were associated with lower obesity rates, and it's worth noting that they're viewed positively by society — the people who "eat well," exercise, and don't smoke are said to be living healthy lifestyles.

Is the problem here, then, one of class? The fact that numerous studies show a strong relationship between socioeconomic status and weight is an indicator that maybe it's not the supercenters or the gas prices or the smoking that are the problem as much as it's about class, and how class determines who has access to which resources. If the government is truly deeply concerned about the fatty tide sweeping over the nation, it should address itself more seriously to the institutional problems causing high unemployment and poverty — like rising costs of living, an absurdly low minimum wage, and abysmal social services.

Ultimately, people have the right to make their own decisions about their own lives. But when their decisionmaking is limited by class, it's not really fair to blame them for their circumstances.

Photo credits: Stocky Bodies, Stocky Bodies