Is obesity purely a willpower problem?


A fascinating article by David Berreby about obesity as a clinical issue. Are public policies that focus on personal responsibility helpful? Does that even matter?

The issue, rather, is whether the government policies and corporate business plans are in fact doing their best with the evidence they already have. Does the science justify assuming that obesity is a simple matter of individuals letting themselves eat too much? To the extent that it is, policies such as Japan’s mandatory waist-measuring […] will be effective. If, on the other hand, there is more to obesity than simple thermodynamics, some of the billions spent on individual-centred policies and products may be being wasted. Time, in that case, to try some alternative policies based on alternative theories, and see how they fare.


Junk food – and why it’s so much worse than you thought

 An amazing article by Michael Moss in the New York Times – which was adapted from his book – recently showed in full, unflinching detail exactly how well the snack food industry knows its sins.

In summary – The food industry has been doing amazing science, for decades, to make terrible food more addicting, and to market it so it penetrates every potential meal you eat. It worked.

It’s a little longer than the reads I usually publish here so if you’d rather, there’s a nicely-summarised version at Buzzfeed, which turns the article into 23 points. I’d encourage you to read the full version.

The book and its article go to great lengths to avoid painting the industry as evil, but rather just dispassionate – responding to the demands of the market. Moss writes:

The public and the food companies have known for decades now that sugary, salty, fatty foods are not good for us in the quantities that we consume them. So why are the diabetes and obesity and hypertension numbers still spiralling out of control?

It’s not just a matter of poor willpower on the part of the consumer and a give-the-people-what-they-want attitude on the part of the food manufacturers. What I found, over four years of research and reporting, was a conscious effort — taking place in labs and marketing meetings and grocery-store aisles — to get people hooked on foods that are convenient and inexpensive.

This is one way to look at it. But Moss already spoke about how the industry is aware of the damage it is doing.

[Michael Mudd, a vice president of Kraft,] drew a connection to the last thing in the world the C.E.O.’s wanted linked to their products: cigarettes.

“If anyone in the food industry ever doubted there was a slippery slope out there,” Mudd said, “I imagine they are beginning to experience a distinct sliding sensation right about now.”

Viewing snack manufacturers as corrupt drug pushers, like tobacco vendors can now be seen by many is an easy and possibly glib caricature. But more and more evidence is coming out regarding the real, systematic damage these food can do and the lack of understanding among consumers. There may be a time in the future where Big Sugar stands alongside Big Tobacco as one of society’s problem children.