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The Mystery Of Collective Obesity

Why are people around the world so much fatter today than ever before in human history? Is it because they’re eating more, or eating more bad food, and not exercising? That’s true for some people, but David Berreby, surveying the latest scientific literature, says gluttony cannot explain it all [1]. Excerpt:

Yet the scientists who study the biochemistry of fat and the epidemiologists who track weight trends are not nearly as unanimous as Bloomberg makes out. In fact, many researchers believe that personal gluttony and laziness cannot be the entire explanation for humanity’s global weight gain. Which means, of course, that they think at least some of the official focus on personal conduct is a waste of time and money. As Richard L Atkinson, Emeritus Professor of Medicine and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Wisconsin and editor of the International Journal of Obesity, put it in 2005: ‘The previous belief of many lay people and health professionals that obesity is simply the result of a lack of willpower and an inability to discipline eating habits is no longer defensible.’


Consider, for example, this troublesome fact, reported in 2010 by the biostatistician David B Allison and his co-authors at the University of Alabama in Birmingham: over the past 20 years or more, as the American people were getting fatter, so were America’s marmosets. As were laboratory macaques, chimpanzees, vervet monkeys and mice, as well as domestic dogs, domestic cats, and domestic and feral rats from both rural and urban areas. In fact, the researchers examined records on those eight species and found that average weight for every one had increased. The marmosets gained an average of nine per cent per decade. Lab mice gained about 11 per cent per decade. Chimps, for some reason, are doing especially badly: their average body weight had risen 35 per cent per decade. Allison, who had been hearing about an unexplained rise in the average weight of lab animals, was nonetheless surprised by the consistency across so many species. ‘Virtually in every population of animals we looked at, that met our criteria, there was the same upward trend,’ he told me.

It isn’t hard to imagine that people who are eating more themselves are giving more to their spoiled pets, or leaving sweeter, fattier garbage for street cats and rodents. But such results don’t explain why the weight gain is also occurring in species that human beings don’t pamper, such as animals in labs, whose diets are strictly controlled. In fact, lab animals’ lives are so precisely watched and measured that the researchers can rule out accidental human influence: records show those creatures gained weight over decades without any significant change in their diet or activities. Obviously, if animals are getting heavier along with us, it can’t just be that they’re eating more Snickers bars and driving to work most days. On the contrary, the trend suggests some widely shared cause, beyond the control of individuals, which is contributing to obesity across many species.

Berreby goes on to look at various theories of why this is happening. I had no idea it was occurring in animals too. Did you?

In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, Meghan O’Rourke writes about her devastating struggle with autoimmune disease. It’s not available to link to non-subscribers, but as soon as the magazine frees it up, I’ll post a link on this blog. O’Rourke writes that scientists are observing an epidemic of autoimmune disease in the industrial world. By some counts, it has risen fourfold in the past 40 years — much higher than can be accounted for by better diagnostic techniques. Last week I went to see my doctor for a bronchial infection, and mentioned to him the O’Rourke piece. He told me that he’s been seeing a lot more autoimmune disorders in his patients. FWIW…

[H/T: Turmarion]

72 Comments (Open | Close)

72 Comments To "The Mystery Of Collective Obesity"

#1 Comment By Mary Russell On August 28, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

I’m with those who believe that obesity is due for the most part and in the vast majority of people to overeating and underexercising. I read a statistic recently saying that 65% of Americans don’t even walk 10 consecutive minutes per day. And I’ve begun telling people that “sitting is the new smoking” in terms of the risks that a sedentary lifestyle exposes one to, including obesity, heart disease, stroke, and various cancers. I have considerable experience taking diet and nutrition histories, and in 95% of cases I find it fairly easy to explain why the person sitting in front of me is overweight or obese simply based on a 24 hour food recall. I don’t think this is a moral issue, but it is a behavioral issue in the same way that smoking is.

Personally speaking, my husband is obese, and although I’ve been overweight in the past, I am quite a bit less heavy than I was in high school. It’s not hard to explain why: my husband drinks about 1000 calories per day in sports drinks, soda, and juice, while I prep all my meals ahead of time and pack a lunch and several snacks daily. No judgements here: I have just learned to make the necessary changes in my diet to stay slender, and he has not.

#2 Comment By Church Lady On August 28, 2013 @ 7:17 pm

I always used to wonder how people in pre-industrial times dealt with the kinds of allergies that can kill you (e.g. peanuts–there’s a kid that goes to school with my daughter who can’t be around them). Then I realized that there probably weren’t nearly as many such allergies then.

One major factor is that peanuts simply weren’t eaten by people of European origin until the 1930s. That’s probably why we have so many allergic reactions to it. We didn’t get exposed to peanuts before then.

Peanuts come from South America, and Europeans didn’t encounter them until colonial times. Even then, they were almost only used as an animal feed, until the 1930s, when the US Department of Agriculture began trying to promote human consumption of peanuts to help farmers.

This is actually the source of a great many of our modern allergies and auto-immune disorders. We have introduced foods from all over the world that most people never encountered before, and our bodies don’t process them well. Most people through most of human evolution only ate what was locally available, and nothing else. We were all originally locavores. Now we eat all kinds of exotic foods as it it were perfectly normal and well-suited to our health. Perhaps it isn’t.

#3 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On August 28, 2013 @ 7:36 pm

My guess is that it is caused by the expansion of the universe by dark energy. Let’s hope it doesn’t end in big rip of the seat of everyone’s pants.

#4 Comment By Matt On August 28, 2013 @ 7:37 pm

Genetically engineered, processed “food” is a huge factor. Including the gluten proteins in modern wheat crops of the past 60 years.

#5 Comment By Annek On August 28, 2013 @ 8:32 pm

Mike W:

“Here are a couple of interesting PBS videos loosely related to this subject that might interest you and other readers: [2]

I’m not overweight and haven’t incorporated fasting into my daily routines – though because of various food allergies intolerances, my wife and I eat like a couple of monks. The PBS piece on fasting, however, and its affect on blood chemistry was really eye opening, however. We may give it a go.”

My husband and I watched the video, and it was very interesting. Some friends told us about it. My husband has been doing the fasting, and he’s been very happy with it. He also bought a Fitbit, which I guess is a fancy pedometer, so he’s able to track how much he walks every day. I’ve been thinking about getting one, too!

#6 Comment By Annek On August 28, 2013 @ 8:33 pm

I meant to put Mike W.’s words in quotation. This is the only part of my previous post that I wrote:

My husband and I watched the video, and it was very interesting. Some friends told us about it. My husband has been doing the fasting, and he’s been very happy with it. He also bought a Fitbit, which I guess is a fancy pedometer, so he’s able to track how much he walks every day. I’ve been thinking about getting one, too!

#7 Comment By JonF On August 28, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

I have heard of this phenomenon before: a couple years back Megan McArdle had a post about zoo animals getting fact, despite the fact that they are fed more balanced diets and have more opportunity to exercise than used to be the case.
The best hypothesis I have seen is that ersatz hormones from our plastics are to blame: obesity started to explode in Americans about the time plastic replaced glass and waxed cardboard in many food containers, and people started reheating food in plastic bowls in microwaves.
Still, other factors could be to blame. It would be very good if we start taking this seriously as a medical issue, rather than as a morality play starring dem ole debils, Sloth and Gluttony.

Matt: genetically modified food has been a fact of life since the Neolithic. The corn (maize) the Mayans ate was not remotely like anything found in nature. The same is true with regard to wheat, rice, etc and etc. So too our domestic animals. With very few exceptions (the house cat is the best example) their wild ancestors would not recognize them.

#8 Comment By David J. White On August 28, 2013 @ 10:31 pm

No judgements here: I have just learned to make the necessary changes in my diet to stay slender, and he has not.

Or perhaps he just doesn’t want to. There is something very Platonic about the notion that if people don’t do what they “should” do, it’s because they don’t know any better — that wrong choices result from ignorance. But sometimes people do know better, and have decided that, on balance, they just don’t care.

My grandfather often talked about a friend of his who went for his annual checkup, and was told by his physician that he had to quit smoking, drinking, and eating fatty foods if he wanted to live longer. He looked at his doctor and said, “On those terms, why would I want to?” He lived to a decent age, but died die at a younger age than many of his contemporaries. But he was apparently happy.

#9 Comment By M_Young On August 29, 2013 @ 1:22 am

“The best hypothesis I have seen is that ersatz hormones from our plastics are to blame:”

Plastics, soybeans (which, I believe, are a feed product for plastics), and of course all that extra estrogen floating around because of the pill.

#10 Comment By M_Young On August 29, 2013 @ 1:25 am

“Matt: genetically modified food has been a fact of life since the Neolithic.”

I’m not a big believer in the evilness of GMO, but selection by breeding is simply an improvement of a natural process. Splicing fish genes into your tomato isn’t.

#11 Comment By M_Young On August 29, 2013 @ 1:26 am

“Even then, they were almost only used as an animal feed, until the 1930s, when the US Department of Agriculture began trying to promote human consumption of peanuts to help farmers.”

George Washington Carver’s revenge!

#12 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On August 29, 2013 @ 9:33 am

Re: This strongly inclines me in favor of thinking that the simplest explanation should be something in terms of sex hormones, and the greater extent to which human beings are attempting to actively regulate their production of them. The ubiquity of hormonal birth control methods makes it seem probable to me that it could function as the basis for nearly-uniform changes in human metabolic response, and there’s a natural correlation between pregnancy and weight gain. (Chemical methods of contraception mimic the hormonal signals of pregnancy.) Another appealing feature of this approach is that it would simultaneously account for declining sperm counts.

I think changes in gut bacteria (probably mediated by antibiotics) are probably a bigger factor, but I’m not averse to recognizing the possibility that synthetic estrogens might have some effect too. You can believe something is a good thing *on balance* without denying that it has a few negative side effects.

Re: The rise of ambient environmental pollutants that mimic female hormones can arise from other sources too, of course. But it seems especially dubious to propose that estrogen-like contaminants are causing obesity only when they derive from cattle feed or polymers, but not when they are introduced from direct intentional ingestion.

I don’t think anyone argues that, what we do argue is, first of all, that the quantity of estrogens in the water supply deriving from direct intentional ingestion is very small compared to from cattle or plastics manufacture. See here, they cite about 1% from the Pill:


And secondly, the Pill has become such an important part of the way we manage our lives nowadays it isn’t going away. I can foresee a world in which we reduce our consumption of plastics (well, we sort of whill have to, when fossil fuel reserves dry up) or change the way we make them, or even a world in which we stop eating beef, or reduce our consumption of it. I can’t foresee a future anytime soon in which large numbers of people decide to embrace abstinence- natural family planning is more probable, but I suspect that too will remain a minority taste, even if many more people use it in the future then today.

Re: Finally, this provides a plausible reason for why scientific media reports would be ineffective at spotting the correlation. Currently, the cultural bias of scientists is strongly in favor of celebrating the pill as a scientific accomplishment that has accomplished sexual liberation, and most of the opponents of birth control are religious organizations that are natural opponents of the scientific community in today’s political environment. Being a critic of birth control in any way puts someone at risk of a strong social stigma today. This creates a rationale for researchers to be less than fully objective in their study of the correlation, either using selection bias to fail to fully explore connections, or actively seeking to hide or suppress them.

Accusations of bias can go both ways, though, can’t they? I’m sure you have a point, but I’m also sure your side isn’t free of bias either.

#13 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On August 29, 2013 @ 9:35 am

Also, research is ongoing to develop better water filtration systems to filter out estrogens, including by using enzymes derived from a natural tree fungus.


#14 Comment By mrscracker On August 29, 2013 @ 11:11 am

If only domesticated & caged animals are experiencing weight gain it would suggest a change in their feed/exercise. If wild animals are also experiencing the same phenomena, it would suggest a change in the overall environment.

#15 Comment By mrscracker On August 29, 2013 @ 11:21 am

JonF ,
I’m not into the whole conspiracy theory regarding genetically modified foods, however there are differences between selection,hybridization, & genetic modification.

#16 Comment By Church Lady On August 29, 2013 @ 2:12 pm

I don’t think human use of estrogen (the Pill) is the big factor here, but the massive use of hormones in feedlot meat production, which gets into the foodchain and water supply. The agricultural/industrial use of hormones vastly outweighs human consumption for purposes of birth control.

#17 Comment By mrscracker On August 29, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

Church Lady,
I used to raise cattle & sheep.Do you have sources for your info about current use of hormones in meat production?
Antibiotics, yes. And those do increase weight gain.

#18 Comment By Church Lady On August 29, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

Here’s two articles on hormone use in meat production:



And here’s one on plant hormones in agriculture:


Most of these hormones are presumed safe, but we really have no idea what the long-term effects are of their widespread use. This obesity problem may be one of them.

#19 Comment By JonF On August 29, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

For those who are objecting that gene-tech is not just breeding– well, yes, but that’s rather beside the point. Because every single gene we have done anything with by either method is nonetheless a product of nature (and nature itself is known to shop genes around between species too, via the medium of viruses). We are emphatically not creating genes ourselves out of raw ingredients in some lab– we are a long, long way from that, if it ever does become possible.
And frankly we have done nothing with tomatoes, or fish, half as extreme as turn wolves in dachshunds and chihuahuas.

#20 Comment By Church Lady On August 30, 2013 @ 3:23 am


You are technically correct, but the real problem with GMO foods is twofold:

1) it introduces many kinds of genes (and hence proteins and hormones) into foods that haven’t been in those foods before. Just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it’s healthy or without serious side effects. This is particularly troublesome when it includes things that people have allergic and other reactions to.

2) one of the major reasons for using GMO foods these days is that they are designed to allow far more massive uses of pesticides and other chemicals in their growing, which helps fight pests, but also makes them much more dangerous not only to humans, but to animals and insects (including most famously the worldwide destruction of honey bee populations).

GMO is not inherently bad, just as breeding different strains of animals and plants is not inherently bad. But in both cases, it can be very bad if done improperly, and without regard to the long-term consequences to the health of both humans and the overall ecosystem.

#21 Comment By Church Lady On August 30, 2013 @ 3:28 am

Regarding hormones and other chemicals in our food, the article above says this:

According to Frederick vom Saal, professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri, an organic compound called bisphenol-A (or BPA) that is used in many household plastics has the property of altering fat regulation in lab animals. And a recent study by Leonardo Trasande and colleagues at the New York University School of Medicine with a sample size of 2,838 American children and teens found that, for the majority, those with the highest levels of BPA in their urine were five times more likely to be obese than were those with the lowest levels.

BPA has been used so widely — in everything from children’s sippy cups to the aluminium in fizzy drink cans — that almost all residents of developed nations have traces of it in their pee.

#22 Comment By Leoluca Criscione On August 31, 2013 @ 11:07 am

See also “Eating healthy and dying obese”! Enjoy!!!