Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Australia, it seems, needs sturdier toilets. Because Australians are getting fatter, the private group there that designs toilet-design standards is recommending that they be redesigned to hold more weight.

Australia is of course far from the biggest sinner in the global epidemic of obesity. That dubious distinction can be claimed by the U.S., which leads the OECD with an obesity rate of 30.6 percent. (Australia comes in at 21.7 percent.)

That we are getting fatter is painfully obvious to anyone of a certain age. Why? The economist starts from the widely accepted premise that weight gain is a function of an unfavorable change in calories in minus calories out. Calories out is a function of exercise, and calories in is a function of diet. But the economist then turns to the incentives to consume more calories or work them off.

With respect to calories out it is true that people in many societies now have a lifestyle that involves less physical exertion. In rich countries physically demanding farm and factory labor has been replaced by sitting at a desk all day. Sitting in a car or on a train has replaced walking, and so on. The ultimate things of value here – getting to work and earning income – are done in a way that spends fewer calories. In many ways this is a thing to be applauded, in that we can work farther than ever from home, we can get work done on the train or even in the car, and we can listen to the radio, chat with carpoolers or otherwise enhance the commuting experience. But it comes at a cost with respect to calorie burning.

But it is some of the changes on the "calories in" side that have gone most unappreciated in discussions of rising obesity rates. The most basic relation in economics is the law of demand, which says that consumers demand more as price declines. That is as true for calories as any other things of value, and it turns out that calories are simply cheaper than they have ever been.

Seen in this light, it turns out that many of the usual suspects, especially fast food, fall by the wayside. It is true that restaurant portions in general are huge in the U.S. compared to thirty years ago. But it is also true that had those portions been offered thirty years ago they wouldn’t have sold, both because Americans couldn’t eat it all and because they couldn’t take the uneaten portion home to be consumed before they went to bed. Either an increase in obesity (which makes us want more food) or an improvement in food-storage technology almost had to causally precede bigger portions – huge portions occurred because we were fatter, not the other way around. There has been a huge range of technological innovations in recent years that have all served to make calories cheaper. Better food packaging and cheaper and better vending machines enable the latter to be more common, which in turn enables midday snacks, an apparently large portion of increased calories in recent years. (If you are old enough consider how ubiquitous these machines and how big the containers within them are compared to several decades ago.) The replacement of sugar (more expensive to produce both intrinsically and because sugar protectionism keeps out cheap foreign sugar) with corn syrup made the 32-oz. soda a going proposition. (Soda in particular provides pleasant tastes while having no nutritional value, and so is likely to be a significant contributor.)

The net effect of all of this is that calories require less sacrifice to obtain, and so we consume more of them. When looking to the obesity epidemic, do not blame Ronald McDonald, whatever Eric Schlosser says in his bestseller Fast Food Nation. Instead, blame the microwave oven, Styrofoam packaging (which enables the storage of food that would otherwise have never been served in the first place), cheap corn, and bigger and better refrigerators and food-packaging technology. In short, blame incentives. It may be that because of greater wealth and greater food-related technological progress we may reach a point where the only folks who aren't fat are those who are either genetically protected or forced to exercise a lot in the course of their daily lives.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Evan said: "It may be that because of greater wealth and greater food-related technological progress we may reach a point where the only folks who aren't fat are those who are either genetically protected or forced to exercise a lot in the course of their daily lives."

My question: Won't public health campaigns and efforts of health professionals' organizations like the American Medical Association eventually have an impact on the obesity that's due to "calories in"?

12:58 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

Some, for people who didn't know what the medical people are telling them, and who have the discipline to actually do it. But I'm not very optimistic. Hunger and fat storage are part of our programming, although clearly not to the extent one sees every day in the U.S. The combination of urge and opportunity that characterizes most rich countries is probably bad news.

1:59 PM  

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