Obesity: a Sign We’re Doing Things Right

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson recently designated obesity a disease, with all the negative implications that entails.  Our society, crippled, it seems, by obesity, is sick.  Yet new research suggests this interpretation has got everything about face.  Obesity is not a symptom of a sick society, but a sign of a very healthy one.<?xml:namespace prefix = u1 /> <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

Researchers Inas Rashad and Michael Grossman of the City University of New York summarize their research in the summer issue of the quarterly social affairs journal The Public Interest.  By analyzing the strengths of the various factors that could explain the current obesity 'epidemic,' they were able to pin most of the problem on two causes: First, and most importantly, the growth in the number of fast food and full service restaurants since 1980.  Second, they found that the decrease in the number of people smoking also had a significant effect.


The finding that fast food restaurants contributed most to the problem should not be taken as backing up filmmaker Morgan Spurlock's simplistic thesis that McDonald's has made the American public fatter out of its own greed.  Rashad and Grossman, being more sophisticated than Spurlock, go further to ask why the number of fast food and full service restaurants has grown so.


Their unequivocal answer is that it is all to do with, “The increases in rates of labor force participation by women.  As non-work time for women became increasingly scarce and valuable over the last few decades, time devoted to at-home meal preparation decreased.  Families began eating out more often.”  Both fast food establishments like McDonald's and full-service restaurants ranging from Joe's <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Eats Place to The French Laundry were the beneficiaries, not the drivers of this increased economic activity by women.


This increase in economic activity was in turn driven by advances in technology and the abundance of affordable energy.  Replacing the washtub and mangle with an electric washing machine freed up the economic capacity of women, which they were then able to devote to wealth-generating activities.  Everyone benefited as a result.  This is also the reason other economies, less technologically advanced than America's, see lower obesity rates.  Countries like the United Kingdom, where women are just as liberated as in the USA, are also suffering from the obesity problem (and in the UK, devices like the electric dishwasher are still uncommon).


The other cause, the decrease in smoking, is also something to celebrate.  My own family lost numerous members, otherwise physically fit, before their time to diseases associated with smoking.  It is unlikely that obesity will have the same effect.  A 1999 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that even clinically obese people who were otherwise fit were actually less likely to die early than those of normal body weight who were unfit.


In short, obesity appears to be what Rashad and Grossman term an unintended consequence of a more productive, healthier society.  Nor is it incurable.  As my colleague Soso Whaley has proved in two separate experiments, virtually anyone can eat nothing but McDonald's food for a month and lose weight, merely by keeping to a calorie-controlled diet and pursuing a moderate exercise regimen.


Which all goes to show how big a mistake declaring obesity a disease was.  All that does is allow people to claim back the costs of specialized weight-reduction programs (which rarely work in the long term) from government-funded insurance programs.  The diet industry, which lobbied hard for the change, must have been delighted.


Instead, we should recognize that obesity is an unintended by-product of a healthy society that values women's economic freedom.  Fitness, not weight, is the issue.  Ironically, the surest way to make us thinner would be to enact energy-suppression measures that would make us poorer, and therefore less able to afford the high calorie meals restaurants provide.  That might also drive people to tobacco, too.  It wouldn't make us any fitter, though.  Overall, a fat society is healthier than a poor one.