Lean Times Are a Thing of the Past

The incomparable Megan McArdle (who blogs under the name Jane Galt) posted an essay where she discusses a book she read. The book posited a theory about why it is difficult for some people to lose weight, the problem being that they were genetically predisposed to packing it on, and their bodies sent danger signals if the feed bag was removed.

That was interesting enough, but I found the comments left by her readers to be more revealing. It seems that just about everyone seemed to think that America has the fattest people on Earth.

This is simply no longer true, and anyone who is interested has known about this for years. It seems that at least 7 European countries boast populations that have higher percentages of obesity than levels found in the United States, according to a news report from 2005. It has gotten so bad in recent years that even the glacially slow European Union bureaucracy has decided to lurch into action.

One might think that the rest of the European Union, at least, has a population that is slimmer than that found in the United States. Not necessarily. As this essay by Michael Fumento states, some of the data that was gleaned back in 2005 came from surveys where people were asked to gauge their own weight. Since no one who is overweight likes to admit it, it would be prudent to take any claims of how Europeans are oh-so-svelte with a grain of salt.

Europe has a fat problem, so why the widespread criticism of the American lifestyle and high obesity levels? A report commissioned by the food corporation Kraft might shed some light on this annoying example of cognitive dissonance.

“…Europeans view obesity as a problem that affects others, but not themselves.”

There are a few things about the situation that I find very interesting.

First off, the public perception seems to be that Europe doesn’t have an obesity problem and only the indolent and crass Americans must struggle with their weight. Why this is so puzzles me in light of easily perceived evidence to the contrary, but I have noticed that Europeans tend to try and make themselves feel good by indulging in anti-America bigotry. This appears to be a triumph of European feel-good propaganda.

While high levels of obesity have been recognized as a health problem in America for at least twenty years, it seems to be a recent revelation in Europe. Perhaps coincidentally, Europe also lags behind the US in economic development. In fact, it appears that Europe is 22 years behind the US since they just reached the level of prosperity we enjoyed way back in 1985.

Hmmm. 1985. When did the obesity problem in the US first kick in to high gear, anyway?

One of the fattest countries in Europe is Germany, which enjoys an improving economy. Cyprus also has an obesity problem, and according to the CIA Factbook they enjoy a much higher level of growth than the standard EU rate.

Is there a correlation between GDP and obesity rates? Maybe. I have never studied economics so I am not qualified to say. But it certainly seems possible to this layman.

16 thoughts on “Lean Times Are a Thing of the Past”

  1. It has more to do with smoking than they let on. The US has more fat people, because we have been more aggressive in banning smoking.

  2. Lifestyles are different and recipes haven’t changed all that much. I really put on weight and figure there were three causes: 1) stress & not enough sleep; several recent studies have shown a correlation between lack of sleep and weight gain; 2) I learned to drive and stopped bicycling to work and for groceries, etc.; 3) family history. Of course, I always felt, and believe to some extent it is true, that it was my lack of self-discipline and a naturally compulsive personality.

    Still, I’ve just typed up all my aunt’s and grandmother’s recipes – these are incredible. They were, in fact, overweight; but the recipes were from the times of threshing crews and when all work – plowing, cleaning rugs, cooking, even typing – took a hell of a lot more calories.

    I figure it is going to take a few generations to change our set points in eating, our recipes, and our habits. And some where along the line, we’ll have to learn what an appropriate amount of sleep is and how to get it – even when stores & television & the net are on 24 hours a day. Sometimes (and this may be silly but I don’t think it is) I wonder how much modern stress and even modern weights are due to the wonderful invention of light bulbs, etc. that convince us night is day. Not that I’m not thankful, of course. We’ve gained a lot more than we’ve lost.

  3. Robert wrote:

    The US has more fat people, because we have been more aggressive in banning smoking.

    But the point of this article is that the US doesn’t have more fat people. Specifically, the idea that the US has more fat people than other countries is a stereotype not supported by available evidence.

    I don’t think that there’s a simple link between smoking and weight, though if you’d be so kind as to post some links to studies, I’d be happy to look them over. Rather, I think that one’s weight is primarily (as Ginny and James have said) a factor of other things, such as having a lot more resources to eat (and the easy availability of high-calorie, processed food), being able to afford such food, and a much more sedentary lifestyle. Another factor one might look at is whether a population is aging; middle-aged people tend to be (though, of course, not always) heavier than the younger folk, so as the distribution of a population shifts into the higher age groups, that might “skew” the “average” distribution of overweight people.

  4. I like the use of the word “setpoint” in your piece, James.

    It is certainly true that the agrarian community that once was the US, that of the early twentieth century, needed FAR more calories than we do now to function. Not saying good or bad, just the way it was. I remember visiting my grandparents house when I was little and was simply astonished at the enormous amounts of food that were prepared for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They just always did it that way. Farmers today, I will argue, while not doing as much backbreaking labor (tractors, manure spreaders, etc.) still need a lot more caloric intake than office workers or folks that are teachers, for instance. So do professional athletes. Even those working in cities in factories fifty years ago did things daily that we can barely comprehend as far as the amount of physical labor goes.

    Today is a different story and so is our food. We know things now that we didn’t back then – things like how much caloric and fat content specific foods have and we are able to taylor our diets accordingly. I accept that some people have a harder time losing weight than others due to their genetic material, but also will argue that common sense and a tiny bit of will power goes a long way in reducing the waistline. Exercise is paramount for our more sedentary society to drop pounds as well.

    As far as Europe living “life in the fat lane” along with us here in the States, I believe that and I also believe that they would be slow to react/admit it. I think your other conclusion is somwewhat correct in that GDP relates to obesity. If you don’t have to work on a farm or in a sweatshop, why would you? But if you used to burn 4k calories a day and now burn essentially zero, you are sure to put on weight unless you compensate by exercising or eating different.

  5. James,

    Germans are the most *overweight* people in Europe overall, but we have less *obese* people than Britain, Greece, some Eastern European countries:

    But Germany is behind the Greeks, British and some Eastern European countries when it comes to obesity, classified as a BMI above 30.

    The difference between overweight and obesity also applies in respect towards the US, which also has more obese people than we do:

    The proportion of Americans who are severely obese grew twice as fast in the five years up to 2005, as the proportion of moderately obese in the population.

    The study was conducted by the RAND Corporation and will be published in the journal Public Health later this year.

    Roland Sturm, author of the study and an economist at RAND, a non profit organization, said:

    “The proportion of people at the high end of the weight scale continues to increase at a brisk rate despite increased public attention on the risks of obesity and the increased use of drastic weight loss strategies such as bariatric surgery.”

    A severely obese person is someone whose body mass index (BMI) is 40 or more. This is about 100 pounds (46 kilos) above normal weight for an average man.

    A typical severely obese man weighs 300 pounds (136 kilos) and has a height of 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m), while a typical severely obese woman weighs 250 pounds (114 kilos) and has a height of 5 feet 4 inches (1.63 m).

    So the impression that Anglos of both the American as well as the British variety are more obese than Europeans overall are still is correct.

    I’m not slamming America here, it’s just the way things are, at least as of now. That situation may reverse itself, as trends indicate. I think that Robert has a point, smoking bans tend to make former smokers fatter.

    PS: If you get right down to it, we aren’t really fat, we just have big bones.

  6. James,

    I wrote a longish comment with some links in it, and Word Press seems to have classified it as spam, so it won’t appear until Jonathan gets it out of the filter. I also have saved it as a text file.

    Until it appears, I’ll just point out that Germans may have a high number of overweight people, but much fewer obese people than the US, Britain, Greece and a number of Eastern European countries. The proof will turn up in the comment, as soon as JOnathan can retrieve it from the filter.

    Another thing: European GDP numbers are understated by official statistics. To avoid taxes, a lot of Europeans, especially Germans, work off the books. Up to 15 milion Germans alone partcipate in this ‘black economy’, and the wealth created by it is the equivalent of 15 to 25 % of officila GDP, which should be added to the official numbers, to get a more realistic picture.

    I’m not taliking about including criminal activity, just activities that are perfectly legitimate by themselves, but which are kept off the books to save on taxes.

  7. Lots of driving and long work hours and power machinery and fewer physically demanding jobs all push toward getting less exercise and gaining weight. Not smoking is a big factor, too. If the Europeans push against smoking as the USA has done, you will see a lot more fat people over there.

    The thing I see in Chicago, and which I have observed for my entire adult life, is that weight is a class issue. Women lawyers are skinny. They are driven personalities, they are disciplined, they go the gym, and have nannies to watch their kids. The secretaries are fat, or at least plump. They make less money, they have less help, they get more of their pleasure in life from a piece of cake than their wealthy bosses do. This is a generalization, but it is generally true. In America, rich is skinny, middle class is overweight, poor is fat.

  8. Last time I checked Darwin was still in vogue. Given a central thesis about adaptively to environment, most scientific studies seem to skip the few tens of thousands of years of the human condition. For most of human existence, mankind has lived though alternating conditions of fest and famine. Following the aspects of adaptability, the implication is that those who could handle the famine periods would be the ones to survive and pass on through reproduction those traits which enabled them to suck as much nutrient out of what ever they consumed. Those who were inefficient in that ability would be the first to kick off, so to speak, when the environment so ruthlessly altered around them. Now, in a mere hundred years, for the west in particular, food has become not only plentiful, but also readily available. A new, if local, environment has been created, artificial and dependent upon the systems of civilization. Though as New Orleans’ experience with natural disasters has pointed out, this is not a guarantee. Thus we have a great population of ‘over weight’ people or those who have the capacity to efficiently store their nutrients. This means that traits passed down for tens of thousands of years that literally breed success are viewed by the vagaries of cultural civilization to be undesirable and worthy of scorn and exclusion justified by ‘science’. No one is asking what’s going to happen when the environment changes again as it is assumed that what is today, will always be. Could we be burning bridges?

  9. While I certainly agree with several of the points made by commenters about the physicality of our normal work and play lives being significantly lower than in the past, I would also mention the aging of our population.

    It was easy to stay in the 170’s in my twenties and early thirties, and then became increasingly more difficult to keep weight off as I aged. As an aging boomer with both arthritis and a bad back, coupled with my ingrained laziness, who struggles constantly with my weight, I would suspect the general increase in the middle-aged and senior populations probably has some impact on these various statistics.

  10. One must always be cautious in comparing phenomena such as “obesity” in an international context. Very seldom are studies conducted internationally and comparisons are usually done between separate studies in each individual country. Unfortunately, concepts such as the mathematical definition of obesity are seldom standardized. In the past few years, American researchers have been aggressively dropping the actual level of weight that defines obesity. I doubt European researchers have been so aggressive. As a result, the same person might be counted as obese in one country but not in another.

    Having said that, I think most of the rest of the discrepancy can be explained by America’s different ethnic makeup than “Europe.” Americans are more heavily of Northern European descent than Europe’s total population. When you normalize the relative frequency of European ethnic groups, the discrepancy disappears.

    When you compare similar ethnic groups (such as Scandinavians and Scandinavian-Americans) you find similar health characteristics. In the case of obesity, more Americans are of Native American or African ancestry. They carry more famine resistant genes that make them prone to obesity and diabetes in a high calorie environment.

    People keep forgetting that Americans are not just transplanted Europeans.

  11. Ralf wrote….

    Up to 15 milion Germans alone partcipate in this ‘black economy’, and the wealth created by it is the equivalent of 15 to 25 % of officila GDP, which should be added to the official numbers, to get a more realistic picture.

    Holy Crap! I haven’t seen a black market that big since the bad old days of the Warsaw Pact!

    You say that up to 25% of Germany’s GDP is untaxed, and your government sits by and twiddles it’s thumbs while all that sweet, sweet taxable income slides right on by it’s nose?

    Your Federal law enforcement agencies must suck!


  12. You say that up to 25% of Germany’s GDP is untaxed, and your government sits by and twiddles it’s thumbs while all that sweet, sweet taxable income slides right on by it’s nose?

    We also have the most complicated tax code in the world, even experts don’t understand it anymore (and the best experst don’t work for our IRS. Also, the ‘black’ economy is conducted in cash and therefore untraceable.

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