Tobold's Blog
Friday, June 21, 2024
And lead us not into temptation

I have a body mass index between 27 and 28, so I am overweight. I am okay with that. I’m nearly 60 years old, and some scientific studies suggest that for retired men, a BMI between 27 and 28 might actually be optimal, as with age the ratio between fat and muscle changes. I do think that some degree of “body positivity” is necessary, and it is unrealistic to expect everybody to look as slim as a model. Trying to be a lot slimmer than your natural body morphology allows is likely to do more harm than good. Having said that, I think there needs to be an upper limit to “body positivity”. Obesity is not a life-style choice, it is a serious medical problem. In the USA, in 1975 12% of adults were obese, and that number tripled by 2016. Human biology hasn’t changed over those four decades. Obesity might have peaked now, due to the invention of Ozempic and similar miracle weight loss drugs. And I can’t help but think that something is fundamentally wrong with a society in which a large percentage of the population first eats far too much, and then has to pay $1,000 per month for the rest of their lives to keep their weight under a limit that is seriously bad for their health.

I have seen several documentaries that argue that it is not the people’s fault if they are obese, but the fault of the food industry. The industry produces highly processed food full of empty calories, so it is their fault if the population is obese. I think there is a deliberate confusion between cause and effect here. At best you could argue it is a vicious cycle: Maybe people buy more junk food because of higher availability, but the industry is producing that junk food because that is what people are buying. It isn’t as if you couldn’t find any healthy food in your supermarket anymore. While some highly processed food is cheaper than fresh fruit and vegetables, that argument doesn’t hold for example for sugary drinks, which are a lot more expensive than drinking water.

Yes, capitalism works a lot with temptation. Billions are spent on advertising to tempt people into unnecessary consumption. But I do not believe that the existence of temptation absolves people from giving in to that temptation. The success of the fight against smoking shows that we can do some things to restrict advertising and reduce the temptation. But in the end we all live in a world in which we always will be tempted to do a lot of things that are bad for us: Drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, junk food, the list goes on and on. If we are not all alcoholics and heroin addicts, it is because at some point in our lives we learned that sometimes it is better to resist temptation. That requires a certain strength of character. It is unfortunate that strength of character has fallen out of fashion in favor of unlimited permissiveness. Yes, there are always a few anecdotal cases of people being overweight due to a specific disease they aren’t responsible for; but you can’t extrapolate from that to over a third of the population. Even when obesity numbers were a lot lower, only a fraction of these people were overweight for medical reasons. Most simply were tempted by a lot of tasty food, and ate too much.

Weight loss drugs like Ozempic or Wegovy basically work by removing the temptation. They send signals to the brain that you are full and really don’t want another piece of cake anymore. As a result of widespread use of the drugs, there has been a visible hit to the earnings of some food companies, with some CEOs having to address the issue to their investors in their latest earning calls. If that looks like a win for the people against the evil food industry to you, look again. The US health care system is seriously messed up, and prices for these weight loss drugs are significantly higher than in Europe. But even in Europe the cost of taking the drugs is higher than the savings from reduced food consumption. And we don’t know the long-term effects of taking these drugs for decades yet. You don’t have to live an extremely ascetic lifestyle, just some common sense around food usage and a bit of movement for most people is enough to stabilize their weight below obesity-level. That seems to me a much better solution than first spending too much on junk food, and then spending even more on the drug that stops you from craving that junk food.

I think you should add to the discussion some companies (like McDonald) who target children of the age where taste is developed so as to push them away from unprocessed foods and towards processed ones.

Also: healthy food is significantly more expensive (in money and time) thank junk food. This is economics and not "strength of character", the companies producing junk food are like polluters who rely on passing the cost of pollution to society. Here it's the same: the company saves on costs, and society foots the bill in increased healthcare costs....
McDonald’s isn’t “pushing” anything. Go into a McDonald’s in Delhi, and you’d be surprised how much more healthy and vegetarian the menu is than in New York. McDonald’s sells what people are buying. If Americans would have a high demand for broccoli, McDonald’s would have the McBroccoli on the menu.

Also the narrative that healthy food is more expensive is only true in selected cases. As I said, water is cheaper than sugary drinks. Vegetables that are local and in season are frequently cheaper than processed food. Cooking yourself is cheaper than eating at McDonald’s. If people are too lazy to cook, the industry profits from selling them the convenience of easy to reheat food. But it isn’t as if people wouldn’t have the choice and are blameless in the outcome.

Blaming industry is always the easy way out. If you drive a Hummer and fly half-way around the world, your carbon footprint is the fault of Exxon. If you sit on your sofa all day, it’s Netflix’s fault. If you are obese, McDonald’s is to blame. There is a pervasive victim culture around, in which we aren’t responsible for anything in our lives anymore.
Indeed. I can't speak for the world at large, but in Ireland your local supermarket - including Aldi and Lidl - will have plenty of low-priced fruit and veg, as well as cheap staples for cooking - and there should be one reasonably nearby if you live in a city or town of any size.
This being an RPG-adjacent site, I just had a vision of somebody spending an hour in a CRPG crafting food out of dropped meat from animals and gathered berries... then saving the game and ordering fast food delivered because they have no time to cook :D
While my freedom loving heart wants to agree with you my more pragmatic head doesn't. If I was in government and wanted to solve this problem it would be lot easier to tackle a few large companies who are supplying all this junk food than to try and get every single person to suddenly develop self control. Perhaps economic measures like sugar tax are the best compromise. They still allow free choice but they force consumers to take the high externality cost into account.
I am all in favor of taxing externality costs. I do believe this to be the only viable path towards carbon neutrality, for example. The only moral dilemma with taxing "sin" is that rich people can afford the tax easily, a bit like the church in the Middle Ages selling indulgences.
Blaming industry is always the easy way out.

Yes and blame the victim as well. You answer amounts to "advertising has no effect", which you have written as McDonald’s sells what people are buying.: no they are selling what they are advertising, which changes with culture.
It's always easy to blame the consumer, the plastic industry has been particularly good at this. But know what: even if tomorrow I want to buy beverages in glass instead of plastic, then I'd better be drinking only wine or beer, because finding water bottled in glass is simply impossible in any of the markets in town.
So you think that the correct denomination for somebody who walks into a McDonald’s to buy a Big Mac, out of his own free will, but possibly influenced by advertising is “victim”? I really don’t get this modern attitude in which a) everybody thinks he is a victim, and b) thinks that somehow being a victim is morally superior to not being one.
The Body Mass Index already takes into account different body types and ages just because the margin it uses is extremely wide already. Between 18 and 25 is considered healthy. For an average length male of 180cm, that is already between 58 to over 80kg. Going over that - no matter the reason - is unhealthy. Now, being a few points over like yourself isn’t a huge issue and can be a valid personal choice, but it would still be better to lose some weight. Personally, I have a tendency to go over the limit as well, but I’ve been able to very consciously “just eat less and if you really want to snack, change the type” for a few weeks to a month to get it back under control. I don’t consider that to be very hard. So all in all I do agree. If you are overweight, the only real reason (bar some very rare medical conditions) is you ingested more calories than you burned.
That previous anonymous comments about sugar tax was from me. I somehow screwed up commenting and ended up anonymous.

You identify a problem with externality taxes that "rich people can afford the tax easily, a bit like the church in the Middle Ages selling indulgences."

While this is true, does it actually matter if it solves the problem for most of the population? Let the rich eat themselves sick if they want to. They can afford the medical bills.

Some of the inequity could be addressed by using the money collected from the tax on services that benefit the poor more than the rich. I actually think there is a missed political opportunity here. Often when there is an externality tax governments pledge to spend the money on measures related to the environment or to subsidise green tech. While these are worthy causes the direct benefits to those suffering from the tax are not obvious. I think it would be much easier to get popular support if they used the revenues for something like better public transport, health or education. In the unlikely event these are already all well funded then just use the money to give a tax cut to lower income workers.
@Tobold: ok so when unemployment goes up, it's because people have become lazy and don't want to work and when obesity goes up then it's because people lack "strength of character".
I'm all for personal responsibility when talking about a small amount of individuals, but when something becomes a societal trend then it's a systemic issue.
It's also quite ridiculous that in your answer you focus on a single word in order to dodge all the rest.
Obesity most certainly is a societal trend and systemic issue. But how does something being a societal trend prove that there is some evilcorporation at fault? If there is a societal trend to eat Tide pods, is that the fault of Procter & Gamble? Or is it the fault of the individuals who promoted some idiotic Tiktok trend without considering the consequences. Societies can be collectively stupid, which is still a problem of lack of individual responsibility, rather than some conspiracy by big business.

And if you use heavily charged words like “victim” in a context where they really don’t apply, don’t complain when I call you out. Especially since self-victimization is another such societal stupidity trend, and so often used as general excuse to deny all personal responsibility.
I think that those drugs are a good thing, but I think a better thing is to have some self discipline. In the US we want to be able to make choices for ourselves so we can exercise our "freedom". With freedom comes responsibility. So if you're overweight due to your diet then you just aren't good with freedom. Oh well. If you're overweight due to a thyroid issue - totally different thing.

To me this is no different than a news segment that I just watched about Gen X retirement issues. The gist was that it's too difficult for people to handle their own retirement so they didn't sacrifice in their earlier years to prepare for the later years (not including those who actually couldn't, which is why safety nets exist). Everyone's about freedom until they realize that they didn't do what they were supposed to and then it's the "systems" fault.

Finally, BMI is pretty bad. It doesn't take muscle mass into account so even when I had a very defined six pack with outlines of the lower abs (making an eight pack) I was still considered overweight according to BMI. I just have too much muscle for my height.
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