Gaining weight

Posted: Apr 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Dr. Robert Atkins died last week of complications from a fall on April 8. Famous for the high protein/low carbohydrate diet that he pioneered, overweight people the world over mourn his death. For many, he was their savior, giving them a workable method for controlling their weight without having to starve themselves.

Although the jury is still out on the long-term effectiveness of the Atkins Diet or its long-term health effects, there is no question that its popularity has led to a serious reassessment of standard nutritional guidelines. Even many of Dr. Atkins' critics now concede that an overemphasis on carbohydrates in the guidelines -- enshrined in the so-called food pyramid -- may unwittingly have encouraged an obesity epidemic.

It is just about impossible to avoid the evidence that obesity has become a serious societal health problem. The view that fast food restaurants are legally responsible for this problem and should pay damages to the obese is ridiculous, although greedy lawyers will probably keep the idea alive for many years to come in hopes of becoming rich, like those who sued the tobacco industry.

Hopefully, sensible judges and juries will throw these cases out as fast as they are filed. However, the idea that there is a correlation between fast food and obesity does have a basis in fact.

Economists Shin-Yi Chou, Henry Saffer and Michael Grossman found that the increase in fast food restaurants between 1972 and 1997 is related to the growth of obesity. But their paper shows that both fast food and obesity are really consequences of deep underlying trends in the economy. These include an increase in the number of working women and decline in stay-at-home moms, the increased amount of time devoted to work by both men and women, and the decline in smoking, among other things.

A paper by economists Tomas Philipson and Richard Posner looks at the growth of obesity as the inevitable result of technological change and economic growth. The cost of food has gone down, while the physical labor needed to buy food has also gone down.

It used to be that most work involved manual labor -- working in the fields or on assembly lines -- so that workers were, in effect, paid to exercise. Now, most work involves sitting at desks in air-conditioned offices or standing behind cash registers at retail establishments. As a result, much less energy is expended earning one's living, leading inevitably to weight gain.

As time becomes more precious, people naturally spend less time on food preparation -- substituting calorie-dense fast food for more healthful home-cooked meals like mom used to make. And because incomes have risen, people can afford to eat out more often.

At the same time, societal pressures to stop smoking have been effective, causing many smokers to give it up. Unfortunately, as most ex-smokers can attest to, purging nicotine from their systems changed their metabolisms so as to increase their weight.

Mary Eberstadt of the Hoover Institution notes that as more women work outside the home, they have less time to supervise the activities of their children. Instead of being told to "go outside and play," as my mother always did, today's unsupervised children are more likely to be found in front of a television set or video game. Instead of being told to eat an apple when children want a snack, they are more likely now to eat candy bars and drink high-calorie soda. The result is less exercise, more calories and greater obesity among children, who often go on to become obese adults.

Finally, some government policies have been implicated as encouraging obesity. Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute notes that food stamps, school lunches and other aid programs for the poor encourage the consumption of high-fat, high-calories meals. Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute points out that restrictions on sugar imports encourage domestic food manufacturers to use high-fructose corn syrup, which may be more fattening than old fashioned sugar.

One of the curious consequences of these trends is that the poor are now more likely to be obese than the wealthy. Indeed, obesity is now a problem in developing countries where starvation was the norm not too many years ago, according to the World Health Organization. The poor live on low-cost but highly fattening carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta, while the rich can afford the Atkins Diet, which is based on eating costly meat, fish and other high-protein foods. The former are also more likely to engage in sedentary lifestyles, while the latter are busy burning calories at expensive gyms or on their own high-tech exercise equipment. And the rich can afford the time to eat slow food instead of fast food.

Throughout most of world history, obesity was a sign of wealth and thinness a sign of poverty. In the future, the opposite may be the case.