Obesity of Populations Part I: Background

As should be obvious to anyone who has watched the news, obesity in the US is on the rise. According to WHO standards, about 30% of Americans are overweight and another 30% are obese. This is happening all over the world, in fact. It seems to be the worst in the US, but is certainly an issue in the UK, Canada, and Australia (among many, many others) [1].

This will not be a series on how to get fit, or eat healthy, or any of that. Maybe I’ll address that later on. But this series is about dealing with obesity on a population level. Factors which don’t have a strong affect on an individual can have a very strong effect on a population. For example, high gas prices make people drive less and hence fewer deaths from car crashes[2]. Now, you may have driven more or less that summer due to personal factors (job, new boyfriend, new car), or maybe you drove safer that summer, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m going to be looking at broad trends across society. Individual cases don’t matter.

Typical Objections:

“But people just need to eat less and move more”!

While true, this advice is irrelevant to this discussion. It’s as effective as telling a heroine addict to stop doing heroine.

“You’re just using <whatever> as a convenient scapegoat! It’s all about personal responsibility!”

The choices people make are influenced by their environment. That’s just a fact. People eat more when portion sizes are larger[3], they buy more of goods when those goods are cheaper and/or more available, and people often don’t change from the “default” option [4]

“It’s genetics”

Spoken like somebody who doesn’t understand biology. Also, it completely ignores the fact that the genetic makeup of the country hasn’t changed in 30 years but obesity is much higher. Yes genetics play a role, because the way a person works is in large part determined by their genes. But it’s silly to think that all fat people are destined to be fat and there’s nothing which could be done about it (again, refer to 30 years ago). That could conceivably be true for some people, but I’m concerned about the big picture.

Basically I’m going to treat populations of people like a black box. If restaurant portion sizes  go up/down, what’s the result? If all office workers everywhere suddenly had standing (or better yet, walking) workstations, what would be the result? That type of thing.

Next entry will be a basic intro to some terminology and research methods.




  1. [1]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epidemiology_of_obesity
  2. [2] High Gasoline Prices and Mortality From Motor Vehicle Crashes and Air Pollution

    Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine:
    March 2008 – Volume 50 – Issue 3 – pp 249-254
    doi: 10.1097/JOM.0b013e318162f5c4


  3. [3] Portion size of food affects energy intake in normal-weight and overweight men and women

    Am J Clin Nutr December 2002 vol. 76 no. 6 1207-1213


  4. [4]Chapter in NBER book Social Security Policy in a Changing Environment (2009), Jeffrey Brown, Jeffrey Liebman and David A. Wise, editors (p. 167 – 195)
    Conference held October 19-22, 2006
    Published in June 2009 by University of Chicago Press
    © 2009 by the National Bureau of Economic Research


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