Stop Smelling Up My Air


We're All Addicted to Cooked Food

As life's pleasures go, food is second only to sex.
Except for salami and eggs - that's better than sex, but only if the salami is thickly sliced.

- Alan King

More die in the United States of too much food than of too little.

- John Kenneth Galbraith

Never order food in excess of your body weight.

- Erma Bombeck

From my journal Monday 9 May 94 (we were in Suva):

Three copies of my favourite newspaper (the AVA) arrived in the mail.  I quote Mark Scaramella:

Think locally.  Case in point:  Wood Burning.  The Feds say that "one typical season of heating one home with wood produces the same amount of mutagenic particles of air pollution as 130,000 miles on a gasoline powered car."  In addition, researchers in Louisiana have found that "free radicals from wood smoke remain chemically active in the body 40 times longer than tobacco smoke."  And, "heating with wood stoves is 400 times more polluting than heating with gas."  Bay Area Air Quality Management District studies show that the largest contributor to particulate air pollution is wood smoke, which accounts for 40% to 67% of winter air pollution compared to autos at about 20%.  Mary Rosenberg, Executive Director of an organization calling itself "Burning Issues" (66 Sylvan Way, Los Altos, California 94022) says, "We are breathing Lung Disease and no one knows it," adding, "We recognise the hazards of tobacco smoke - but the dangers of wood smoke are proven to be far more toxic and we ignore them."  A million tons of wood is burned per year in the Bay Area alone.  Rosenberg also says that EPA-approved "high-efficiency" stoves while a little better than conventional ones, are still very bad and do not solve the problem.  Her position is that only conversion to non-wood burning heat will make the air safe.

Fortunately, wood smoke isn't as addictive as tobacco smoke (although watching a log burn in a fireplace is mesmerising), but there's something I think may be more addictive and which may have caused even more greenhouse warming in the long term than the use of fireplaces and woodstoves to provide household heat: the practice of cooking food.  I understand that beans and grains need to be cooked because otherwise our gut, not evolved to digest them raw, wouldn't absorb all their nutrients.  Enhancing the natural flavour of food is usually accomplished by adding salt, something sour like vinegar, something sweet such as sugar, something pernicious like MSG, or by increasing the aroma and/or modifying the texture through cooking.  I think this turns that food into a drug.

Refining (or distilling) food - producing sugar, white flour, or whiskey, for example - turns it into a less healthy, more addictive, less nutritious drug.  Smells of cooked food entice eating in people not normally hungry.  So, for many, does even the sight of products containing refined sugar (candy, sodas), refined flour (French bread, croissants, pastas), or both (pastries).  Overeating is wasteful and unhealthy on this overpopulated Earth.  Worldwide, trees are slaughtered to provide either direct fuel (fire pits, cookstoves) or indirect fuel (charcoal, wood chips) for cooking food.  This cooking is often done primarily to boost flavour and whet appetite (example: the suburban backyard barbecue).

Cooking the food we serve allows a crowd of people with disparate tastes and nutritional needs to be mostly satisfied eating the same meal as everyone around them.  (Otherwise, family meals could be tense, each person in a land of plenty hungry only for something "different" or for the foods likely to contain those few nutrients that each individual finds is temporarily in short supply; otherwise, each person craves refined/distilled culinary drugs of choice like chocolate cake or Irish coffee.)

I think smells of cooked food should be heavily regulated in public.  Kitchens, public and private, should to be vented and smoke scrubbed of identifiable scent.  Obese people could sue restaurants who beckon them unfairly with escaping smells.

If heroin, cocaine, and marijuana were tasty, would society view them differently?  What if they were nutritious?

The following is taken from Terence McKenna's book, Food of the Gods:

The early importation of African slave labour into the New World was for one purpose only, to support an agricultural economy based on sugar.  The craze for sugar was so overwhelming that 1,000 years of Christian ethical conditioning had little impact.  An outbreak of human cruelty and bestiality of incredible proportions was blandly accepted by the institutes of polite society.

Sugar is entirely unnecessary to the human diet - it contributes nothing that cannot be gotten from some other, easily available source.  It is a "kick," nothing more.  Yet for this kick the dominator culture of Europe was willing to betray the ideals of the Enlightenment by its collusion with slave traders.  In 1800 virtually every ton of sugar imported into England had been produced with slave labour.

Sugar is culturally defined by us as a food.  This definition denies that sugar can act as a highly addictive drug, yet the evidence is around us.  Many children and compulsive eaters live in a motivational environment primarily ruled by mood swings resulting from cravings for sugar.  (However some people appear to crave fat at least as much as sugar, if not more.)

Sugar deepened its claim on consumers throughout the 16th century.  The 17th-century introduction of tea, coffee, and chocolate only drove the craze for sugar to new heights.

Irish coffee - containing as it does caffeine, alcohol, fat, and (generally) sugar - must be one of the most decadent drinks in existence!

It is extraordinary that in the relatively short span of two centuries four stimulants - sugar, tea, coffee, and chocolate - could have emerged out of local obscurity and become a basis for vast mercantile empires, defended by the greatest military powers ever known to that time and supported by the newly reintroduced practice of slavery.  Such is the power of "the cup that cheers, but not inebriates."

I think that people who have weak stomach acid are particularly attracted to the aroma and presentation of food.  They are easily made ill by bad food as their gastric acid is often not strong enough to kill all germs.  Cooking food helps insure its safety.  The food also needs to be "presented" - to look good because bad food has visual as well as olfactory cues.  On the other hand, people with "cast iron" stomachs may find cooking tedious, on some level not absolutely necessary because, unless their food is blue with mould or redolent of decay, it will do.  The aroma of cooking food overwhelms them, often causing them to overeat.  When opposites pair up, friction can result if accommodations can't be made.  Yet who puts "compatible strength of stomach acid" on their list of desirable characteristics in a mate?

A Life-Extending Coup: Flies That Can’t Smell Food Live 30% Longer

Researchers have found evidence that the wafting aroma of food has an effect on an organism’s lifespan and they’ve demonstrated that interfering with a fruit fly’s sense of smell causes it to live a longer, healthier life.  While there’s no guarantee that the trick would work for humans, optimistic researchers suggest that certain odors — or drugs that block us from sensing them — might one day help prevent disease and extend lives.

In the past decade, scientists have established a clear connection between extremely low-calorie diets and extended lifespans; studies have demonstrated that yeast, fruit flies, mice, and monkeys on these diets live longer than their peers.  While the exact mechanism at work isn’t yet clear, researchers suspect that a near-starvation diet causes an organism’s metabolism to slow down, and triggers other changes that evolved to help organisms survive in times when food was scarce.  Now scientists say it may not be just what a creature eats, but also what it smells that has an effect on how long it lives.

In one 2007 study, molecular biologist Scott Pletcher and his colleagues found that completely eliminating fruit flies’ sense of smell caused them to live nearly 20% longer than normal flies.  They also found that wafting the smell of yeast, a tasty treat for fruit flies, towards flies that were on a low-cal, live-extending diet hastened the death of those flies.  This led the scientist to hypothesise that specific odours might be influencing the flies’ lifespans.  Luckily, other scientists had identified a receptor in a group of neurons that enable fruit flies to smell carbon dioxide (CO2), which signals the presence of a good meal of tasty yeast.  So, Pletcher and his team set out to find if the CO2 had anything to do with the duration of the flies’ lives.

For the new study, Pletcher eliminated the fruit flies’ ability to smell CO2, while keeping the rest of the olfactory system intact.  Even on a standard, full-calorie diet, the flies that couldn’t detect CO2 lived up to 30% longer than other flies.  The researchers suggest that the absense of CO2 may have indicated to the altered flies that food was scarce in the environment, prompting them to snap into survival mode.  Oddly, however, the life-extending effect was only seen in female flies – male flies gained no such benefit.  The smell-deprived female flies also seemed healthier and stronger by several measures: they stored extra fat, produced more offspring, and proved to be more resistant to oxidative stress than normal flies.

Pletcher isn’t sure how the inability to smell CO2 extended the females’ lifespans, but he says the findings open up fascinating new areas for studies of human ageing.  He suggests that there might be certain smells or drugs that would block certain odours, and which could give humans a bit more time before we shuffle off our mortal coils.  Matt Karberlein, an ageing expert who wasn’t involved in Pletcher’s research, was cautiously optimistic about that possibility, saying: "We definitely undergo physiological changes in response to smelling food – I’m getting hungry just thinking about it – so I think it’s possible."

Source: via

The Human Recipe

by Richard Wrangham

Like people since even before Darwin, I used to think that human origins were explained by meat-eating.  But three epiphanies have changed my mind.  I now think that cooking was the major advance that made us human.

First, an improved fossil record has shown that meat-eating arose too early to explain human origins.  Significant meat-eating by our ancestors is initially attested in the pre-human world of 2.6 million years ago, when hominids began to flake stones into simple knives.  Around the same time there appears a fossil species variously called Australopithecus habilis or Homo habilis.  These habilis presumably made the stone knives, but they were not human.  They were Calibans, missing links with intricate mixture of advanced and primitive traits.  Their brains, being twice the size of ape brains, tell of incipient humanity: but as Bernard Wood has stressed, their chimpanzee-sized bodies, long arms, big guts and jutting faces made them ape-like.  Meat-eating likely explains the origin of habilis.

Humans emerged almost a million years later when habilis evolved into Homo erectus.  At 1.6 million years ago Homo erectus were the size and shape of people today.  Their brains were bigger than those of habilis, and they walked and ran as fluently as we do.  Their mouths were small and their teeth relatively dwarfed - a pygmy-faced hominoid, just like all later humans.  To judge from the reduced flaring of their rib-cage they had lost the capacious guts that allow great apes and habilis to eat large volumes of plant food.  Equally strange for a "helpless and defenceless" species they had also lost their climbing ability, forcing them to sleep on the ground - a surprising commitment in a continent full of big cats, sabretooths, hyenas, rhinos and elephants.

So the question of what made us human is the question of why a population of habilis became Homo erectus.  My second epiphany was a double insight: humans are biologically adapted to eating cooked diets, and the signs of this adaptation start with Homo erectus.  Cooked food is the signature feature of human diet.  It not only makes our food safe and easy to eat, but it also grants us large amounts of energy compared to a raw diet, obviating the need to ingest big meals.  Cooking softens food too, thereby making eating so speedy that as eaters of cooked food, we are granted many extra hours of free time every day.

So cooked food allows our guts, teeth and mouths to be small, while giving us abundant food energy and freeing our time.  Cooked food, of course, requires the control of fire; and a fire at night explains how Homo erectus dared sleep on the ground.

Cooked food has so many important biological effects that its adoption should be clearly marked in the fossil record by signals of a reduced digestive system and increased energy use.  While such signs are clear at the origin of Homo erectus, they are not found later in human evolution.  The match between the biological merits of cooked food and the evolutionary changes in Homo erectus is thus so obvious that except for a scientific obstacle, I believe it would have been noticed long ago.  The obstacle is the insistence of archaeologists that the control of fire is not firmly evidenced before about a quarter of a million years ago.  As a result of this archaeological caution, the idea that humans could have used fire before about 250,000 to 500,000 years ago has long been sidelined.

But I finally realised that the archaeological record decays so steadily that it gives us no information about when fire was first controlled.  The fire record is better at 10,000 years than at 20,000 years; at 50,000 years than 100,000 years; at 250,000 years than 500,000 years; and so on.  Evidence for the control of fire is always better when it is closer to the present, but during the course of human evolution it never completely goes away.  There is only one date beyond which no evidence for the control of fire has been found: 1.6 million years ago, around the time when Homo erectus evolved.  Between now and then, the erratic record tells us only one thing: the archaeological evidence is incapable of telling us when fire was first controlled.  The biological evidence is more helpful.  That was my third epiphany.

The origin of Homo erectus is too late for meat-eating; the adoption of cooking solves the problem; and archaeology does not gainsay it.  In a roast potato and a hunk of beef we have a new theory of what made us human.

Richard Wrangham is Professor of Biology and Anthropology, Harvard University.  He is coauthor (with Dale Peterson), of the book Demonic Males: Apes, and the Origins Of Human Violence

Source: The World Question Center 2008

See also:

bulletThe Sweet Taste of Beating the Sugar Habit (in the section on Lifestyles) - for a first-hand account of someone who perceives sugar as a drug.

Fast Food Is Addictive in Same Way as Drugs, Say Scientists


by Jeremy Laurance

Overeating might not be a simple matter of self-control.  Lovers of burgers, fries, fizzy drinks and other fast foods could be in the grip of an addiction similar to that experienced by users of hard drugs, scientists claim.

Bingeing on foods that are high in fat and sugar may cause changes in the brain that make it hard to say no.  By stimulating the brain's natural opioids, large doses of the foods can produce a high that is similar, though less intense, to that produced by heroin and cocaine, they say.  The claims are based on preliminary animal studies but are being cited by lawyers acting for overweight Americans, who in a class action against the fast food industry are seeking compensation for the cost of caring for obesity.  John Banzhaf, the lawyer who took on the tobacco companies and won, is leading the case.  The group includes Caesar Barber, aged 56, who has had two heart attacks and is diabetic.  He claims he ate in fast food restaurants for years without being warned of the health risks.

Mr Banzhaf says that to win he only has to convince a jury that fast food companies share the blame for Mr Barber's health problems.  "We might even discover that it's possible to become addicted to the all-American meal of burgers and fries," he told New Scientist.

John Hoebel, a psychologist at Princeton University, and colleagues showed that rats fed a diet containing 25% sugar developed withdrawal symptoms when the sugar was removed, including chattering teeth and shivering.  When the rats were given a dose of naloxone, a drug that blocks opioid receptors, the researchers noted a drop in dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of cells in the mid-brain linked with feelings of reward.  Writing in Obesity Research, he says this is the same pattern of neurochemical activity seen in heroin addicts going through withdrawal.  "Drugs give a bigger effect, but it's essentially the same process," he said.  Other scientists, including Ann Kelley, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin medical school, have observed similar changes in brain chemistry.

But Michael Jacobson, director of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, said there was little evidence to back the claims.  Jeanne Randolph, psychiatrist at the University of Toronto with an interest in obesity, said it was well known that eating fast food and sugary snacks stimulated a cycle of instant satiation followed by a plunge in blood sugar, which triggered desire for another snack.

Yesterday Professor James Griffith Edwards, editor of the scientific journal Addiction, said: "Whether a burger habit can be regarded as an addiction depends on how you define addiction.  The difference [between a habit and an addiction] is not a qualitative one but a quantitative one.  I am quite fond of dark chocolate but it is not going to destroy my life like a heroin addiction."

Jeremy Laurance is the health editor for the Independent

Source: The Independent [UK] 30 January 2003

Sugar Can Be Addictive, Princeton Scientist Says

Animal Studies Show Sugar Dependence

A Princeton University scientist has presented new evidence demonstrating that sugar can be an addictive substance, wielding its power over the brains of lab animals in a manner similar to many drugs of abuse.  Professor Bart Hoebel and his team in the Department of Psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute have been studying signs of sugar addiction in rats for years.  Until now, the rats under study have met 2 of the 3 elements of addiction: they have demonstrated a behavioural pattern of increased intake and then showed signs of withdrawal.  His current experiments captured craving and relapse to complete the picture.

"If bingeing on sugar is really a form of addiction, there should be long-lasting effects in the brains of sugar addicts," Hoebel said.  "Craving and relapse are critical components of addiction, and we have been able to demonstrate these behaviours in sugar-bingeing rats in a number of ways."  At the annual meeting of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology in Scottsdale, Arizona, Hoebel reported on profound behavioural changes in rats that, through experimental conditions, were trained dependent on high doses of sugar.  "We have the first set of comprehensive studies showing the strong suggestion of sugar addiction in rats and a mechanism that might underlie it," Hoebel said.  The findings eventually could have implications for the treatment of humans with eating disorders, he said.

Lab animals, in Hoebel's experiments, that were denied sugar for a prolonged period after learning to binge worked harder to get it when it was reintroduced to them.  They consumed more sugar than they ever had before, suggesting craving and relapse behaviour - their motivation for sugar had grown.  The rats drank more alcohol than normal after their sugar supply was cut off, showing that the bingeing behaviour forged changes in brain function, which functions served as "gateways" to other paths of destructive behaviour, such as increased alcohol intake.  And, after receiving a dose of amphetamine normally so minimal it has no effect, they became significantly hyperactive.  The increased sensitivity to the psychostimulant is a long-lasting brain effect that can be a component of addiction, Hoebel said.

The data is contained in a research paper submitted to The Journal of Nutrition.  Visiting researchers Nicole Avena, who earned her PhD from Princeton in 2006, and Pedro Rada from the University of Los Andes in Venezuela wrote the paper with Hoebel.  Hoebel has been interested in the brain mechanisms that control appetite and body weight since he was an undergraduate at Harvard University studying with the renowned behaviourist B F Skinner.  On the Princeton faculty since 1963, he has pioneered studies into the mental rewards of eating.  Over the past decade, Hoebel has led work that has now completed an animal model of sugar addiction.  Rats eating large amounts of sugar when hungry, a phenomenon he describes as sugar-bingeing, undergo neurochemical changes in the brain that appear to mimic those produced by cocaine, morphine and nicotine.

Hoebel and his team also have found that a chemical known as dopamine is released in a region of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens when hungry rats drink a sugar solution.  This chemical signal is thought to trigger motivation and, eventually with repetition, addiction.

The researchers conducted the studies by restricting rats of their food while the rats slept and for four hours after waking.  "It's a little bit like missing breakfast," Hoebel said.  "As a result, they quickly eat some chow and drink a lot of sugar water."  He added, "That's what is called binge eating - when you eat a lot all at once - in this case they are bingeing on a 10% sucrose solution, which is like a soft drink."  Hungry rats that binge on sugar provoke a surge of dopamine in their brains.  After a month, the structure of the brains of these rats adapts to increased dopamine levels, showing fewer of a certain type of dopamine receptor than they used to have and more opioid receptors.  These dopamine and opioid systems are involved in motivation and reward, systems that control wanting and liking something.  Similar changes also are seen in the brains of rats on cocaine and heroin.

In experiments, the researchers have been able to induce signs of withdrawal in the lab animals by taking away their sugar supply.  The rats' brain levels of dopamine dropped and, as a result, they exhibited anxiety as a sign of withdrawal.  The rats' teeth chattered, and the creatures were unwilling to venture forth into the open arm of their maze, preferring to stay in a tunnel area.  Normally rats like to explore their environment, but the rats in sugar withdrawal were too anxious to explore.

The findings are exciting, Hoebel said, but more research is needed to understand the implications for people.  The most obvious application for humans would be in the field of eating disorders.  "It seems possible that the brain adaptations and behavioural signs seen in rats may occur in some individuals with binge-eating disorder or bulimia," Hoebel said.  "Our work provides links between the traditionally defined substance-use disorders, such as drug addiction, and the development of abnormal desires for natural substances.  This knowledge might help us to devise new ways of diagnosing and treating addictions in people."

Source: 10 December 2008

Fat, Sugar "Addiction" Linked to Obesity

by Richard Macey

Scientists have found evidence that fat and sugar may be addictive, possibly explaining why many obese people just can't get enough junk food.  The area of the brain that moderates eating behaviour is influenced by the blood's level of leptin, a substance secreted by fat cells.  However, a study by a psychologist at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine has found that rats fed high-fat diets take only three days to lose their ability to respond to leptin.  "The fatter a person becomes, the more resistant they will be to the effects of leptin," Luciano Rossetti says in the February 1 issue of New Scientist.

The magazine reports that another researcher, Sarah Leibowitz, a neurobiologist at New York's Rockefeller University, found that the level of galanin, a substance that stimulates eating and curbs the body's use of energy, increases in the brains of rats that dine on even one fatty meal.  In another experiment, rats developed "the shakes" when taken off a sugar-rich diet, developing symptoms similar to people withdrawing from nicotine or morphine.  "The implication is that some animals - and, by extension, some people - can become overly dependent on sweet food," Dr Leibowitz said.

A University of Wisconsin neuroscientist has also reported that rats that overindulge show "long-lasting changes in their brain chemistry similar to those caused by extended use of morphine or heroin."  But Australian nutritionist Rosemary Stanton was not convinced yesterday.  "I need more proof; all this is based on rats," she said, suspecting eating problems had more to do with habit.  "You get into a habit of eating what you always want but you can change your eating habits."  Dr Stanton feared the findings could send the wrong message to the obese.  "People might think there is nothing they can do and will say, 'I might as well go and have three Big Macs'."

Andrew Byrne, a Sydney doctor who has worked with addicts for 15 years, warned that addiction was hard to define.  However, he said, if the symptoms of overeating included being unable to cut down, needing regular consumption, suffering an adverse reaction, feeling guilty and attracting the attention of others saying "you are fat", then food was addictive.  Both agreed that if fat and sugar were addictive, all fast food ingredients should be listed on the packaging.

Source: 31 January 2003

Cheese "Can Be as Addictive as Morphine"

An American doctor has claimed that cheese can be as addictive as morphine.  Dr Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine, says cheese is addictive because it contains small amounts of morphine from cows' liver.  In his book - Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings and Seven Steps to End Them Naturally - he explains why people are hooked on products like cheese, meat, sugar and chocolate.  He says: "There's a biochemical reason many of us feel we can't live without our daily fix.  Cheese, for example, contains high levels of casein, a protein that breaks apart during digestion to produce morphine-like opiate compounds, called casomorphins.  These opiates are believed to be responsible for the mother-infant bond that occurs during nursing.  It's no surprise many of us feel bonded to the refrigerator."

Dr Barnard says his research could help overweight people currently suing fast food restaurants, by proving the food is addictive like tobacco.  He has developed a 3-week diet and lifestyle program to help people kick their "addiction" by changing their eating habits, exercising and sleeping well.

Source: Friday 6 June 2003

Stand up and Slim Down, America!

by Jane Galt

We're a nation of fatties, and getting fatter.  At least, I am.  And so, to judge from the media reports, are the rest of you.  You're not just getting fatter, either; you're getting diabetes, heart trouble, and joint problems.  You're making your kids fat.  You're dragging down life expectancy for everyone, and won't that be embarrassing at the 2008 International Mortality Olympics in Leopoldsville?

Public health experts, and health journalists, are screaming that we need to do something about this!  But most of their ideas, like making television commercials telling us how fat we are, or getting the President to sit in on someone's 3rd grade gym class, don't seem very useful.  If nagging people to change their habits without enforceable consequence actually worked, well, just think how clean my room would be right now!

So what would work?  It's useful to look at the great public health success of the last 50 years: smoking.

In the 1960's, nearly 40% of adults smoked.  By 2000, that number had fallen to 23%.  (That's from an LA Times story that I accidentally forgot to bookmark and now can't find).  After plateauing in the early 1990s, smoking once again began to decline in the latter half of that decade.  The number of cigarettes smoked per day has been declining since the 1980s, again with a plateau and another sharp decline.

Smoking cessation seems to have had a number of big "pushes": the original studies, in the 1950s, linking smoking to lung cancer; the surgeon general's finding that smoking caused cancer in 1964; the warnings on cigarette packs; the division of the world into smoking and non-smoking sections in the 1970s and early 1980s; and the anti-tobacco lawsuits of the mid-to-late 1990s.  Now, of course, we have the effort to ban cigarettes in public places - a line of attack which is, to judge by my acquaintances, working.  It's just too much of a pain in the ass to be a smoker these days.  There is also the considerable stigma that began attaching to smokers in the mid-1990s, and the increasingly hefty taxes being imposed.

What lessons does this give us for designing, an, er "fattening cessation" programme?

bulletExperts telling people they're going to die doesn't work very well.  Smoking kept going up even after the link between smoking and lung cancer was announced.
bulletSocial stigma works moderately well, but only if you can involve the person's peer group.  A bunch of self-righteous wheat-germ eating yoga instructors telling people not to smoke didn't work.  Neither did sanctimonious lectures from teachers, doctors, or health-department-sponsored ads.
bulletSocial stigma has to be strong.  Telling people they were unhealthy had little effect.  Telling people they were filthy and disgusting, and refusing to kiss them, did.
bulletTaxes work.  Smoking seems to be dropping in New York City.  However, to work, taxes need to be very high; tax, and the cost of the tobacco settlement, now account for something like 90% of the price of a pack of cigarettes in New York City.  There is also high deadweight loss, and promotion of criminal activity, as people resort to smuggling.
bulletReminding people that their habit is unhealthy has, at best, a marginal effect.  Whenever I write about weight loss issues, I run into people who are astonished by how many calories common foods have.  This, despite the fact that that information is right there on the box.  They don't look at the nutrition information, or they don't realise what a serving size is, or in some other way have no idea what they're putting into their mouths.  And many who know (the seriously overweight, mostly veteran dieters, are experts at calorie counting) ignore what they know.
bulletLecturing people has, as far as anyone can tell, absolutely no effect at all.  This is true with drugs, with smoking, and of course, with eating.  Every so often you'll see a nice news story about some innovative anti-smoking or drug ad - the media is currently infatuated with commercials implying that rapacious tobacco companies are trying to get one over on kids.  (Fight the power, dude!)  What you won't see is any evidence that they actually reduce smoking, because as far as I can tell, there isn't any.  (The ads focus-group well.  Lesson #1 of marketing: everything focus-groups well.)
bulletMaking it difficult to indulge your habit publicly does work - if it can be done.  Prohibition illustrates how often it can't.

In other words: incentives matter.  If you want to get people to stop doing something (and I don't concede that that's a legitimate project for the government, but let's assume for the moment that it is), you need to make it very costly, in both money and other pleasures, to indulge.  If you want people to stop being fat, you need to make it expensive and unpleasant to be overweight.

How might we do this?  I'll tell you how we won't: public health advertising, "National Fitness Day", getting elected officials to badger their constituents or "set a good example", a 3ยข tax on soft drinks.

Here are things that would work, in my opinion:

Make discrimination against the overweight not only legal, but mandatory

Encourage health and life insurance companies to jack up their premiums.  Make seats in public accommodations, from stadiums to subways, physically impossible for the obese to fit in.  Force airlines to charge them for an extra seat.

Also, get their peers to be mean to them.  It's no coincidence that the subcultures in which fat is most stigmatised - the white upper middle class ones - are also the ones in which obesity is least prevalent.  Don't pay for public health announcements; pay sitcoms to make cruel jokes at the expense of overweight characters, who should all be written as lazy and stupid.  Any scenes involving food should show the overweight characters as revolting gluttons, with food running out of their mouths and down their shirts as the other people in the room watch in stunned horror.

Make unhealthy food extremely expensive

We're not talking about some measly 1%, 5%, or even 50% tax.  If you want people to cut down on unhealthy eating, you need to usher in the era of the $5 can of soda, the $10 Big Mac.  I'd guess that an increase in the price of fatty and/or sugary food somewhere on the order of 5- to 10-fold would be the minimum effective tax.

Make being sedentary even more expensive

Slap a 50% tax on automobiles, a 500% tax on power lawnmowers.  Limit elevators to buildings of 5 stories or more, and force them to stop only at every other floor.  Give tax credits for "heart healthy buildings": ones with no elevators, and parking at least 1/4 mile away.  (Obviously, I assume there would be an elevator - small and slow! - for the disabled.)  Slap a 300% surcharge on cable or satellite television, and an additional Britain-style TV tax besides.  Jack up the cost of broadband, video games, and mp3 players.  Subsidise sports leagues and parks.

Would all this work?  I think it probably would.  If it becomes even more difficult to be fat, I assume people will do less of it.

How insensitive I am!  Me, with the lanky frame and the 19.5 BMI!  Don't I realise that if fat people could stop being fat, they would?

Look, I do understand that there are probably all sorts of genetic and metabolic and environmental reasons that I am not fat, and other people are.  I don't think overweight people are lazy, or bad, or less strong-willed than I; I assume that their hunger signal must be, for whatever reason, much more insistent than mine is, and also, that they probably didn't grow up with quite the morbid fear of fat that pervades the private schools of New York.

But the number of fat people has gone up dramatically in the past 50 years, and the number of fat children is skyrocketing.  Did we undergo some massive change in our genes?  No, we underwent a massive change in our environment: cheaper food, less activity.  If we change that environment to a less fat-friendly one, I assume that the number of fat people will also change.  But it's ridiculous to even contemplate, because unlike smokers, fat people are not a shrinking minority; they're a growing majority.  They are us.  And we are not going to pass laws making our lives harder, even if many of these suggestions weren't a gross affront to liberty.

But given that we're not going to do what works, I don't see why we should waste time and money doing what doesn't.

Source: 31 March 2005

See also:

bulletFat City (in the Lifestyles section) - for some facts on figures...

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