Why are we getting so fat?

July 13, 2009 | By | 17 Replies More

Why are we getting so fat?  Elizabeth Kolbert answers that question in many ways in her article, “XXXL” in the New Yorker.   Her answers come from the several new books on obesity that she reviews in her article.  Here are some of her observations:

– We have evolved a “taste for foods that are high in calories and easy to digest; just as it is natural for gorillas to love leaves, it is natural for people to love funnel cakes.”

Image by Willie Lunchmeat at Flickr (creative commons)

Image by Willie Lunchmeat at Flickr (creative commons)

-The only place pre-modern humans had to store energy “was on themselves. Body fat is energy-rich and at the same time lightweight”  and “a person with a genetic knack for storing fat would have had a competitive advantage.”

It is too easy to eat high calorie food in the modern U.S.   “We evolved on the savannahs of Africa,” Power and Schulkin write. “We now live in Candyland.”

Or, consider David Kessler’s approach, that are the victims of “eatertainment”:

In “The End of Overeating” (Rodale; $25.95), David A. Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, takes a somewhat darker view of the situation. It’s not that sweet and oily foods have become less expensive; it’s that they’ve been reëngineered.

-There’s bigger problems.  We eat too much because we are oblivious to how much we are eating:

Brian Wansink’s “Mindless Eating” (2006).  They have no idea how much they want to eat or, once they have eaten, how much they’ve consumed. Instead, they rely on external cues, like portion size, to tell them when to stop. The result is that as French-fry bags get bigger, so, too, do French-fry eaters.

-Kolbert points out that bagels have grown by 210 calories over the past couple of decades:

For someone who is in the habit of eating a bagel a day, these extra calories translate into a weight gain of more than a pound a month.

Who is gaining the most weight? “Those living just above the poverty level.”

What are the documented medical risks for being obese?

Type 2 diabetes, coronary disease, hypertension, various kinds of cancers—including colorectal and endometrial—gallstones, and osteoarthritis are just some of the conditions that have been linked to excess weight.

Kolbert’s article is an excellent review of much recent research focusing on the causes of obesity and potential solutions.


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Category: Food, Health

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (17)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I had to give up caffeine recently because it increased insulin resistance and weight gain. Although this was suspected as early as 2005, the research was dismissed as quackery because common knowledge held that caffeine was good for losing weight.

    Recent reputable <a>research confirms that caffeine increases glucose levels even in non-diabetics for extended times.

  2. Erika Price says:

    All good ideas, but the activity level side of the issue is also very important. One of my favorite theories is that suburban sprawl has pushed people into their cars and homes, and out of a lively and healthy lifestyle (an example of such research is the abstract here).

    I also tend to have less dreary feelings about the environment that pushes us to be fat, because a mindful person really can "cheat" the system. I hear many people complain about their size and poor health, but I don't see them truly caring about it. If someone really wants to stave off obesity, they can walk or bike small trips instead of relying on their cars. If someone really wants to stay trim, they can opt not to fill their homes with unhealthful groceries.

    There are many bright, blinking temptations to be unhealthy, but that does not mean healthier options don't exist, sitting quietly in their shadows. I think one of the main behavioral problems is that people don't take the effort to research and change the many factors that influence their health. People place no effort into learning or thinking about many vital things- from personal finance to current events, to science or technology. Health is just another ball dropped, another responsibility that people choose to let wash over them. Health is thus made a mere function of the times instead of the product of variables that people really can influence.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Erika: After reading your comment, I realized that the New Yorker article had very little to say about activity. I also just finished reading "Causes and control of excess body fat" in the May 21, 2009 issue of Nature, which also downplays environment ("Lifestyle or environment is probably a necessary but insufficient factor in obesity." The author, Jeffrey Friedman, goes on to say that "the balance between energy intake and output is largely controlled by a powerful, unconscious biological system."

      A lot of scientists seem to be focusing on factors within their expertise, downplaying lifestyle. It reminds me of that old joke about a guy looking for his lost car keys under the streetlamp, even though he lost them elsewhere.

      I agree that our suburban lifestyle is toxic. Building even a bit of exercise into each day can offset a bit too much food, which can mean a lot in the long run. For instance, take the bagel example from this post. Eating a modern big bagel each day instead of a old-fashioned little bagel can cause you to add 210 calories each day, which amounts to 12 added pounds in one year. But what if you exercise enough to burn off 210 calories each day by taking a brisk walk? http://www.webmd.com/diet/healthtool-calorie-coun… If you weigh 170 and you briskly walk 30 minutes, you've burned off 225 calories–more than break even.

      Stretch it out over 5 years. Just by eating those big bagels, you would gain SIXTY pounds without exercise. With the exercise, you'd lose a few pounds. Immense difference.

      I know many people who start a program to lose weight who want to keep eating too much but exercise it off. It never works, because it's just too damned easy to put things in your cake-hole, and it takes too much work to burn it off. For those of us who are eating just a bit too much, though, the suburban life strapped into our cars can, indeed, make us obese.

  3. Kim says:

    For another perspective, I highly recommend the video/documentary Fat Head by Tom Naughton (http://www.fathead-movie.com/), or for the more prolific reader, Good Calories bar Calories by Gary Taubes. I personally think both hit the nail on the head, but at minimum, they explore the likelihood that our current nutritional guidelines are based on faulty studies, and additional (solid) research is needed.

  4. Activity, ah! But it's so HARD!!!

    I went off on a roomful of people once at a convention after having received a few snarky comments about my muscles (which at the time were larger and more defined than now, but this was several years ago). I asked a few simple questions about their exercise habits and almost all of them claimed to have "No time" to do that.

    "Look," I said, "there are 168 hours in a week. You need 56 to sleep, 40 to 50 to go to work. That leaves 62 hours in which to do everything else that you do. I work out between 4 and 5 hours a week. Which leaves me 47 or 48 hours for EVERYTHING ELSE! Now you're going to tell me you can't manage your time sufficiently that you can't do what I do? Bullshit!"

    Now, to be fair, some people really don't have the time, but by and large those folks also don't really have the time to overeat either. Exceptions can be found all over the place, but for the most part the fact is the habit of exercise has been replaced by the habit of weariness. Stress and related factors make us tired. We don't feel like doing anything. Eating certain kinds of foods provide a buoying effect and make us feel better…for a while. Regular exercise will also release certain endorphins that will make us feel good, if we stick to it, and over time the results will also kick in an added feel-good—but establishing the habit is HARD and bitching about not having the time is EASY.

    Nevertheless, a good number of overweight people have found mental strategies for doing nothing about it, almost to the point where they feel good about feeling bad.

  5. Niklasu Pfirsig says:

    Erika, when I was in college, I rode a bike everywhere. I also ate 2 meals daily instead of three. This kept me at my ideal weight of 160 (although probably 5 pounds of that was hair). After leaving school, my job didn't permit as much time for exercise an also put me on the three squares daily meal schedule. I quickly blimped out to 320 and it was very difficult, but I managed to get it back down to 210.

    Exercise has other benefits than simply burning fat. The metabolites ( byproducts of metabolism) interact an many ways with the body to control hunger and enhance overall health. But the chemical laden foods we have often interfere with the natural processes that have evolved over millennia and we can't compensate.

    A few years ago, after a brief illness resulting from tainted food, I developed type 2 diabetes. Now I check my blood sugar and use a calculator to determine how much food I can eat fo a meal. However, due to some injuries, over the past year, which has reduced my activity level, my weight has increased. It turns out that some of this was due to a diabetic drug I was taking (which was pulled from the market). So I suspect that much of the chemicals in the food supply disrupts the body's regulatory chemistry in various ways.

  6. tmol says:

    "Eating a modern big bagel each day instead of a old-fashioned little bagel can cause you to add 210 calories each day, which amounts to 12 added pounds in one year."

    Check your math.

    210 cal/day x 365 days/year = 76,650 calories/year.

    If 3,000 calories = 1 pound, then:

    76,650/3,000 = 25.5 pounds gained in one year from daily eating a large bagel instead of a small bagel.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      TMOL: I was using the math found in the article. Thanks for double checking. Sounds like the consequences of eating big bagels are far worse than suggested.

      I found some of the other research intriguing. For instance, we seem to decide how much to eat based on "servings" rather than calories or even amount of food. Make the bagel twice as big and we still reach for the whole thing rather than cutting it in half. This is the "supersize" effect that has people still eating one sandwich, one bag of fries and one drink at the fast food joint, but they are all gigantic and the customers get huge.

      My wife and I have found that we can have plenty to eat at a restaurant if we order one entree and split it. It took Anne to suggest that to me, however. I would have mindlessly gone on ordering a full entree for myself and then mindlessly eating most of it, then wondering why I gained 15 pounds in the past year.

  7. Niklaus Pfirsig says:


    As a diabetic, I was trained to use a system called carb counting. This is much simpler than calorie counting and starts with meals of 45 to 75 grams of carbohydrates divided up into 15 carb servings. Since carbs are listed on most packaged food, and a free Palm app and database is available from the USDA that can be used to determine the carbs in servings of meats, produce and home cooked meals, it becomes a matter of learning to estimate the amount of food that will keep you going to the next mealtime with a targeted glucose level.

    My family eats out twice monthly, and I often find the restaurant portions too large. Usually I eat half and get a carryout tray for the rest to take as lunch the next day.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Niklaus: My understanding is that there are good carbs and bad carbs. The good carbs are whole grains, which contain lots of fiber and are slow to digest. The bad carbs are refined carbs (white bread, potatoes, most pasta, cake, donuts, cookies) which are digested quickly, giving you a sugar spike followed rapidly by an insulin spike, followed too soon by a sensation that one is hungry when one really isn't–it's just that the refined carbs got you going on a sugar/insulin yo-yo.

      I just lost 15 pounds in 8 weeks. I avoided most refined carbs and I ate a LOT of whole grains.

      I'm curious whether your method distinguishes between refined carbs and whole grains (which are also carbs)?

  8. Erika Price says:

    As per the bagel example in the post: I think a person who actually pays attention to their body would be able to adjust to the increase in calories- they would feel less hungry after an increased meal.

    One of the somewhat silly beliefs I have without solid evidence is that The Body is a Self-Regulating System. If a person pays attention to their body and eats only when they are hungry, as opposed to eating for fun or at set meal times, then they can adjust to an overlarge meal (or big bagel). If a person further listens to their body, they will notice feelings of sluggishness and will exercise, they will notice stress and find a way to remove and re-charge, they will notice sleepiness and get the hours they need.

    This process of adjusting to what the body needs is thrown off by inflexible schedules and social mores that tell us to eat even when we aren't hungry, to power through work when we can't handle it, and to ignore vital bodily functions for other obligations. But as per my silly little Belief in the Human Body as Self Regulator, I have silly Faith that a person can shake themselves from a routine and learn to take care of their bodily needs.

  9. Derek says:

    I agree with several of the points. The most prominent one being the one on serving size. Very few take the time to realize how many calories are in each serving they eat. I also think everyone eats too fast, eat slower. It takes your body a little while to register that you're actually full.

    As for the comment on caffeine, it can be used just fine for losing weight. The problem is controlling your food intake, not the caffeine. If you use it properly it can aid in losing weight. In particular combining it with ephedrine and aspirin will aid in weight loss, and there hasn't been any association with cardio-vascular problems as a result of the combination. [1] [2]

    [1] http://www.neurology.org/cgi/content/abstract/60/
    [2] http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstrac

  10. Niklaus Pfirsig says:


    There are three categories of carbs: Sugars, starches and fats. I wouldn't say there are good and bad carbs, it would be more accurate the call them better and worse carbs. The difference is not one of whole wheat vs bleached flour but determined by how quicly it is digested. Finely ground whole wheat is as bad as finely ground bleach flour, stone ground flour digests slower and is better.

    The impact of pasta depends on how its cooked. Al dente pasta is digested at a slower rate than soft pasta and canned pasta (which is very soft) is nearly as bad as sugar.

    Fiber is really great because it binds to saturated fats and prevents them from being digested.

    Basically sugars enter the bloodstream almost instantly, starches take longer to convert to sugar and fats take the longest to raise blood glucose. ON the other hand, fats have 3 times the carb density of sugar, and starch has twice the carb density. The idea is to attempt to balance the three carb type in a manner that moderates the blood glucose levels as much as possible.


    I agree that the body can self-regulate if you eat only when you're hungry and only what you are hungry for. However, a lot of food additives interfere with this natural feedback mechanism and can cause us to crave food when we don't need it.


    Caffeine is a stimulant, diuretic and an anti-inflammatory agent. Combine with ephedrine (another stimulant), and aspirin (another anti-inflammatory) will cause temporary weight loss by reducing water retention. Caffeine is also addictive, requiring more to maintain its effects as time goes by.

    These effects, coupled with the increase of insulin resistance means that when it wears off, a person will be exceptionally hungry and more likely to over eat, as the insulin resistance lasts for several hours longer than the stimulant effects.

    Most importantly, caffeine doe not increase ketosis.

  11. Derek says:


    The ephedrine acts as an appetite suppressant, though I can't find any papers on medline describing the metabolic action. The aspirin theory has been dropped as of late, I hadn't kept up to date on the so called ECA stack, which has been replaced with Vitamin E as a blood thinner.

  12. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    Derek, You can find info about ephedrine here.

  13. Tony Coyle says:

    I read a very interesting article in New Scientist this morning The calorie delusion: Why food labels are wrong

    A brief summary: Atwater, 1 19th century chemist, used a very simplistic method to determine the energy in food (burn the food, and subtract an estimate of the energy remaining in urine & faces – the net is the caloric value of the food).

    This is a reasonable approximation, and when the majority of foods were in a natural state it worked reasonably well.

    The problem is that most foods today are processed – reducing their 'complexity' and making them significantly easier to digest than the raw equivalents. Even something as simple and natural as a carrot: cooking reduces the structural integrity of the proteins, starches, and other constituents, making them more digestible, and increasing the energy extracted per gram.

    In a study published in 2003, for example, a team led by Kyoko Oka at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, investigated the effect of food texture on weight gain. They fed one group of rats their usual hard food pellets, while a second group received a softer version. Both pellets had exactly the same calorie content and flavour. The only difference was that softer ones were easier to chew. After 22 weeks, the rats on the soft food diet were obese and had more abdominal fat. "Food texture might be as important a factor for preventing obesity as taste or food nutrients," Oka and his colleagues concluded

    What this means is that we need to be aware of the reality of what we eat: if something seems easily digestible, more of it's energy will be directly usable by the body (net higher calories than an equivalent food that is less immediately digestible).

    So watch not just the calories, but the source of the calories – complex is good.

  14. rosa says:

    nothing I read in that article has any proof to her statements they are based from what I can tell on observational study prejudices and myths.

    people don't mindlessly eat, that is absurbed, that is like saying people are oblivous to how much they are drinking or breathing and should be aware of so they don't breath or drink to much water.

    people are obese because they are malnorished. there bodies are protecting themselves from this malnorishement via fat. those who can't get fat due to genetics are the ones who suffer the consequences of malnorishement first. such as type 2. people don't get enough sunshine, for vita d due to sunscreen and fear mongering by the same industry, people are afraid of saturate fats in whole milk real butter etc, hence they can't absorb the calcium and vita d they need as well as other fat soluable vitamins. they don't take in enough dietary cholesterol that is healthy to make the vita d in their skin.

    read the article called "the obesity epidemic is metabolic syndrome a nutritional defeicency" google that title also your could google stephanie seneff, read several of her obesity articles.

    also read the website how to be naturally thin by eating more by jean antenello,watch out for her advice on fat she wrote this book many years ago when fat was maligned more than it is now.

    many recommend the book good caloires bad caloires, he seems from what I can tell to have alot of good data. another good site is dr hymen, his book I have is called ultrametabolism, he has alot of good data that makes alot more sense to me then lack of willpower or mindless eating or eating more, simply because it is there, watch his low fat manta too, he still is stuck in the fat is bad mantra, but everything else is good, .

    I never finish my meals at resturants simply because I get full and just take it home for later, which later never comes my thin hubby eats it before I get hungry again. so people eating simply because it is there is absurd, they are eating past fullness because they are still hungry pure and simple.

    they have become chronically malnorished for certain phytonutrients, vita and minerals especially. adipose tissue is not jsut a storage cell it is active sending out signals of hunger satiaty, tells muscles to burn fat, hoards fat soluable vitamins and minerals when dietary sources are minimal, preventing the other cells from having enough ot them. they recycle damage cholesterol, store cholesterol for cells to use later, also fat acts as a buffer against excess glucose when your gluocose intolerant. it does alot more than this.

    the articles by stephanie seneff explains in detail how all this works. she has several to read for free.

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