TwinkiesAhh, breakfast.Photo: Elana’s PantryThe USDA released a new set of dietary guidelines this week and the updated guidelines were enough to put nutritionist Marion Nestle in “shock”:

I never would have believed they could pull this off.  The new guidelines recognize that obesity is the number one public health nutrition problem in America and actually give good advice about what to do about it: eat less and eat better. For the first time, the guidelines make it clear that eating less is as priority.

She did criticize the guidelines for talking about “food” when it came to things you needed more of (such as vegetables) and “nutrients” when it was time to talk about cutting back (less saturated fat instead of less meat).

But to be honest, I don’t really want to talk about the dietary guidelines. As important as they are — they are central to school lunch menu creation, for example — they are just guidelines and don’t exactly have the force of law.

In fact, two recent studies suggest the causes of the obesity epidemic are so pervasive and so deeply intertwined with our advanced industrialized way of life, that we’ll really need to “go long” if we’re to have any hope of addressing it.

The first study out of Oxford University, which appeared in the journal Economics & Human Biology, suggests that the root cause of obesity can be summed thusly: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Researchers found a relationship between living in “free market” countries such as the United States and obesity, likely due to the experience of prolonged economic stress (via ScienceDaily):

The researchers believe that the stress of living in a competitive social system without a strong welfare state could be causing people to overeat. According to the study published in the latest issue of the journal Economics and Human Biology, Americans and Britons are much more likely to be obese than Norwegians and Swedes.

Interestingly, the researchers were able to separate out the effect of junk food availability on people’s eating habits and measure that against economic stress. They found that economic stress was a greater contributing factor to obesity than the fact that so many cheap, nutrient-poor calories are available to consumers. Lead author Avner Offer commented:

Policies to reduce levels of obesity tend to focus on encouraging people to look after themselves but this study suggests that obesity has larger social causes. The onset and increase of large-scale obesity began during the 1980s, and coincided with the rise of market-liberalism in the English-speaking countries.

It may be that the economic benefits of flexible and open markets come at a price to personal and public health which is rarely taken into account. Basically, our hypothesis is that market-liberal reforms have stimulated competition in both the work environment and in what we consume, and this has undermined personal stability and security.

Tom Philpott and I have both written about the role of wage stagnation in the obesity epidemic. And now, we learn that it may be our economic system itself that’s to blame. It’s already established that economic stress can cause poor health — so why not obesity as well.

The second study, also from Britain — this time, University College London — and published in Obesity Reviews, found a relationship between the obesity epidemic and the global North’s love of central heating. It turns out that we’ve reduced our exposure to “thermal stress,” especially to cold during winter, and as a result, spend fewer calories on maintaining our body temps. Indeed, it has even changed the balance of different kinds of fat in our bodies (“brown fat” is burned for energy and cold exposure encourages its formation while more permanent “white fat” forms at higher temperatures).

While turning down the heat is certainly not an “answer” to the obesity epidemic, nor is making the United States into a European-style welfare state in the cards, we do need to get our arms around the breadth of the challenge before us. Admitting we have a problem with our economic system would be a good start.