From an interesting article in Slate:

… we’re getting fat. Not just the United States or Europe, but the whole world. Egyptian, Mexican, and South African women are now as fat as Americans. Far more Filipino adults are now overweight than underweight. In China, one in five adults is too heavy, and the rate of overweight in children is 28 times higher than it was two decades ago. In Thailand, Kuwait, and Tunisia, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are soaring.

My oldest daughter spent last summer in Paraguay and was fed beef all day long. She could hardly find a green vegetable. She also learned that there are a lot of overweight Paraguayans.

I could be wrong, but I suspect that if McDonalds disappeared tomorrow, we would continue to be overweight. Very few people in the rest of the world with obesity problems can attribute it to fast food restaurants — even though the author insinuates otherwise when he tells us that half of McDonald’s business is overseas. Which means that since half of the McDonalds outlets here in the US serve 0.3 billion people, the other half serves 6.3 billion.

People are managing to get heavy without fast food restaurants. Blaming them for our obesity dilemma may be misdirected. Just last night I helped my daughter do an extra credit assignment for math. She told me that her teacher hates McDonalds and the assignment was to calculate how many times the number of hamburgers sold would wrap around the earth laid end to end. She got a bun out of the freezer and measured it. Her final number was 591 times.

Here is a quote that also does not sit well with me:

Nature isn’t killing us. We’re killing ourselves.

Actually, nature is killing us. We are all heading for death. We will all die. The latest studies suggest that being overweight, although clearly a health problem, is not having much impact on average lifespans. Quality of life is a point of contention. Do you eat what you want and accept the obesity and other health downsides? Apparently that is the decision a lot of people are making. Everyone knows fast food meals are high in fat and calories. Everyone knows they should eat less and exercise more.

I think it is unlikely in a world of abundant food that we will ever get it just right. Being overweight is the lesser of two evils compared to malnutrition (slow starvation). As long as high-fat food remains abundant and inexpensive, and sedentary lifestyles remain the norm, there will be excess obesity. If this trend were to hold for hundreds of years, selective pressures would allow us to adjust. We would, of course, starve in a hurry in a famine.

And if the world flips into one of scarcity thanks to the combination of 10 billion people, demand for biofuels and crop losses from global warming, selection will begin to reverse itself in a hurry. And it can (read The Beak of the Finch). Then there was this comment:

The answer to these trends is simple. We have to exercise more and change the food we eat, donate, and subsidize.

Phht. There is nothing simple about this dilemma. I stopped to look at the line at a food bank a few weeks back because there was a mom and her two kids standing in it along with the usual heartrending assortment of addicted and mentally ill street people.

I don’t know if there were any fruits or vegetables available, but I think a mom trying to feed her kids at a food bank is likely to shoot for fat and protein over a salad, even if it is available, in part because her kids wouldn’t eat it. My youngest still won’t eat a salad. Most kids seem to have an aversion to greens, or am I imagining that?

Some have tried to explain it as an instinct to protect them from eating harmful plants until they are old enough to know which ones are safe (it isn’t my hypothesis and it sounds pretty iffy to me).

I draw these conclusions from my own childhood in poverty. Admittedly, it is only one data point, so take my thoughts for what they are worth, statistically. My mother stocked our fridge with whole milk and vanilla ice cream. Our cabinets were stocked with peanut butter, crackers, cans of “vitamin-fortified” imitation fruit juice and dry breakfast cereal (vitamin-fortified Total and Life). And, because she supported us with a minimum wage job at a bakery, she supplemented this with day-old donuts, which she got for free. I shared this food with my five siblings without a concern. We were kids and kids don’t know any better.

There was a method to her madness. We were for the most part left to fend for ourselves and could make our own meals. Milk and ice cream are high in calcium and protein. The fruit juice was to add vitamin C to the mix. The breakfast cereals are to this day touted as being fortified and gave us grains. Peanut butter (on crackers) is also full of protein and most importantly, dirt-cheap.

I recall coming up short on food only once, for just short of two days. Being an adolescent eating machine at the time, it was more unpleasant than I would ever have thought and the memory is crystal-clear. At least now I know what it really feels like to go to bed hungry.

To this day, my favorite meal is a tube of saltines, a jar of peanut butter, and a glass of milk. Food is more of a fuel for me, less a source of pleasure. It is that way for my immediate family and my siblings as well. Our family meals tend to be light and sporadic. We just are not into food much. I often don’t eat anything until mid-afternoon because that seems to be when I really start to get hungry. Just about anything tastes good when you are good and hungry.

Human beings clearly have not evolved to eat three squares a day. Our regimented lives have got us eating on a schedule rather than eating when we are hungry. Given a little time, our Pavlovian reflexes tend to make us hungry on a schedule, but if you could break the pattern long enough you would find like I have that you don’t get hungry at 7:00, 12:00, and 6:00. You get hungry when you get hungry. I am capable of gaining weight. For some reason I gained 40 pounds along with my wife during her first pregnancy. That was weird.

We should not lose sight of the fact that obesity is not just a matter of what we eat. It is also a matter of how much, how often, and how active we are. What constitutes a healthy diet depends a lot on our genes. Today, the gene pool is being thrown into a blender. I have a mix of Native American, African, Irish, English, and German (and those are just the ones I know of). The Eskimos lived healthy lives eating practically nothing but meat and blubber. They were adapted to it. The genes that allow me to digest lactose after my nursing years are testament to my pastorialist ancestors. My propensity to get skin cancer, to my northern European ones. My tolerance for alcohol is thanks to my wine (and possibly manioc beer) swilling ancestors. I raise this glass of wine to you!