Thinking Unconstrained

Examining the world with a critical eye. Topics span a wide range including but not limited to, observations, insights, problems, solutions, proposals, and hypothetical scenarios.
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By Candideto
It used to be in the not so distant past, I would say about up to twenty years ago at around the turn of the millennium, that being fat was considered an insult and a characteristic flaw. The premise being that through the person's own fault, whether that's lack of discipline to control the quantity of food ingested (gluttony) or the lack of will to exercise (sloth), the afflicted person must be forced to recognize his personal inadequacies. To galvanize this view, there was and continues to be a culturally systematic vilification process called "fat-shaming", which is used to ridicule the person in the hopes of spurring them to take action in losing their excess weight. While this might sound like an acceptable reasoning to someone who has no weight problems or shedding excess weight, it is deeply flawed to apply such a perspective to someone who has this problem. Why is it deeply flawed? To adequately tackle this question, it's important to first take a step back and review the possible causes and observable instances of the endemic obesity that has become such a common sight in our current society. Below I propose a theory regarding the machinations of the widespread weight gain.

The first clue to unravel this mystery is in our media records. Specifically, films of non-agrarian populations through the latter half of the 20th century. By visually inspecting these people, we can observe an inflection point where people on average were, by our current standards, 'thin', and then started appearing slightly heavier (our equivalent of 'healthy'). This inflection point appears to be roughly around the 1970's in the US. It is worth noting that the US was the first country to recognize the growing incidents of obesity and overweight individuals in society. In fact they were often the objects of ridicule for having the fattest population, before obesity and overweightedness started appearing in other western nations. The super obese, as characterized as people who are physically immobile due to large amounts of body fat, started appearing in the 1980's in the US. The 1990's media shows many children who are overweight. An average person on the street as shown from the same media sources is also visibly overweight, although the baggy clothing fashion of the time sometimes makes it difficult to tell. The chins and the guts however are difficult to hide. A pattern emerges when considering this linear progression... Something happened in the 1970's (at least observable) in the US, that spurred this widespread weight gaining tendencies. Let us for now shelve this observation and examine some of the other clues.

The second clue we have is the increased rate of overweighteness and significantly higher occurrences of diabetes among children. As already stated, this pattern appears to arise in the 1990's in the US, possibly slightly before in the 1980's. We can theorize on two broad categories of sources - one due to environmental factors and another on genetic factors. If one was to make a case for the genetic causes of overweightedness and diabetes, the genetic makeup of the parents and the genetic makeup of the children would need to be studied. Possibly a mutation or a set of genetic markers for increased weight gain would be investigated. I would imagine that such studies could show that these children were predisposed to weight gain due to genes expressed in a certain way that allowed this to happen. The conclusion might even argue that such genes are necessary in nature for populations that experience famines. The cause might be due to something that affected the parents and in turn which inadvertently produced the result in the child. Therefore it is a second order effect due to something that took place in the parents in the 1980's and the 1990's. If on the other hand environmental causes were investigated, one could say that there was something directly introduced to the children in the 1980's and the 1990's as a first order effect. Both arguments have merit and in fact both can be true, as first order and second order effects can both contribute to the underlying result. Let us look at the third clue.

Widespread overweightedness, though originally only observable in the Unites States, became commonplace in other western nations in later decades. The phenomena however was not uniform across populations in Europe, likely due to differing habits, genetics, culinary preferences and other varying influences of the underlying cause(s). But if I was start from somewhere and perhaps pick a straw-man example, one notable nation with this problem would be the UK. Lack of access to medical records forces me to consider only visual inspection of film records similar to how it was done for clue #1. However it would be prudent for anyone interested in this topic to correlate medical records and look for patterns in weight, waist size, and other chronic diseases such as diabetes. My observations show that the overweight problem began in the 1990's for the UK. The incidents of beer-bellies and bad diet before this point had already existed in the population. But the overweight pattern was not observable in populations that did not have such habits, until this point in time. Therefore we can surmise that there was an external stimulus that either introduced the same underlying causes affecting the US population, or that caused a different set of effects that had the same result as the US population.

So what can be said when combining these clues? A possible linear narrative is that there was a fundamental cause arising in the 1970's in the US that broadly impacted large segments of society. This caused the next generation of people in the 1980's and 1990's to have weight problems at an earlier age. The effects as observed in the 1970's US population became visible in the UK population in the 1990's presumably due to the same underlying causes. Therefore the question to solving this mystery is in pinpointing the impetus that spurred this chain of events in the 1970's in the US.
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By Sybilla
Strictly speaking of diet, each decade moved away from home cooking using fresh ingredients and moved closer to preferring prepackaged and processed foods. The microwave oven and "TV dinners" for example were very popular in the 1980's. Breakfast cereals caked with processed sugars were considered normal and was consumed by every child often several times a day while watching cartoons in the mornings. The mindless consumption of high sugar and high fat foods while watching television could easily explain why people started being so large and diabetic. People also started to consume fast foods regularly. Pizzas, fried chickens, burgers and fries, complemented by super-sweet sodas were all very popular during this time. So the environment and eating habits in the 1980's was ripe for creating the type of health problems that we observe now. It could be that the early incarnations of this type of diet was present in the 1970's in the US and that is why films show heavier people back then.

Since the US was a pioneer of this type of lifestyle and was looked on as an example for the rest of the western world, maybe the habits were exported to Europe in the 1980's and 1990's. I'm sure if the pattern of popularizing breakfast cereals and McDonald's were tracked against the cases of diabetic and overweight individuals, then you'll be able to see an obvious correlation. In fact, this viewpoint is recognized now by everyone in health fields and therefore artificially sugary and fatty foods are no longer supported as regular diet.

Not only that, but I think American food portions were also popularized in Europe (for the sake of argument, let's for the moment disregard the gastronomy cultures who generally shun fast foods). Restaurants in general have larger portions than ever before and they're also packed with artificial sugars and fats. By contrast in Japan for example, fast foods and sodas are popular but their portions are much smaller. This population does not have as many cases of diabetics and overweight people (aside from Sumo wrestlers but they're athletes full of muscle and actually eat large amounts of healthy foods). Since Japanese food in general is low in sugar and fat, this could explain why the overall trend is curbed in this society. Thus the calorific intake is another important factor to consider.
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By G.I. Bergstein
People were generally more active in the "auld days", purely out of necessity. The types of jobs available required manual labor and commutes. Even working in an office required you to get up and move around to fetch and deliver things or to talk to people. Even operating a heavy brick phone several dozen times a day can easily be viewed as an equivalent to bicep curling a light dumb-bell in the gym today. That's a lot of calories burned and so your average person didn't get a chance to accumulate enough fat to be viewed as overweight. I'd imagine that even if your diet was poor in nutrition but high in fats and sugars, the exercise would simply burn it off. You might accumulate toxins or develop some other health issues but being fat would not be one of them.

There are people who have been tobacco smokers, alcohol drinkers, or daily bacon devourers who live to a very old age without serious health issues. They may have just led low-stress and active lives, simply doing regular things that required moving around. But you never hear of these people saying that they ate artificial sugars or fast foods regularly (or even ever). Those who did, frequently end up with diabetes and heart disease. But then again, many people get diabetes, heart, and weight problems even if they did everything "right" with their diets. Maybe they didn't move about as much as they needed to or just ate too much all the time. Giving the digestive system a break and actually allowing the body to feel genuine hunger rather than chemical hunger would surely help in recognizing the body's needs. Maybe they never realized the difference.

The latter half of the 20th century also saw a wide proliferation of automobiles to every corner of the developed world. Americans especially drive everywhere rather than walk since everything is so spread out. That simple logistic difference means that Americans walk that much less than everyone else. Hence the large waist and rears. Office jobs and work with computers at your desk also means less mobility. This is even worse if you're working from home since theoretically you don't even need to get out of bed. And of course you always end up snacking when you're in this mode, not so slowly approaching that diabetic, angina-inducing, double-chinned future.

Could all of this have started to happen in the 1970's? Sitting around most of the time and eating low quality foods? Could it have had a genetic effect on fetus development? Sure, I think those are plausible. But I think exercise and being active is a major factor that should be included as a variable in such a study. Also as Sybilla stated, the amount of calorific intake is important too and should be considered.
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By Candideto
Putting the responses together, we can state that the likely factors affecting the underlying causes of endemic obesity and its related health problems can be summarized as follows.

1. Introduction of artificial sugars and sweeteners in regular daily diet.
2. Popularization of high-fat and high-sugary fast foods.
3. Transition to artificial/chemical ingredients and pre-processed foods.
4. Larger portions in restaurants, take-outs, and deliveries.
5. Increase in calorie intake due to higher meat, fat, and sugar/carbohydrates consumption.
6. Decrease in exercise and activity/movement.
7. Absence of breaks/fasts from ingestion/digestion.

These are the likely suspects but it may not be an exhaustive list. Nevertheless, it's a starting point and should give us plenty of leads to work with. Let us delve a bit deeper and examine the timelines of some of these factors.

The most commonly cited of all artificial sugars is the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a cheaper alternative to sucrose derived from the corn fields of the American mid-west. This was an innovation that was introduced in the 1970's, and offered a drastic cost reduction for the foods and beverage industries. Popular soda companies transitioned to using it in the 1980's, and even today they are criticized by health advocates that HFCS was largely responsible for the American obesity epidemic. When posting this topic, this was my initial thinking as well since it correlated with the observation that the problem started in the 1970's. But was HFCS itself the problem or was it that the HFCS process allowed an easier way for sugar to be included in food items? It may be that HFCS is more harmful than sucrose (regular sugar) but the fact that it's cheaper to make means that it can also be a quick way of improving the taste and addictability of foods and drinks in general. Therefore the injection of additional sugar must have been a general trend, not just confined to the usual suspects of hyper-sweet foods and drinks. I think it would be worthwhile to isolate, measure, and compare the average sugar consumption in "non-sweet" foods of different eras and how much of that contributed to health problems. It could be that even though food labels claim that there is no added sugar, the presence of large amounts of other kinds of sugars such as readily absorbable glucose and fructose was just as harmful in the long run.

As for fast foods, "Supersize Me", "Fast food nation" and "The Founder" are some of the most popular films providing insights into the history and the mechanics of the business. These movies paint a grim picture of the adverse health effects and the ghastly processes in which these foods are produced. I won't go into the plot or the findings of these pseudo-documentaries/biographies, but the awareness of the health implications of fast foods is well known in the popular thought. Fast foods combined their forces with the soda industry in the 1960's and made sure to optimize their operations using many innovations that came through the chemical and logistic advancements. Not to mention that the combination of high-fat and high-sugar (both of which our bodies naturally crave as they're scarce resources in the wild) is very addictive and can significantly impact moods and help form strong emotional attachments to those foods. Hence the psychological lure of "happy meals", associating the high-fat, high-sugar food, with toy rewards in a family bonding setting. The mental and emotional longing combined with the chemical dependency is insidious as it targets young children, who are not capable of understanding the ramifications of their consumption. The model was successful and was surely applied to all manner of processed foods in other places.

Processed foods or the so-called "ready-made" meals are packed with sugars, fats, and let's not forget, salt. The convenience and sometimes even the lower price of these foods make them an attractive option for a thrifty or a busy/lazy grocery shopper. Between the wide popularity of fast foods, ready-made meals, and sugared/fattened/salted restaurant foods, a not so discerning individual would easily start having predictable health problems from even a moderate diet consisting of these sources. It's no wonder that overweightedness is normal now. All pre-processed and third party prepared meals are compromised and are guaranteed to cause health issues if consumed on a daily basis.
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By Candideto
The food portions given in restaurants are also gigantic when compared to what they were before the 1970's. This is also quite noticeable for any traveler entering the US, encountering giant alluring platefuls and refreshingly carbonated soft drinks. Even many members of the gastronomy cultures of Europe have trouble attacking some of these meals, as the sheer quantity is a challenging exercise fit only for the dilated guts of resolve and years of determined digestive training. But how and why did the portions become so big? The attraction of value per pound was assuredly a factor for the increase. It's also possible that the economics of the restaurant business made it cheaper to make large portions by utilizing cheaper produce and labor. The supply chain is geared towards minimizing losses and maximizing value. And the only way to do that is to scale the limited number of variables available to your business, giving the customer what he wants at the price he's willing to pay. Unfortunately, that means that something along this chain needs to pay dearly for the sake of the business model. Hence if the portion is big, there is definitely a hidden trade-off if the price does not adequately reflect it.

One of those hidden prices is the cost of meat. Compared to our (non Inuit or other majorly carnivorous) predecessors, the amount of meat consumed by the general public today is inordinately high. Intuitively, one would think that it would take more energy, time and capital to farm animals than to farm vegetables. But market/seasonal dynamics, governmental subsidies and incentives, impact of fossil fuels on the economics of logistics and operations, and the industrial-scale commoditization of lifeforms, all play a role in bringing that piece of protein to the nearest grocery store at an "affordable" price. If such things did not exist, meat consumption might be lowered due to economic pressure, but then again, other smaller players may fill the market void with alternatives. In any case, meat contains high amount of calories and fat, and this alone can heavily impact the waist size, especially when paired with fast absorbing carbohydrates and sugars. However, many people do require animal proteins to be healthy, as problems regarding iron deficiency and anemia can occur for bodies that have acclimated to high protein consumption. Therefore a balance is needed.

Exercising in gyms, walks, and runs around the neighborhood all contribute to the activeness and health of the individual. But unless you have the luxury of spare time and energy, this is exactly that - a luxury. In today's busy world of office-chaired mouse-clicker existence, a "work-out" for the vast majority is something that cannot be done in any practical sense. For example, 10,000 steps a day is cited as a healthy metric in determining whether you're adequately active. That's roughly an hour and a half of walking that needs to be carved out of your office hours. This is not something that's do-able except for those who walk around all day as part of their regular work schedule. Commutes are also longer now, and they frequently require mechanized transportation rather than a short cycle or a stroll down the street. The act of exercising then has become a status symbol, fit only for those who can afford to do it. As such, it behooves a person of stature to wear sports gear and yoga pants to broadcast their higher social respectability in the eyes of their peers, regardless of whether they're actually sporty or partake in fitness activities to justify their attires. Fitness in the popular culture today then has boiled down to narcissism rather than health, and the diets that support such models are frequently imbalanced as they often target narcissistic goals. Overloading on protein to build muscle mass, or subsisting on juice to lose weight, is assuredly the opposite of achieving a healthy body.

Rather, the human body in the past had frequently encountered long periods of droughts and starvation, at least people think this was the case, judging from the lifestyles of various non-industrialized communities around the world. If this is indeed accurate, then constantly engaging the digestive system through regular meals may not be the most optimum way for the body to function. At the very least, stopping ingestion periodically and entering fasts has a way of reinvigorating the appetite and a renewed appreciation of foods and flavors. It would also acclimatize the body to calorie restriction, which can help keep a lower weight and train it to distinguish between normal hunger and chemical hunger. The average person does not practice fasting and therefore likely does not know the difference between these two types.
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By Sybilla
It should be noted that bacteria in our digestive system and our glandular regulation are also part of the equation. There are healthy bacteria that are supposed to help digestion and help keep a healthy gut. By not developing and maintaining this ecosystem in our bodies, we destroy the means to properly break down foods and process them. For example, eating large amounts of beans and fruits give most people uncomfortably large amount of gas. This can be minimized over time however by developing a healthy "pro-biotic" environment for the good bacteria to thrive in our entire digestive tract. Therefore a measure of a healthy digestive system can perhaps be investigated by monitoring the sensitivity to digesting legumes. This combined with periodically stressing the digestion by calorie restriction may be an easy and gradual way to fix non-acute cases.

Glandular regulation, most notably pancreatic insulin is very important as it is directly related to diabetes and weight gain. High sugar diets stress this system and often leads to those well-known diseases. Not only this, but fat accumulation tends to trap hormones and toxins that exasperate this situation. Then when those fat cells are burned later as part of a weight loss effort, those trapped hormones and toxins are released into the body. Since the body does not like to be flooded with undesirable chemicals, this can lead to uncomfortable feelings during the weight loss process. And what are these hormones and toxins? Where do they come from?

Hormones for the most part come from our own bodies. They're secreted, enter our blood stream and then become trapped in our fat cells. But they can also come from external sources through our diets. While the digestive process should break down much of these hormones, there's still plenty that enter our blood stream. Many toxins can come from these sources too. Pesticides and chemicals used in food production and logistics all enter our digestive tract and can wreak havoc on the ecosystem of the gut bacteria. They also enter our blood stream, are carried to vital cells, and are stored in our fat cells, only to flood the body again when it goes through ketosis in a weight loss program. You are indeed what you eat, and what you eat may be more important than keeping a healthy looking body. Thus a healthy gut should be the first goal of all weight loss effort. Once that's in place, the pounds should shed naturally simply through a moderate diet of good foods.