Lies about food

So why don’t we? Where food is concerned, we’re complicated. We aspire to extreme thinness as advocated by fashion and reinforced by the cult of celebrity, but in reality we nearly all struggle with the pounds. We see people who are grossly fat, their wobbling, sad bodies being winched out of windows, and class that as “obesity”, distancing ourselves from the term. As a recovering alcoholic it’s a syndrome I’m familiar with – I might be getting drunk but I still have a roof over my head, unlike a “real” alcoholic, who sleeps on a park bench. Are we seriously so weak-willed that we can’t say “no” to that extra cake? Go back just 30 years and very few people were obese. Go back 50 years and virtually no one was. For women, size 10 and 12 was the norm, rather than 14 and 16 today – and we ate three meals a day, with tea thrown in for special occasions. Most of us didn’t eat unless we were sat at a table at a regular time of day.

That simple fact represented a problem for the food industry, which its army of chemists solved by designing products that override the “full” button, working like any other addictive drug to convince you that you really, really want – even need – that extra slice. Combine sugars, salts and fats, substances once so scarce we never evolved any need to limit their consumption, and you create a sensation as powerful as many banned substances. Then destroy the concept that eating takes place just at mealtimes. Enter any large supermarket today and you’ll find whole aisles stocked with snacks.

Sigh. Calorie intake has fallen over this time period. People simply aren’t getting fat because they’re eating more.

Thus any plan that attempts to reduce obesity by thinking that we are eating more than we used to is simply wrong. At odds with the universe we actually inhabit.

44 thoughts on “Lies about food”

  1. Processing food intensively reduces the need for calories to be used up in the digestive process.
    So we don’t eat more, but there is more surplus to put on the hips.
    See Wrangham’s book “Catching Fire” about the history of cooking.

  2. Bloke with a Boat

    Typical Guardian column… “I” have some experience and “I” must be representative of the whole population because “my” friends are like me therefore “I” am in a position to tell everyone what to do. Fascist bastards.

    My weight fluctuates quite a lot depending on whether or not I’m carrying injuries and can go out running. I like my food and drink and acknowledge that I have to balance the input and output calories. If I don’t I have found that by shirts shrink around the waist, amongst other items shrinking. Furthermore, a certain level of activity only get me down to a certain weight, if I want to go further I have to either cut the input or increase the output.

    Chris Snowden had a good post on this subject recently, pointing out the calories burned side of the equation as a major issue, especially as the input of fat and sugar has fallen so much over the years. There was a good comment that bears some thinking about as well:

    Actually, I think you’ll find if you look that of the total energy budget of any mammal (or bird, for that matter) the bulk actually goes on keeping warm. The one factor that has changed markedly since the 1970s is the prevalence of central heating.

    I was born in 1970, and remember growing up in a 1950s semi. I remember waking up to ice on the insides of the single-glazed windows; we simply did not have heating of any sort save a rarely-used electric heater in the bedrooms (I was strictly forbidden from using this, as it cost money to run).

    As time went on, we upgraded the gas fires, added a small heater in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs then joined the posh set when we installed triple-glazed windows, then central heating (and got rid of the hallway heater at the same time).

    We went from upstairs temperatures not so very many degrees above outside ambient upstairs, to near-constant 20 celcius day and night. Our clothing has also improved over the last thirty-odd years; most clothing in the seventies was natural fibres and not actually all that warm, or waterproof. I remember when Barbour wax-jackets were state of the art in outdoor clothing, for instance.

    Building heating has got much better, cars are warmer, clothes are better insulators now.

    We are using much less energy on keeping warm, doing less as we don’t need to move about to keep warm, and eating almost as much. That’s why we’re getting fatter.

  3. bloke (not) in spain

    “Go back just 30 years and very few people were obese. Go back 50 years and virtually no one was.”

    I’d love to know which 1960s she’s recalling. Certainly wasn’t the one I was growing up in.
    That was the era of my grandmother, one of a legion of extremely solid women with sturdy legs & arms like hams. Women who cooked mostly in lard & would tie growing grandchildren to a chair & force meat puddin’ down their throats through a funnel, at the slightest excuse. Going hungry, meaning – being able to leave the dining table without staggering, was regarded as child cruelty.

  4. Bloke with a Boat

    B(n)iS, I had an Auntie just like that. A “saucy” plate, ie a morsel of food left on it was tantamount to an insult at had her bad cooking or meant that Africa world continue to starve to death. A clean plate meant that you must still be hungry and therefore needed another huge helping of the gut buster of the day.

    After that you got to eat copies amounts extremely sweet pudding and cakes.

  5. From porn to food, the Guardian is transforming before our very eyes into a stereotype of the querrulous elderly conservative of the mid-1970s. It’s fascinating.

  6. bloke (not) in spain

    “After that you got to eat copies amounts extremely sweet pudding and cakes.”
    Ah! The notion there might indeed be vitamins in such as apples. So, to avoid any danger, best boiled thoroughly & served as “crumble” utilising flour, butter & sugar in the ratio 1:2:3. Or encased in beef suet.

  7. For most people, the body contains about twice as much water as fat. So if you want to lose weight quickly, drink no water, and only consume dry foods. The pounds will just evaporate!

    It’s just a matter of willpower, right?

  8. Tsk. All this fuss about healthy eating.

    My gran never did a day’s exercise in her life, she ate chips with everything and thick gooey puddings. She started drinking at 11 in the morning and didn’t stop until she passed out late and night and smoked 60 fags a day.

    Mind you she did die of a massive heart attack aged 42.

  9. BWAB,

    Chris Snowden’s point is very good.

    > Actually, I think you’ll find if you look that of the total energy budget of any mammal (or bird, for that matter) the bulk actually goes on keeping warm. The one factor that has changed markedly since the 1970s is the prevalence of central heating.

    From memory, I think mammals use about 90% of our food to maintain body temperature. Look at how often reptiles eat. Interestingly, that’s maintaining body temperature, not just keeping warm — I assume the latter must use more energy, but keeping cool requires plenty too. And where’s one of the most obese places on Earth? Houston, Texas, where it’s simply too damn hot to move around outside and everyone spends their time moving between air-conditioned cars and air-conditioned buildings.

    Combine sugars, salts and fats, substances once so scarce we never evolved any need to limit their consumption

    Er, what? Fats, yes: it’s well known that we’ve evolved to find fat tasty to make sure we get plenty of it on the rare occasions it’s available. But sugar, which fruit are full of? We’re primates: we evolved from animals that lived entirely on fruit. And salt? Scarce? For a species which rather a lot of evolutionary biologists reckon went through a recent evolutionary stage on the seashore? Not that salt is exactly scarce anywhere else, mind.

    Blaming nefarious “industry” for everything is the knee-jerk lefty response. In this particular case, let’s just remember why the food industry started packing sugar and carbs into everything: official government dietary advice. Which is the one major factor that corresponds precisely with the rise of obesity: the move from eating what you like to eating what the state tells you.

    While we’re on the subject of obesity, I’ll just recommend probably the best writer on the subject: Brittany Gibbons, who does an excellent job of reminding us that the big problem with the people who want to “solve” the “obesity” “problem” is that they are single-mindedly dedicated to making perfectly decent people feel like shit.

  10. Rob

    You are a pedantic, Neo-Liberal who doesn’t get irony and I wonder who is paying you.

    I am now going to flounce off in a huff and not speak to you again.

  11. Bloke with a Boat


    And nor forgetting boiling vegetables to within an inch of their lives in heavily salted water, just to ensure there is no remaining flavour or goodness.

  12. A bit sceptical of the heating bit. People are getting fatter in warm countries too. Sure it plays a part though.

  13. Not sure what Tim finds so objectionable about the Guardian article, which seems to be unusually sensible. I can’t frankly believe his point that calorie intake has gone down, sorry.
    People ate less and walked about more in those days, and obesity wasn’t a problem.
    Also, obesity is visible in a mirror, if you’re carrying folds of fat tou can feel them with your hands, no need for scales.

  14. bloke (not) in spain

    @Sq 2
    To be serious about obesity, for a moment, the key cause currently has a flat screen & lives opposite the couch. And the culprit is the “industry” encourages people to spend a large portion of their lives totally immobile, hypnotised by it.
    The irony being the deep involvement of the sort of people who write this sort of crap for the Graun with that industry. Yes, your beloved BBC included. Which brainwashes infants into having the attention span of goldfish. Which propagates the notion, nothing in the world is actually real unless it’s been filtered through the mediation of the idiot box.
    If one wished to graph the growth of “obesity” against the penetration of TV into daily life you’d get a 1 to 1 correlation.

  15. Could hormones be a factor? So allegedly, the water supply is tainted with estrogen-mimicking chemicals from birth control pills.

    I have no idea if this is true or not, but have seen it blamed on the interwebs for rising infertility rates. If that’s true, it might also be causing people to retain more body fat.

  16. If I remember my A-level biology from 40 years ago, calorific intake doesn’t have much to do with putting on weight.

    Fat is immensly high in calories, but the body isn’t very good at processing .

    When I was a lad, we used to eat tons of fat, because the butchers left it on the meat to add to the flavour. Nowadays, a butcher struggles to sell any meat with a white speck on it.

  17. Funny how childhood obesity can be caused now by kids sitting around watching TV and playing X-Box, but it wasn’t caused fifty years ago by kids sitting around doing homework and reading books.

  18. bloke (not) in spain

    @Ian Bennet
    Kids reading books & doing homework was an aspiration, rarely fulfilled to the point of them doing it 5 or 6 hours a day.
    But the word couch in couch potato does have meaning.
    The couch, in the modern sense, hardly existed 50 years ago. It’s a piece of furniture evolved to watch TV in. The length of seat/height ratio produces the characteristic half reclined sprawl the medium encourages. Facilitates almost total immobility without energy expenditure.
    The furniture designed to facilitate reading & more proactive pursuits tended towards a more upright posture. And that posture actually requires a considerable amount of energy to maintain. Various muscle groups have to be in constant tension.
    If you wish to continue watching TV but lose weight, simply sit in an upright chair.

  19. bloke (not) in spain

    By the way, there’s no reason to conflate playing Xbox & idleness. Watch kids playing it. Mostly in constant motion. Lot of adrenaline being expended raising heart rates & respiration.

  20. The emergent and growing revelations over the wrong science about (mainly saturated and animal) fats being bad, carbs being good in combating weight gain and obesity ought to mean that heads will roll worldwide across the medical and dietary “professions”. The historic poor or total lack of scientific method in research, analysis and interpretation not to mention the admonitions of these “scientists” to the public on diet in this area is nothing short of a scandal.

    Instead, I see at least one of our dietary gurus (a proper “scientist” who appears to have admitted to using grossly inadequate scientific method to support his previous position on fats and carbs) responsible for many books giving what now appears to be dangerous advice in this connection has reversed his position (ie fats are now good). He is now embarking on publication of new books to proselytise this new food religion. I take it refunds for his previous garbage books are out of the question?

    Indeed one has to wonder whether there are parallels in the climate change scientific community. The scale of unanimity of their rightness in the two areas of scientists appears to be about the same.

  21. Blokes not in Spain and on a boat-

    Indeed, the hefty older woman seems to have been airbrushed out of history. But not, as I mentioned in another thread, out of my Dad’s family photos from the early 20th century showing such women. In the one I mentioned, every single one of those (poor, working class, village dwelling) women was plump, with arms like hams…

    Anyway, here’s the question I’ve wanted answered for some time now: why are virtually all nurses overweight? It’s a quite visible trend. I’m sure statistical study would bear it out. Are they sitting on a sofa playing XBox all day? It does make me at least a little sympathetic to the virus theory (you know what they say: never go to a hospital, they’re full of sick people).

  22. bloke (not) in spain

    Nurses have always drunk like fish, smoked like chimneys & indulged in promiscuous, unprotected sex. It’s why we hung round the pubs near the hospital, wasn’t it? The pork’s just another aspect of lifestyle approved by the medical profession.

  23. I make this comment every time Tim posts about food and calories in vs calories out etc., but I’ll make it again anyway.

    There is serious evidence that the so-called obesity epidemic is actually a real epidemic. i.e. there is a bacterial cause, probably the gut bacteria or the balance thereof.

    This fits with Tim’s point about the amount of calories we eat actually falling while obesity is rising, and researchers have noted that the geographical spread of obesity mimics that of any other disease with a bacterial or viral cause.

    The link is one of many bing pulls up when I googled ‘obesity epidemic bacteria’.

  24. The link is one of many bing pulls up when I googled ‘obesity epidemic bacteria’.

    Totally off-topic, but I just wonder whether Microsoft or Google would be more upset by that sentence!

  25. It’s true that average calorie consumption has fallen, while there’s been a big reduction in manual labour (at work and at home), motorized transport has increased and houses have got warmer. So if you want a simple explanation for increased obesity rates, you shouldn’t look at calorie consumption.

    But in reality things are more complicated than that. Eating one extra plain biscuit a day (call it 50 calories) would lead to weight gain of over 5 pounds a year, nearly four stone in a decade. Very few adults put in four stone in a decade, and almost no one monitors calorie consumption to within 50 calories a day.

    It’s not calorie counting but largely unconscious self-regulation of appetite which makes it possible for most people to maintain their weight. The question is, what is happening to make that homeostasis break down?

    One cause is the ready availability of unnatural but tempting combinations of fat and sugar – too many cream cakes.

    Incidentally, there’s never been a scientific consensus for a low-fat diet.

  26. Bloke no Longer in Austria

    Blokes Spain/Boats

    We must be related, my Aunties were just like that too.

    I put it down to their being stokers on Dreadnoughts and then their figures started to go after they each had their 7th.
    Funnily enough, I have an aunt, knocking 80 who never had children and she is as tall, willowy and attractive as she was… a long time ago.

    But really, it seems that many people base the past on watching re-runs of Genevieve or The Avengers.

  27. Second what PaulB said.
    If the Grauniad writer is a recovering alcoholic, that may be a reason why her memory is such utter rubbish. Obesity has been around for millennia (OK, written records of it only cover two or three but two is still plural). Fifty years ago obesity was *rare* among boys because boys burned up vast amounts of calories playing games (and had to be verbally dragged indoors to do our homework) – so if you want a culprit for increased obesity in boys, blame the guardianistas who ban football in parks (“no ball games allowed”), let alone the street, prohibit climbing trees, etc etc.
    I take issue with anyone who says that 90% of energy use is just keeping warm since recommended energy intake for manual labourers is more than twice that for housewives. Chris Snowden’s comment may well be valid for the average modern person using machines to do all the hard work, but 90% is just silly (except in Lappland or a Siberian winter).

  28. Central Heating good hypothesis
    Need to explain why Australia and Southern US have as large (geddit?) a problem as the cold developed places. The really strange outlier is Japan.. which has low rates and cold climate (in the winter).

  29. > I take issue with anyone who says that 90% of energy use is just keeping warm

    Do you? Gosh. Not that that was in fact quite what I said, but hey.

    Outrage at the counterintuitive aside, Wikipedia’s telling me that any animal’s metabolism converts about 60% of their food into heat instead of energy usable by muscles simply through inefficiency. In a reptile, of course, that heat is simply radiated and lost. Mammals have developed the ability to harness the heat loss. But mammals don’t just heat up; they maintain their temperature to within a degree. Pulling that off surely requires even more energy use. And then there’s cooling down. A figure of 80%-90% seems quite likely, really.

    > since recommended energy intake for manual labourers is more than twice that for housewives.

    Manual labourers don’t just have to do more manual labour than housewives; they also have to do more regulation of their body temperature than housewives, mainly because of the manual labour.

  30. Bloke in Costa Rica

    The country with the highest level of obesity is currently Mexico. From observation here, the real chubsters tend to be either American ex-pats or Nicaraguans. Ticos are mostly fairly slim (not all of them, of course). National diet used to be rice, beans, plantains, a bit of fish or chicken and now judging by the throngs in the food court at the mall it’s McDo’s, Unlucky Fried Kitten, Pizza Hut and Subway. Can’t say I’ve noticed much change in peoples’ girth in the fifteen tears I’ve been here.

    It’s a truism that if (calories expended in biological processes) > (calories consumed) – (calories passed through undigested) then you will lose weight. It’s obviously true, and fairly useless. The problem with nutritionism is that on the spectrum of scientific probity it’s a long way from the physics/molecular biology end and a lot closer to the tarot card/crystal healing end.

  31. The original Guardian article confuses so many different points that I despair….

    Let’s just agree to disregard it, and move on.

  32. bloke (not) in spain

    Pendantly, you’re probably right at the 90% mark. Possibly more.
    Mammals & other “warm blooded” creatures have entire life-patterns centered around maintaining that constant temperature. The extra energy to do it requires extra energy expended to obtain the food to supply the energy, needing extra food to supply the energy… And round & round.
    So some animals like small birds & mammals end up having to eat half their own bodyweight per day, to keep ahead of the game.
    Contrast with some reptiles can happily survive eating once a month.

  33. “why are virtually all nurses overweight”: because they are particularly exposed to pathogens.

    Or, subtler thought, particularly exposed to antibiotics which perhaps act against the competition for the pathogens that do the damage.

  34. “why are virtually all nurses overweight”

    a) not here they’re not, and

    b) nurses don’t do any work any more. They are ‘executive nurses”. Nursing assistants and cleaners actually look after the patients.

  35. EAT BUTTER. Scientist labeled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong?

    By Bryan Walsh is the cover story of Time’s 6/23/14 Issue. The article’s title is “Don’t Blame Fat.”

    Were it only Time which gets so many things wrong it would be dismissive, but Walsh does give some references. Being Time I may not have read it except I’ve read a few studies directly over recent years and I bought the issue for my wife who’s shuns fat while, well, how to say this. . .uh, better not to. And the Adkins diet where you may eat all the meat & fat & bacon you can hold WORKS! You may argue how healthy it is, but you do lose fat & weight while eating all the fat you want.

    The time article makes a note of whole milk being good for people. For your children, maybe more than a little good. I read a neuroscientist’s paper saying that children NEED the fat in milk and the need continues at least until people are in their 20s. I read another with a similar conclusion. You may also check the residue from mother’s milk to find it very greasy (fatty).

    If that is not enough to convenience you, consider how the US Gov pushes low-fat milk on children. Paraphrasing a wife-joke about husbands: When the Gov is alone in the forest and speaks is it still wrong?

  36. On my first visit to China in 2009, I could count on one hand the number of obese people I saw in a single year, and they were all high school kids.

    A second visit last year and the number of fat little cunts had exploded. Guess what? They queue out the door for a McDonalds.

    The composition of diet in developed countries is overwhelmingly pushed towards more and more processed foods. Where’s this data about our calorie expenditure going down?

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