All Commentary
Thursday, April 17, 2003

Environment + Genes=Obesity

Many Americans are overweight, Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of The Hungry Gene, reminded Los Angeles Times readers last Thanksgiving Day (“Big Food Has Become a Big Problem: Politicians and Health Officials Must Address Pandemic Obesity”). Her solution? More government regulation.

Shell calls for government to regulate food advertising to children and to subsidize the production of fruits and vegetables, hoping to increase the quantity demanded by driving down the price. Following that logic, a prohibitive sin tax on sugar and fat would be certain to follow. In short, Shell calls on the state to use its coercive powers to force Americans to eat what she believes is healthy.

The problems with Shell’s program are numerous and deep. For starters, she apparently has little understanding of political economy. The government has already tried prohibiting alcohol and other drugs, restricting advertising of alcohol and tobacco, imposing sin taxes, and subsidizing agriculture. The results have been mixed—at best. Success here appears even less likely.

Moreover, scientists still do not understand the relationship between diet, weight, and health. The low-fat, high-carbohydrate regime many pushed for years has not worked; some have finally begun to take a serious look at low-carb, high-protein, and high-fat alternatives, such as the Atkins diet. Similarly, the received wisdom about the alleged link between cholesterol and heart disease has come under increased criticism of late. The foundation of modern nutritional and health theory has been shaken and the entire edifice may soon tumble down. How ever, it may take many more years, eve; decades, before we learn the Truth about diet. In the meantime, if politicians follow Shell’s advice, they may subsidize, tax, an restrict the wrong foods.

The biggest problem with Shell’s article however, is her limited understanding of human behavior. She formulaically assert that “obesity is the consequence of environ ment acting on genetic inclination, and that genetic predisposition combined with ar increasingly ‘obesegenic’ environment underlies the current pandemic.” According to Shell, Americans are passive victims of two forces beyond their immediate control their genetic makeup and the “obesegenic’ environment in which they live. Americans cannot change their genes, but they can, with the help of Big Brother government, make the environment less conducive to obesity. That is old statist rhetoric with a bone thrown to genetic determinists. The missing element, of course, is human volition, good old free will.

You see, human beings are endowed with the wonderful ability to think, to reason, to make decisions for themselves. They must work within the constraints set by genetics and environment, but can pick from innumerable remaining possible choices. For instance, without the aid of technology, I am genetically incapable of flying or of burrowing very far into the earth. But I can choose whether to run, jog, skip, walk, crawl, or crabwalk to get around.

Similarly, I could not live on a diet composed entirely of mercury or of twigs, but there are vast combinations of foods in between that are entirely under my control. (As Shell notes, Americans are bombarded with food advertisements. But advertisers should not be able to rule us, and to the extent that they do, it is because the government’s schools do an inadequate job of teaching critical thinking.)

Americans need to know that in the vast majority of cases, they decide whether they will be overweight, just as they decide vhether they will use tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs. But they have been given bad nformation on which to base their decisions. Blaming obesity on a “fat gene” or the illeged evils of “Big Food” will only exacerbate the problem by directing attention away rom the main cause of the “pandemic,” government meddling. This is yet another :ase of statists using government failures as excuses to call for yet more regulation. Instead of allowing Americans to make their own food choices, the government leveraged its control of the educational system and scientific establishment to inculcate impressible Americans with the notion that to be healthy they had to eat lots of starches and sugars and little fat or protein. That diet left Americans feeling hungry, so they loaded up on more bread, pasta, and starchy vegetables instead of the fat and protein their bodies needed and craved. We know the result.

Government Doesn’t Know

So, at this point the last thing we need is more government intervention in our digestive systems. What is needed is the simple admission that scientists do not know everything about diet and that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Americans need to be told to forget everything they have “learned” about diet and health over the last few decades and to search out the diet that best suits their individual needs. A good place to start might be the various evolutionary diets like the Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, The Paleo Diet, and Neanderthin. Such diets have the virtue of being based on the foods that humans thrived on for millions of years. From what we can gather from archeological and ethnographic evidence, our huntergatherer ancestors were fine physical specimens, neither gaunt nor obese.

Moreover, those who study ancient human diets make a number of interesting points that vitiate many of Shell’s assumptions. For example, they note that today’s fruits and vegetables have been domesticated to contain much higher levels of sugar and starch than their counterparts found in nature. Anyone who has ever tasted a “wild” apple will immediately appreciate that point. But again, scientists do not know much about the relationship between diet, weight, or health more generally. Our ancestral diet is a good place for modern Americans to start, but it may not be the place to end. The key point is that individuals should be encouraged to find what works best for them, as individuals. Al Roker and others who opted for stomach-staple surgery may have found that increasing their fat intake would have curbed their appetites and allowed them to lose weight and keep it off without resort to the staple gun.

That brings me to my final point. Clearly, there are a large number of competing economic interests at play here. Are stomach staplers and producers of diet drugs upset about our bulging waistlines? Do heart surgeons really want to reduce coronary heart disease? What about pharmaceutical companies? If a major study concluded that red meat is good for us after all, would pork suddenly become the “other red meat”? Do the left-leaning media really want to give Atkins and his followers full exposure? Does the government have an incentive to keep Americans fat and hence (seemingly) dependent on government entitlement programs like Medicare? Given all those conflicting economic interests, can Truth ever clearly emerge and enjoy wide dissemination? Yes, I believe, if government allows healthinsurance companies to take the lead. Private insurers have both the resources and the incentives to discover and disseminate the Truth. They also have the power, through premium differentials, to induce Americans to listen.