What Causes Obesity?

emperor on parade In America, it has long been taboo to pay critical attention to automobiles’ centrality in our lives. It remains a very effective and important taboo.

Witness “The Toll of America’s Obesity,” an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times. In it, a pediatrician and an economist, both from Harvard, review the basic facts about the continuing escalation of obesity rates and burdens in the United States. In the author’s view, obesity is a “diet-related disease.”

And, indeed, so it is.

But can anybody think of another reason why obesity has been relentlessly worsening across recent decades? Might it have anything to do with the continuing automobilization of our lifespaces? Might worsening fatness in America also be caused by our ever-deepening, never-so-much-as-mentioned subjection to mandatory cars-first transportation policies and outcomes?

The question answers itself, yet remains utterly out-of-bounds. This is true even on the political left, which has never quite summoned the chutzpah to take the first step toward transcending prevailing ideology/taboo. That first step would be a serious class analysis of transportation in the USA.

Commodification Machine

Capitalists love cars because cars are as profitable as they are wasteful and unsustainable.

University of Illinois outcomes modeler Sheldon Jacobson estimates the dimensions of two of the ways in which cars-first living pumps up allied industries by generating the obesity epidemic in the United States:

After analyzing data from national statistics measured between 1985 and 2007, Jacobson discovered vehicle use correlated “in the 99-percent range” with national annual obesity rates.

“If we drive more, we become heavier as a nation, and the cumulative lack of activity may eventually lead to, at the aggregate level, obesity,” he said. “When you are sitting in a car, you are doing nothing, so your body is burning the least amount of energy possible, And if you are eating food in your car, it becomes even worse.”

Ultimately, Jacobson said, we are going to have to rethink the way we use our automobiles if we want to address obesity.

“We have had 60-plus years of infrastructure that has facilitated the obesity epidemic,” he said. [Source]

The resulting boon to the medical-industrial complex? A twenty to fifty percent increase in per capita medical spending among obese people, according to Reuters.

The boost to the much over-blamed oil industry?

Some costs of obesity reflect basic physics. It requires twice as much energy to move 250 pounds than 125 pounds. As a result, a vehicle burns more gasoline carrying heavier passengers than lighter ones.

“Growing obesity rates increase fuel consumption,” said engineer Sheldon Jacobson of the University of Illinois. How much? An additional 938 million gallons of gasoline each year due to overweight and obesity in the United States, or 0.8 percent, he calculated. That’s $4 billion extra.

Is this self-reinforcing cycle vicious or virtuous? Depends on whether or not you’re a capitalist, doesn’t it?