What is the cause of the obesity epidemic?

One of the more spectacular failures of modern science and technology has been its inability to solve the obesity problem. What is the cause of the obesity epidemic? There are probably a significant number of causes, some of which might include:

  • reduction in average will power
  • rise of certain kinds of fast food
  • decline in home cooking
  • rise in relatively sedentary occupations
  • rise of television and other relatively sedentary past times
  • introduction of sugar to more foods (brought on in part by the rise of cheap sugar), and increase in sugar in general (including fruit and fruit juices)
  • misguided nutritional advice (for example, eat less fat, and instead make relatively high-glycemic index carbs basis of diet, or calories-in calories-out theory)
  • more driving, including longer commute times and more generally suburban environments
  • increase in hedonic ethic (through advertising, for example)

and so on.

Not only are there plausibly a significant number, but many of these causes are tangled. It’s not easy to separate one from another – they often interact in circles of causality.

That is why asking: “What is the cause of the obesity epidemic?” isn’t always that useful of a question. The human mind is drawn to uncomplicated answers, but in a complex system there might not be a simple causal story that is adequate.

A better question might be: “What things can we realistically change, that will significantly decrease the levels of obesity?”

In some cases, a solution is all-or-nothing, and might require multiple parts coming together to solve the puzzle. In this case, though, it seems plausible we can get partial solutions that in themselves are significant.

If we are talking about how to change things, then a useful concept might be that of a ‘causal lever‘. Something that, given the background causal situation, can when added cause a large difference. There might be multiple ones in any given situation. In this case, my guess is that the most at-hand causal lever that will make a significant difference is changing the standard theories about weight gain or loss (the ‘misguided nutritional advice’ above), because this will then ripple out to a large number of other areas of society.

Also see here.

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