The ‘rational consumer’ explanation for obesity

My second explanation for the obesity epidemic, especially in the US, is the ‘rational consumer’ hypothesis. The idea is people are voluntarily making a choice to overeat, fully aware of the consequences and weighing the pros and cons, similar to people who continue to smoke despite the warning labels. There are no shortage of articles lecturing about the dangers of obesity or how it’s a crisis, yet people continue to overeat, so I don’t think the problem is ignorance. It’s funny or amusing how people continue to eat highly fattening food like pizza despite the consequences of obesity being well publicized. The food section of the NYTs owes its very existence to this sort of cognitive dissonance.

I think overeating (and not just junk food, but pastas and other carb-heavy food, too) provides a respite from people’s otherwise unhappy or unfulfilling lives, that in the past such a void would have been filled by smoking. Also, it’s likely the health effects of obesity are overstated/overexaggerated, unlike smoking which people perceive, correctly, as more deadly, hence people choosing to eat as the safer alternative to smoking. Junk food provides that needed ‘kick’ for an otherwise dreary day at the office or at home, similar to the buzz of nicotine.

No one is getting stage 4 lung cancer from sugar. Or having their jaw removed due to mouth cancer. Or hooked up to one of those oxygen machines due to irreversible lung damage. Sure, there are risks with obesity, but not not as lethal or causal like with tobacco products. [Although sugar is often blamed for obesity, fats are likely also a major contributor too, especially when the two are combined.]

The 20-year lag between the consumption of tobacco products and cancer is well-documented and holds up worldwide, but finding such a causality between sugar or fat consumption, obesity, and premature death is harder:

Although Americans are as obese or overweight as ever, life expectancy has not fallen much, holding at around 77-80 for males and a few years more for women. Part of this can be explained by better medical treatments, but also that complications of obesity or being overweight are mostly just age-related. What I mean is, when the data shows that obese or overweight people are more likely to die of heart attacks, cancer, diabetes, or strokes, this is among people who are already old, so the main risk factor is age, not the obesity. The obesity just lowers the age incidence of those conditions by a few years. Likewise, being thin does not stave off those conditions either, only delays them by a few years.

Much of health advice or ‘common wisdom’ may be dubious at best (remember ‘8 glasses of water‘ or the ‘food pyramid‘?). It’s called the fitness and health industry, not charity. It’s in their financial interests to exaggerate or oversell the health consequences of not doing exercise. I think in the end it comes down to genes. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are both in their 90s and do not exercise and have crappy diets, yet both are healthy and fully-productive. Buffett’s diet is famously bad. My maternal grandfather did zero exercise and ate badly yet outlived by a few years my more health-conscious paternal grandfather, who died of a stroke at 78, exactly in-line with the predicted national male life expectancy. Another example is William Shatner, who is also obese and just went to space at 90.

Women have much more bodyfat compared to men. By default, most women are obese, going by strict BMI standards (which is why there are separate obesity guidelines for women), yet women consistently outlive men by 2-5 years, a finding that is robust and holds up in all geographic areas and societies. If low bodyfat and physical fitness are the sole markers or predictors of health, as the health industry would have you believe, we would expect African American males (and Africans) to live the longest, yet they have the shortest life expectancy, both in the US and worldwide. Sure, controlling for race and sex, weight gain lowers life expectancy a bit, but there are many other variables, too, or even just pure luck.

The pandemic is blamed for obesity getting worse, but the trend of rising obesity rates predates it, and it’s not like the office environment is more conducive to healthy eating than being at home. Employees not uncommonly order lunches which easily weigh in at over a thousand calories, like large sandwiches full of fattening meats, sauces, and breads, and also lots of sugary snacks and drinks at the office. And being that eating is often a social activity, only makes it worse.

Gym closures cannot account for it either, being that gym attendance and national obesity rates have closely tracked each other. Despite the pervasiveness and popularity of ‘gym culture’, especially on social media and YouTube, this is not enough to offset unhealthy diets and lifestyles; it takes hours of cardio to work off just a single medium-sized meal. And weightlifting, which is what all the popular guys on YouTube are doing? Thank drugs for leanness, not lifting.

Overall, I think also consumers are making a choice to ignore the health consequences of obesity, either because the consequences are overstated, and or because someone else will pay for it, such as private insurers. In invoking my inner libertarian, maybe consumers are just willing to accept a small risk of dying sooner to have more food choices, much like the risk of getting into a car accident by driving instead of walking or not wearing a seatbelt. Consumers may say they care about their health, but their revealed preferences show otherwise.