14
May
12

Cosmetic changes to the thermogenic hypothesis of obesity don’t fix it

I really liked this news story when I first skimmed it, and really hated it when I went through it more thoroughly a second time:

Fair warning: This article isn’t especially insightful.

On the one hand, it’s helpful to debunk the handwavey explanation of obesity that “haha fatties are lazy lol”.  Contrary to the popular belief that obesity is the result of a will too weak to conquer Gluttony and Sloth, I’d wager that the median fat person has more self-discipline than the median thin folk: I’ve yet to meet anyone with a visible weight problem who isn’t constantly paying attention to what they’re eating and trying to maintain some degree of compliance with some diet or other.  Given what we know about how insulin and leptin resistance wreck the satiety response, I’d say that the fact that we don’t have an epidemic of ravenous dieters murdering smug complacent twits who sanctimoniously instruct them to “eat less, move more!” counts as strong evidence of the innate goodness of humankind (as well as yet another example of the patience and strength of will of those dieters).

On the other hand, knock it the fuck off with the thermogenic hypothesis!

Let’s have a look at the historical record, shall we?  The folks quoted in the above article have, quite rightly, noticed that telling people to “eat less and move more” hasn’t resulted in a nation full of fit people.  From this they conclude that telling people to “eat less and move more” isn’t an effective strategy, again quite rightly.  The problem comes when they assume that there’s nothing wrong with the advice — with the simpleminded 3500-kcal heuristic — and that the issue is simply one of compliance.

Note that even the well-meaning social scientists here are still condescending to the people they’re trying to (be seen to) help.  They take the above Just World explanation that “fat people are weak of will, and therefore Gluttonous and Slothful” and tweak it — slightly — to “our Society demands that people be Gluttonous and Slothful, and some people (through no fault of their own) are too weak of will to resist”.  And even so, the article’s author manages to undermine her own point:

Yet despite the rising personal stakes, a growing body of research shows just how hard it is for the average person to keep the pounds off.

Just before speaking to Reuters, McAfee had exercised for an hour in her Florida pool and had a salad for lunch.

“I work out, I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, and I’m still not thin,” she said. “So please stop beating the crap out of me: It’s completely counterproductive.”

Someone who swims for an hour and pays attention to her meals despite being frustrated over slow progress and social stigma is not a weak-willed victim of the pernicious restaurant industry passively waiting for salvation from Caring People with Social Science degrees.

What frustrates me in particular about the viewpoint presented in this article is that, despite all evidence to the contrary, every single person involved assumes that the questions of why we get fat and how we can get lean are solved from a biological perspective.  This is of course the same sort of Arts-major simple-minded optimism about science that underlies Underpants Gnomes Genetics: The notion that someone published a paper back in the early ’50s and we now know everything we need to about fatness.  And, as you’ll quickly discover if you browse the blogs marked “Physical Culture” on the sidebar, it’s fucking wrong.  Obesity is, if we simplify it outrageously, an incredibly complicated endocrinological phenomenon.  It isn’t even remotely well-understood in a controlled laboratory context, let alone the broad societal arena these folks are talking about.

What is clear, however, is that “eat less, move more” is an insufficient response no matter how it’s applied.

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