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Technology’s Disease?

February 21, 2012

This is our future. And that's your average American meal.

It has become convenient to blame technology for America’s rising obesity levels. The transition from a labor-intensive manufacturing and agricultural economy to a more sedentary knowledge-based economy means that more Americans are engaging in less physical activity. More commonly, technologies such as televisions and microwaves are explicitly singled out for blame. For example: “There really is a time issue—people do have less time. Yet, look at the number of hours spent watching television. Somehow we’ve lost an element of creativity and control over our lives. All too many people have become passive.” You are probably nodding your head in agreement, and you wouldn’t be wrong. We do watch more television. We are more sedentary. But you would be wrong to cite these as causes for America’s obesity problem.

According to a study by David Cutler, Edward Glaeser, and Jesse Shapiro, economists from the Institute of Economic Research at Harvard University, increased caloric consumption drives America’s rising levels of obesity. Technology, they argue, is in fact responsible for the obesity problem, but it’s not the technology you may think. The time-saving technologies, sedentary lifestyles, and television probably don’t help, but they are not the technologies to blame (they bluntly state: “We cannot explain changes in obesity in the past two decades on that basis [television]…Occupation changes are not a major cause of the recent increase in obesity…Transportation does not affect rates of obesity”). The technologies that have most affected America’s obesity are the technologies that have made food products more varied, tasty, and convenient.

Consider, they argue, the industrialized countries with the lowest obesity levels. They point out that the countries with more food laws and regulation of the food industry are the countries with the lowest rates of obesity. Moreover, they write that if Big Mac prices can be taken as an approximate measure of relative food prices, “countries in which Big Macs cost more are less obese than countries in which they cost less.” In other words, the countries that regulate the use of chemicals in food products are the countries with fewer weight-related health issues. The chemicals themselves may be dangerous, but their potential health effects aside, they are also dangerously addictive to the average eater. They inevitably conclude: “People with self-control problems are more likely to have high initial weight levels and are more likely to gain more weight with further improvements in food technology.”

This initially sounds like music to the obese’s ears (“I’m not to blame after all!”), but a closer look at the study suggests that we are the problem. The authors note that since the 1970s, Americans have gained some 20 minutes in average time spent preparing food. They note that while more Americans watch television than ever before, there are still these extra 20 minutes. They write: “Of the 20 minutes saved in food preparation, people could spend 15 minutes exercising, lose the weight gained, and still have five minutes left over.” The time spent exercising (running or walking a mile is their example) would offset the extra weight gained through increased caloric intake as a result of advancements in food technology. So whose fault is it really? Answer: yours.

This may be a race that even the First Lady can't win.

Michelle Obama also lays the problem at the feet of the average American. In an editorial in Newsweek magazine she writes: “And no matter how much they beg for fast food and candy, our kids shouldn’t be the ones calling the shots at dinnertime. We’re in charge. We make these decisions.” She lays the fault of childhood obesity squarely on the shoulders of parents. Not marketers (although she lets them have it too). Not politicians. Certainly not children. On parents. Us. We are the problem and we are the solution.

I don’t mean to let food corporations, politicians (with their massive subsidies for the sugar and corn industries), or anyone else off the hook. They’re as much to blame as we are. But blaming technology for the obesity epidemic is foolish, as is shifting the blame to someone that we can sue and/or lobby. And if you think this isn’t your problem, think again. “Insurance premiums paid by the healthy subsidize the care of the sick. That means we are all paying for the costs of treating obesity and that treatment is one of the things that is helping to send health care spending through the roof” (source). Childhood obesity is the scariest of all (“If you’re sedentary as a juvenile, you don’t grow as much bone mass—so as you get older and lose bone mass, you drop below the threshold for osteoporosis” – yikes!). We are looking at a future of subsidized health care for millions of Americans suffering from heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis – all diseases related to obesity.

My original intent with this article was to look at the ways that technology could help us reduce the numbers of obese. As I researched the obesity epidemic, I became more and more disenchanted. Healthy eating and regular exercise will prevent obesity. However, I keep returning to the Harvard study. Humans are weak. Faced with the temptations of unlimited caloric intake, they will indulge. It is inevitable. Not possible, inevitable. Unless you fundamentally change the way people think about food, change the food itself, or change the access to that food, you will not change the behaviors that are driving obesity. One study suggests that providing calorie information can reduce the amount of calories consumed at fast food restaurants. That’s a start, but can it fundamentally change our food behaviors?

Most of the ideas I came up with while planning this article now seem weak. Here are some examples of what I came up with:

  • An app that measures and tracks caloric intake. Measures daily total with user input. Works with personal pre-set limits (i.e. personal daily calorie goal).
  • Televisions that track how much we’ve been watching and that can be programmed to shut off when we’ve exceeded our own daily limit (resets for 24 hours).
  • Chairs that detect how we’ve been siting and for how long. They send a message to our phone/computer when it’s time for us to get up and move around. (I asked myself: Is this worth the cost of developing the technology? Would it ship? My answer: Probably not).

I suppose these are all fine ideas, some of them probably already exist. But I’ve learned that these are all tackling what I thought were the root causes of obesity (our sedentary lifestyle). While I recognized the importance of caloric intake, I didn’t know just how important it is to change our eating behaviors. I’m not sure that technology itself provides the answers. Simply keeping unhealthy foods away from people (i.e. the vending machine in the break room at work or school) would be better than investing in costly calorie-counting technologies.

We are the solution to the obesity problem. Technology may only be a part of the problem.

This video frightened me when I was a child, but it absolutely stuck. Notice that Cookie Monster does not mention bread or cereal products (the only references to grains are Cream of Wheat and the singing loaf of bread); fruits, vegetables, and meats (only fish are mentioned by name in the song) are the staples of Cookie Monster’s diet (along with cookies, natch). (Can we please convince Lil Wayne to make it rain green beans in a future music video?)


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