Man walks into a column, no.42: Fat

I have long been fascinated with fat. This is partly for personal reasons: whilst not at the ‘morbidly obese’ end of the scale, I have moved in and out of the ‘could certainly do with losing a few pounds’ bracket for many years; usually in, rarely out.

But even if I hadn’t spent weeks, cumulatively, obsessing over my own (sad but true), I think fat – specifically: how we acquire it – is deeply interesting.

To start with, there’s a genuine tragic irony to being or becoming fat. Other ingestible substances that cause harm, such as alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs, are not integral to life in the way that food – the cause of fat – is. A fat person can only survive by consuming that which makes them unwell.

The second non-personal reason I find fat fascinating is that it’s a huge global capitalist conspiracy. This is the case made convincingly by David A. Kessler, ex-commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, in his compelling The end of overeating.

Kessler’s argument is that powerful profit-driven food companies have stacked the odds firmly against staying slim, in the interests of making money. By ‘layering and loading’ different combinations of sugar, salt and fat into manufactured food, these companies are rewiring our brains, driving us to seek out more and more of their products:

In a cyclical process, eating highly palatable food [high in sugar, salt and/or fat] activates the opioid circuits, and activating these circuits increases consumption of highly palatable food.

The killer is that because we all need to eat, the food companies have billions of people to use as guinea pigs to get the blend just right. So not only are we fighting a battle against our natural urges, we’re battling against globocorps too. Nice.

But who’s the ‘we’ here? For whom is this a real battle, rather than an occasional skirmish? Turns out it might be the most impatient amongst us. Seriously!

New research suggests that impatience increases the likelihood of obesity irrespective of demographic, occupational, financial and many other characteristics. This might help to explain why in one of the fattest lands – the US – the overall rise in obesity is being driven by big increases amongst a small sub-set of the population: the slimmest are as slim as they were 40 years ago.

Because it’s not just that foods are cheaper, or higher in calories: fatty foods are just so easy to get hold of. In his book Kessler talks about ‘vagabond eating’ – chomping on the go – and how highly calorific treats are available for mobile dining at every turn. If you are impatient, it seems, this makes it more likely that you will become fatter than ever before. If you are more of a patient person, however, you’ll probably be okay. (There’s a nice Washington Post piece on the research here.)

So when you next find yourself tempted to step into a Starbucks just think: you’ll be taking a stand against rampant capitalism if you don’t. I fervently hope this is the only time Louise Mensch and I arrive at the same conclusion.