Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Modeling gluttony

Carson Chow in the NYTimes. Somehow I can't believe Carson didn't know what a calorie was since one of the MIT grad students he and I hung around with was always binge dieting and exercising to lose weight. The dieting guy is the only person I know who has done this:

(academic science)  -->  (Wall St.)  -->  (academic science)  -->  (Wall St.)  -->  (academic science)

(Notice the yo-yo pattern? ;-)

NYTimes: You are an M.I.T.-trained mathematician and physicist. How did you come to work on obesity? In 2004, while on the faculty of the math department at the University of Pittsburgh, I married. My wife is a Johns Hopkins ophthalmologist, and she would not move. So I began looking for work in the Beltway area. Through the grapevine, I heard that the N.I.D.D.K., a branch of the National Institutes of Health, was building up its mathematics laboratory to study obesity. At the time, I knew almost nothing of obesity. 
I didn’t even know what a calorie was. I quickly read every scientific paper I could get my hands on. 
I could see the facts on the epidemic were quite astounding. Between 1975 and 2005, the average weight of Americans had increased by about 20 pounds. Since the 1970s, the national obesity rate had jumped from around 20 percent to over 30 percent.


Christopher Chang said...

Perhaps he just wasn't aware that "calories" on food labels are actually kilocalories?

Have you talked to Carson about paleo? ;)

Kevin Rose said...

Makes a great deal of sense, but there has to be a cultural component. Food is super-abundant in places like Japan and Thailand, much more so than America, with food stalls literally crowding the streets emitting delicious smells, yet people are thin. Rich European countries also manage to say thin, like France.

Increased calorie consumption is obviously the immediate driver, but the question has got to be why are people suddenly eating so much more. It has to be a change in the culture regulating eating habits that has led to increased consumption.

David Coughlin said...

 That was my first thought.  A 'calorie' isn't really a calorie.

Carson Chow said...

I think I missed the second trip back to Wall Street for our dieting friend.  When was that?  

Yes, I must confess that although I knew that a calorie was how much energy you needed to heat up a gram of water I had no idea how many Calories a chocolate bar had.  I also didn't know a food Calorie with a capital C is a kilocalorie.  It really opened up my eyes when I learned that the energy density of fat was about the same as gasoline.

steve hsu said...

I just looked at his CV and realized I might have mis-remembered. The second trip was maybe consulting work and he kept his academic job.

Re: kilocalories, Don't they teach you guys anything in Canada? I lecture about this stuff in physics 101 when I cover energy :-)

David Coughlin said...

 It really lights up the idea of burning fat!

botti said...

***I think the food industry doesn’t want to know it. ***

I've been reading 'Eat Stop Eat' which recommends intermittent fasting (24 hours once a week, something I can't be bothered doing). The author previously worked for a supplement company and also notes the reluctance of the industry to hear this kind of message.

"Food companies, supplement companies, food ingredient suppliers, pretty much anyone who in anyway makes money off of you eating does NOT want you to take a break from eating for 24 hours once or twice a week. It would be a financial nightmare."


Kevin Rose said...

It's interesting that you should mention the focus on hunger, because I have come to the conclusion that attempting to eliminate hunger or increase satiety is precisely the wrong approach and is what is sending us on an endless will o' the wisp chase, paradoxically.

Rather, I now believe the secret lies in teaching people how to accept some level of hunger, at least initially, and deal with it. I have lived overseas for long periods and went from a typical 20 pound overweight American to someone with a sculpted physique and under 10% body fat by adapting myself to local eating patterns in places where everyone is thin. I felt huger, sometimes extreme hunger, but persevered anyways. Those times in America when I wracked my brains trying to figure out some way to "reduce hunger" through diet always ended in dismal failure. It was only when I just manned up and FACED my hunger that I was capable of mobilizing the psychological resources needed to persevere. I believe that so long as someone is chasing the dream of painless weight loss they will fail to mobilize the psychological resources needed to face the suffering involved, and will fail through a mis-allocation of emotional energy, although this dream of achieving weight loss without pain through low-carb or whatever is characteristically American in its desire to escape self-discipline and effort. Low-carb is just a slightly more subtle effort to lose weight without hunger. It is singularly ineffective long-term - the literature shows that low-carbers are the least represented amongst long-term weight loss success stories.

You can search endlessly for some pattern that makes American eating different, but you won't find it - fast food? Japan has the second most McDonalds after the USA, and has tons of its own fast food outlets as well. Carbs? France and Asia in general are awash in carbs. At the end of the day we just eat more.

People eat more in America not because they are hungrier, but because they are less willing to deal with the deprivation of eating less. Japanese and French people would love to stuff their faces with chocolate croissants all day also, but they don't, because other things are more important to them, like being thin. Americans have insane ideas of how much it is "normal" to eat. It's not entirely their fault, as the culture is very clever at making you think it is really "dangerous" to eat normal amounts of food. In America, thin, athletic looking people are seen as sickly and anorexic, overweight people are seen as healthy and normal, and obese people are seen as overweight. You notice this right away when you return to America. An athletic thin look that puts me square in the middle in lots of places in Europe evokes gasps of "oh my god you're anorexic! Are you ill?" from Americans, while in Europe people would tell me I could stand to lose an extra 5-10 pounds and am getting a bit pudgy. It's surreal the difference in perception.

We have actually reached a state in America where people are FRIGHTENED of being thin and athletic looking because they see it as unhealthy! 

uair01 said...

This sounds reasonable from an evolutionary viewpoint. For most of its history the human race must have been hungry most of the time. That's the most natural state that the body is best adapted to :-)

esmith said...

 Good points, and further evidence of how hard it would be to do the modeling of obesity. How to incorporate different attitudes of Americans vs. the Japanese into the mathematical model?

You shouldn't underestimate the importance of fast food, though. In the United States, frequency of visits to fast food joints is traditionally the strongest, or one of the strongest predictors of obesity in studies. McDonalds may be present in Japan, but the USA still has an almost 2x advantage in the number of McDonalds per capita (14000 outlets). Hot on Mcdonalds' tail there is Burger King (8000 in the States, almost none in Japan), Wendy's, Dunkin Donuts, Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, each with 5000 or more outlets in the States but virtually absent in Japan.

esmith said...

Humans are exceedingly adaptable. They adapt to wide-ranging varieties of diets and conditions. They can get most of their calories from rice, or live on low-carb diets, or get a third of their daily calories from C2H5OH for years, without getting sick. They can spend their days sitting on a couch, or they can spend several hours a day pedaling a bicycle.
That's why I think that obesity takes multiple disruptions of "the natural state" working in concert. The body would handle one or two, but at some point it's finally pushed out of the natural envelope.
- A big drop in physical activity. (I read that hunter-gatherers averaged 1000 calories/day in physical activity. Men would go out on hunts every 2-3 days and rest in between, women would be active every day.)
- Unlimited accessible food. Disappearance of hunger.
- An increase in energy density and palatability beyond what was normal in prehistoric times. Big businesses spending big bucks trying to figure out how to make their products more attractive to you.

David Coughlin said...

 Picked up by Gizmodo: http://gizmodo.com/5910578/this-math-equation-will-make-you-less-fat

Blog Archive