For the record, one can be liberal (as I am) and be against continued mass immigration. Check out these folks:
Once every few decades, the stars align for major immigration legislation. According to political analysts, the United States may be at such a juncture now. Barack Obama’s re-election as President has concentrated politicians’ attention on the growing importance of the Hispanic vote. Meanwhile people from across the political spectrum remain dissatisfied with current immigration policies. The call has gone out for “comprehensive immigration reform.”
Progressives for Immigration Reform (PFIR) supports this call. Too often immigration policy is made reactively, or with the excessive involvement of special interests out of sight of public scrutiny. Too often immigration policy is made piecemeal, with a failure to consider those policies’ full impacts, including their economic, ecological and social impacts.
At this point, the meaning of “comprehensive immigration reform” is up for grabs. PFIR believes that Congress and the Obama administration should avoid pandering to special interests and instead take this opportunity to rethink and refashion immigration policy so as to best further the common good. In this spirit, we provide the following proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, grounded in progressive political principles.
PFIR believes America’s immigration policy should further five core principles: justice, sustainability, fairness, legality, and a focus on furthering the national interest.
By justice we mean evenhanded and equitable treatment for all those involved. This means immigrants and would-be immigrants, who deserve to be treated humanely and with respect. It also includes American workers, who can reasonably demand that their government enact policies in their economic interest. And crucially, it includes future generations of Americans, who deserve to inherit a society with at least as much opportunity, stability and ecological health as we have inherited from our forebears.
By sustainability we mean conserving sufficient natural resources for future human generations to live good lives, and not forcing them to live on polluted, degraded, overcrowded, or otherwise diminished landscapes. Ecological sustainability thus conceived is no mere amenity, but essential for human health, safety and security. Sustainability also means preserving flourishing populations of all of America’s remaining native species, along with opportunities for our children and grandchildren to experience and appreciate them.
By fairness we mean economic fairness: a more equitable distribution of income, wealth and opportunities. Current levels of economic inequality, which have been growing now for five decades in the United States, are unacceptable. It is past time to reverse this trend that is undermining both our democracy and the well-being of our citizens. Particular attention should be paid to the economic status of low-income Americans, who have garnered little of the fruits of economic growth in recent decades, and young people entering the job market for the first time, who suffer disproportionately from unemployment and economic insecurity.
By legality, we mean a commitment to the enforcement of labor and immigration laws. Creating a fair and equitable immigration system is not possible without a willingness to set and enforce rules regarding who is allowed to immigrate into the U.S. and who is allowed to join the labor force. The past four decades of lax enforcement and repeated amnesties have demonstrated that making immigration policy without such a commitment is an exercise in futility. As the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (i.e., the Jordan Commission) noted, a credible immigration policy depends on enforcing immigration laws.
By furthering the national interest, we mean that immigration policy needs to be made with the interests of all Americans in mind—particularly those with less wealth or power, who tend to get overlooked. Not just the wealthy few or the big corporations, who have had great success driving down wages and lowering incomes for American workers in recent decades, and who do not need any more help in this endeavor from politicians.
The right immigration policies for the United States in the 21st century will foster ecological sustainability, economic fairness, and a culture of legality. They will promote justice for all and further the common good. Done right, “comprehensive immigration reform” can rejuvenate our democracy, and further social and political progress both at home and abroad.
With our key progressive political principles in mind, we offer the following four policy proposals.
#1. Reduce annual immigration into the United States from its current 1.2 million to between 300,000 and 550,000 people.
300,000 is the number implied by the policy proposals of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development in 1996. 550,000 is the number proposed by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1997.
The case for 300,000. Currently the U.S. population stands at 315 million. If present immigration levels continue, America’s population will nearly double by 2100, reaching 560 million people with no end to growth in sight. Such population growth will render all efforts to create a sustainable society futile. According to the most recent projections, reducing immigration to 300,000 annually would allow us to gradually (over several decades) stabilize our population at from 360 to 380 million people (see graph below).  Stabilizing our population is essential to ecological sustainability, and sustainability is essential if we hope to create a decent future to our children and grandchildren.
Significantly reducing immigration would open up jobs for Americans, who need them during this time of high unemployment and slow job growth. It would increase the incentive for American companies to hire recent college graduates, who are justifiably nervous about their career prospects in the current economy, and to retrain and hire older and disabled workers, who often have a hard time finding work. Reducing immigration among low-skilled and poorly educated immigrants would improve the economic prospects of less-skilled, less-well-educated Americans: a matter of justice and fair treatment for them, and a crucial tool to reduce economic inequality in the United States as a whole.
#2. Rework trade and foreign aid policies to improve conditions for people in our major immigration sender countries.
By helping other countries address some of the “push factors” driving emigration, we can reduce the need for people to emigrate: a win-win solution for everyone involved. While improving conditions in other countries is primarily the responsibility of those countries, there are many things our government can do to help, along with a number of counterproductive policies we can end that will also improve matters.
In the first place, the United States could negotiate new trade agreements and rework old ones so that they improve economic conditions for poor workers in our trading partners’ countries, even when this means slowing rather than increasing the growth of trade. Too often, U.S. trade agreements have sought to maximize the volume of trade regardless of all other considerations. Exhibit A is NAFTA, which threw several million Mexican farmers off their lands, thousands of whom wound up emigrating to the United States.
Second, we could increase and better target development aid to help poor people around the world live better lives in their own countries. Although the United States ranks first in total foreign aid disbursed, we consistently rank last among the major donor nations in foreign aid as a percentage of gross national income. We should replace most military aid, which does little to improve people’s lives, with aid for family planning, education and other social welfare programs, which can do a lot.
#3. Mandate the use of E-verify for all new hires and enforce serious penalties on employers who hire workers illegally.
No matter how many immigrants we choose to allow into the United States, all sides should be able to agree that we need to safely and fairly enforce our immigration laws and reduce illegal immigration. Doing so need not involve racial profiling. Instead, we need to dry up the key resource bringing most illegal immigrants to America: access to jobs. This can be done, provided we take the necessary steps.
First, mandate use of a national employment verification database for all new hires, where employers can quickly and easily verify U.S. citizenship or certification to work. Over the past ten years, the federal government has spent several hundred million dollars to create the computerized E-Verify database to check work eligibility. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, over 400,000 employers across the United States currently use E-Verify to check the employment eligibility of potential workers.  Accurate and easy to use, it appears ready to deploy as a mandatory national system. Running all new hires through the system, regardless of what a person looks like or how they speak, would go far toward eliminating racial profiling from immigration enforcement.
Second, we should strictly enforce existing civil and criminal sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers, meting out penalties sufficient to deter greedy owners or unscrupulous managers who break the law. The potential penalties for employers who hire illegal workers include fines that can total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and jail time for company executives who encourage immigration fraud. However, in their sporadic efforts at workplace enforcement, successive Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to seek jail time for employers who have repeatedly and systematically broken the law, while the fines meted out have represented a small fraction of the profits their businesses have “earned” by breaking the law. All this could change quickly, should an administration develop a real commitment to deterring illegal immigration.
In addition, the nation should enhance border enforcement efforts. This is a critical component of any serious effort to reduce the nation’s ongoing problem of illegal immigration. To this end, PFIR supports the conclusions of the Jordan Commission that called for more financial and human resources to be devoted to stricter management of the country’s borders as an essential element of any strategy to address this critical issue.
#4. Avoid any expansion of “guest worker” programs.
Prior experience has demonstrated that guest worker programs depress wages, stigmatize certain low-skilled occupations, are difficult to administer and hard to stop, and disrupt local community services.  As the Jordan Commission noted: “Historically, guestworker programs have depressed the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers. Of particular concern is competition with unskilled American workers, including recent immigrants who may have originally entered to perform the needed labor but who can be displaced by newly entering guestworkers. Foreign guestworkers often are more exploitable than lawful U.S. workers, particularly when an employer threatens deportation if the workers complain about wages or working conditions.” 
In addition, guest worker programs tend to increase illegal immigration. Again according to the Jordan Commission: “Despite the claims of their supporters, guestworker programs also fail to reduce unauthorized migration. To the contrary, research consistently shows that they tend to encourage and exacerbate illegal movements by setting up labor recruitment and family networks that persist long after the guestworker programs end. Moreover, guestworkers themselves often remain permanently and illegally in the country in violation of the conditions of their admission.” 
“Guest worker” is a euphemism for second-class citizenship at best and for indentured servitude at worst. Such programs have made it easier for Americans to accept the permanent impoverishment of agricultural workers in the United States. They should be phased out where they exist, not extended to new sectors of the economy.
The fact that there are American liberals against continued mass immigration was highlighted in a recent opinion piece on The Daily Caller, titled “Leaders of anti-immigration groups aren’t exactly conservative”:
In 2007, I met a field organizer who had worked against immigration reform. He was not who you might imagine. His background was in the labor and environmental movements that so many conservatives deplore.
He wanted to stop immigration reform because he believed that human beings were destroying the planet and that an increase in the U.S. population would exacerbate the environmental injustices he perceived to be occurring already.
Even though the activist was working for an immigration restrictionist group that many people instinctively think of as “conservative,” the truth is that he, like many other immigration opponents, was not conservative. He was a union-promoting environmentalist, just like many of the figures involved in the formation and funding of groups that will voice strong opposition to the new immigration reform bill this week by claiming, inaccurately, that it is not “conservative” enough.
One prominent figure, a very leftist former presidential candidate, also advocated for this position:
Unfortunately, the fact that it was Ralph Nader might show how much of an uphill battle we might have getting this position to resonate with “mainstream” liberals.
That said, I am hopeful that this is possible, and perhaps, soon enough (hopefully), a critical mass of American liberals might realize the folly of our current immigration policies. As I have noted before, that is one the major goals of my blog.
But then again, maybe we just need someone like Greg Cochran for president…
Many commenters in the HBD world are claiming that one upside of the Boston bombings being perpetrated by Muslim Chechen immigrants is that it may shut down momentum for immigration amnesty that is currently under works. Perhaps it might. Perhaps discussion of the terrorists’ acts might even spark conversation on the wisdom of immigration from Muslim countries. That might be a positive result of this tragedy (and make no mistake, it is a tragedy in the classic sense of the word). But, should that happen, as with discussion of public awareness HBD in general, here’s one potential pitfall as elucidated by the sage Chris Rock (coarse language warning):
Whatever ideas based on a realistic understanding of human differences that advocates want to put forward – should we find a public that is more receptive to hearing them – we want to be sure we don’t go too far and that the most extreme voices don’t dominate the conversation. This is a general problem with public awareness of HBD, and something I will address in more depth in a future post.
Gary Taubes recently wrote an essay about the causes of modern obesity. In it, he correctly points out that modern medical science is woefully ignorant of the true causes of obesity. I haven’t yet read Taubes’s book, and I’m not particularly convinced of his carbohydrate hypothesis (which I’ll address shortly), but I wanted to comment on some excellent words on the practice of science as it’s often used in the human sciences (including both medicine and social science):
Another problem endemic to obesity and nutrition research since the second world war has been the assumption that poorly controlled experiments and observational studies are sufficient basis on which to form beliefs and promulgate public health guidelines. This is rationalised by the fact that it’s exceedingly difficult (and inordinately expensive) to do better science when dealing with humans and long term chronic diseases. This may be true, but it doesn’t negate the fact the evidence generated from this research is inherently incapable of establishing reliable knowledge.
The shortcomings of observational studies are obvious and should not be controversial. These studies, regardless of their size or number, only indicate associations—providing hypothesis generating data—not causal relations. These hypotheses then have to be rigorously tested. This is the core of the scientific process. Without rigorous experimental tests, we know nothing meaningful about the cause of the disease states we’re studying or about the therapies that might work to ameliorate them. All
we have are speculations.
As for the experimental trials, these too have been flawed. Most conspicuous is the failure to control variables, particularly in free-living trials. Researchers counsel participants to eat diets of different macronutrient composition—a low fat, a low carbohydrate, and a Mediterranean diet, for instance—and then send them off about their lives to do so.
Rather than acknowledge that these trials are incapable of answering the question of what causes obesity (assumed to be obvious, in any case), this research is still treated as relevant, at least, to the question of what diet works best to resolve it—and that in turn as relevant to the causality question.
What can we do about this? It seems we have two choices. We can continue to examine and debate the past, or we can look forward and start anew.
We believe that ultimately three conditions are necessary to make progress in the struggle against obesity and its related chronic diseases—type 2 diabetes, most notably. First is the acceptance of the existence of an alternative hypothesis of obesity, or even multiple alternative hypotheses, with the understanding that these, too, adhere to the laws of physics and must be tested rigorously.
Second is a refusal to accept substandard science as sufficient to establish reliable knowledge, let alone for public health guidelines. When the results of studies are published, the authors must be brutally honest about the possible shortcomings and all reasonable alternative explanations for what they observed. “If science is to progress,” as the Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman said half a century ago, “what we need is the ability to experiment, honesty in reporting results—the results must be reported without somebody saying what they would like the results to have been—and finally—an important thing—the intelligence to interpret the results. An important point about this intelligence is that it should not be sure ahead of time what must be.”
Finally, if the best we’ve done so far isn’t good enough—if uncontrolled experiments and observational studies are unreliable, which should be undeniable—then we have to find the willingness and the resources to do better.
I almost couldn’t say it better myself.
In general, medical wisdom in general, particular when it comes to diet, exercise, obesity, and health related to such is based on generally bad science. This has been a general theme of my posts on the matter, and indeed, one of the overall themes of my blog, at least with respect to human differences. These are points I’ve made when discussing this topic, and Taubes pretty much speaks to my thoughts on the matter.
Of course, the very standard that Taubes wishes to hold hypotheses on the causes of obesity to apply to his own hypothesis, namely, that it is excessive carbohydrate consumption per se that is leading surging obesity rates. I’m not sure that that is the case, and this hypothesis needs to be examined with research conducted to the same standard Taubes holds the prevailing wisdom.
And, with all that said, Taubes seems to glance over a very powerful point he raised in his essay:
In these trials, carbohydrate restricted diets almost invariably show significantly better short term weight loss, despite allowing participants to eat as much as they want and being compared with calorie restricted diets that also reduce the quantity of carbohydrates consumed and improve the quality. In these trials, the ad libitum carbohydrate restricted diets have also improved heart disease and diabetes risk factors better than the diets to which they’ve been compared. But after a year or two, the results converge towards non-significance, while attempts to quantify what participants actually eat consistently conclude that there is little long term compliance with any of the diets.
Let’s say that Taubes is correct, and it is excessive carbohydrate consumption that is leading the obesity rate. What do you do about it? Simply suggesting that people go on low-carb diets isn’t going to work because most people cannot adhere to such a diet.
But, theoretically, if we did definitely identify carbohydrates as the problem, massive government intervention in the food market might be able to address this. Through taxes and subsidies, perhaps we could make “fattening” foods considerably expensive, discouraging their consumption. I’m not going to comment of the feasibility of such a plan, but Taubes is certainly correct that we need more and better research into this whole topic.
This post is meant to serve as a prod to certain of my smart liberal friends to start having children. It will come as no big surprise to my long time readers.
The 2012 General Social Survey (GSS) results have been released. I decided to take a quick look to see if certain trends were continuing. One of those pronounced trends that was fleshed out on my blog is that in America, the fertility rate among Whites is dictated by political orientation, increasing as you go from liberal to conservative. The most conservative White Americans are having the most children, by far. As political orientation is primarily inherited, this means that liberals are slowly but surely breeding themselves out.
We have seen this illustrated on my blog many times before. But, I wanted to see what’s going on with it today. Now, these data cannot pick up fine year-to-year trends in birth rates, but it certainly can tell us where we stand right now. Here are what the results look like from the 2010-2012 GSS data:
These are U.S. non-Hispanic Whites, age 25-34. These are the cohorts who are currently in the main phase of their reproductive careers. I left off the error bars because sample sizes are generally small (but typically are 50-100 respondents in each category). As we can see, the pattern evident in previous years continues quite strong.
What about those coming right out of the gate? This is 18-24 year olds:
The pattern doesn’t appear detectable in the youngest individuals. This confirms that in the States, as with the rest of the West, people generally hold off having children until their mid to late 20s, with moderates getting the early lead, which is not too surprising since it’s been established that political moderates are the least intelligent group overall.
This compliments the trend seen with those who have mostly completed their reproductive careers, the 35-45 year olds:
It’s amazing how clear and unidirectional the effect is. In short, the more conservative, the more children. The more liberal, the fewer. There is a pronounced selection for conservatism in today’s world and all that goes with it. Conservatives are the only group that reproduce at or beyond the replacement level.
This means that the White population will become increasingly conservative (at least genotypically) over time. Liberals, do not count on prevailing trends to offset this change to the gene pool (that is, evolution). There can only be so much social trends can do before the force of heredity comes to bear. In short, if you do not want a future dominated by conservative nuttiness and all that entails, you must start having children, soon, and often.
Don’t think you have plenty of time. You don’t. Check this out:
As I’ve previously noted, many liberals desire children and expect to eventually have them – indeed many. But for the intelligent ones, especially those who pursue higher education, (which often consumes most of their prime childbearing years) they find themselves falling far short of the number of children they wished to have. It’s a simple fact that the longer you wait to start having children, the fewer of them you will end up having, typically. This cascades down the line: this means the fewer grandchildren you’re likely to have, and so on (this also means the fewer grandchildren your parents will end up having – think about that).
For those of you worried about “overpopulation”, don’t. Almost certainly, if you’re worried about overpopulation, you’re not the one contributing to it:
The people who are contributing to overpopulation, who generally aren’t even in the developed world, will continue right on reproducing. It is their descendants who will populate the world of the future, descendants who will carry the sensibilities of their antecedents, that is, not your sensibilities. In America, and likely most of the Western world, those are mostly religious, close-minded conservatives. Besides, worrying about your own personal contribution to overpopulation is inherently silly. What difference does it make to you what happens to the planet if your children aren’t on it? What stake do you have in what happens in the future?
Also, do not think that someone else is going to “pick up your slack” and have kids if you don’t. The only people picking up your slack are religious conservatives.
Of course, this is aimed at intelligent liberals. Intelligent people are the stewards of the Earth, and make this modern civilization – which supports all these people with all this fantastic technology – possible. These intelligent people are the doctors, the scientists, the architects, the engineers, the mathematicians, etc… that make the world go around. With the way reproductive patterns are currently going, we’ll end up with what’s perfectly symbolized here:
Granted, this process is slow, and takes time to work. But it’s not that slow, and we’re not going to get there if we don’t start now. Even moving away from the fate of the world as a whole to the fate of your own chromosomes, would you not want your line – a line which, if you’re a person in the target audience of this post, is one that gave rise to someone who can make positive contributions to the world – to continue?
Like I said, this post is nothing regular readers don’t already know. I probably won’t make another “reminder” post for a while, but there’s my statement. I can only hope it impresses on some of its intended readers, but one can only hope for so much.
I’ve thought that this was an incredibly inspiring scene ever since I was young.
Is it any wonder that now I talk about HBD?
I realize that many people out there may not like some of the conclusions I draw on my blog, because they are quite pessimistic – at least, to people with certain hopes and expectations. This includes many people in the HBD world. And to that, I say that you just need to get over it. Only by coming to terms with what you cannot do can you possibly begin to ponder what you can do. If the realities of human nature render your hope on how to make a better world impossible, merely wishing it were not so is not going to help your cause. But instead, better results can be attained to by working with what we learn about human nature. This is one of the hopes of my blog, and I think, one of the hopes of most people who research this topic. This is why I believe that the wisdom in the Serenity Prayer is incredibly powerful. It would be helpful for people who want to help society to keep these words in mind, be they secular or spiritual; liberal, moderate, or conservative.
(Prayer referenced from Wikipedia. Photo by me)
Continuing my inquiry into this matter, one question that hasn’t been satisfactorily answered is why has the obesity rate shot up in the past few decades? As I’ve made plain in previous posts, variation in obesity between individuals within a group at any given time is largely heritable, as is a good portion of the variation between groups. But, the variation over time – particularly the short timeframes seen over the last few decades couldn’t be due to genetic forces, since evolution doesn’t proceed that quickly. Something(s) in the environment must have changed. But what? Pinning these factors down has been an elusive quest, but I wanted to take a look at where the evidence stands. So I did a quick look into the matter, and this is what I found.
Here’s a graph of the U.S. obesity rate. We a fairly sharp rise beginning around 1980ish.
Of all the explanations for this pattern, by far the simplest explanation is that we’re just eating more. And indeed, that is the explanation pursued by Stephan Guyenet in his post Seduced by Food. Here is the same graph with calorie intake over that time superimposed on it:
So it would seem there it is: we are apparently eating more. But if so, then why? Advocates of particular diets, particularly low-carb and “paleo” diets, like to blame particular nutrients. At first glance, sugar, particularly fructose, seems a prime candidate:
Rates of sugar consumption seems to track the obesity rate. One might naively concluded that that’s the culprit. However, what if sugar was only one ingredient in a larger pie, so to speak?
What if consumption of many things increased, of which sugar is only one? Guyenet explains:
The reward system does the same thing with foods/beverages that contain drugs, such as coffee and beer, gradually making bitter fluids palatable and then delicious. Eventually, you may go out of your way to purchase the cheese or beer at the grocery store, and maybe you’ll consume cheese or beer even if you aren’t hungry or thirsty, simply because you like it. This is an example of the reward system reinforcing and motivating behaviors related to foods it considers desirable. What does the reward system consider desirable? Calorie density, fat, starch, sugar, salt, free glutamate (umami), certain textures (easily chewed, soft or crunchy, solid fat), certain flavors, an absence of bitterness, food variety, and drugs such as alcohol and caffeine. Our brains are highly attuned to these qualities because they’re all elements of nutritious, calorie-dense foods that would have sustained our ancestors in a natural environment, but today, the exaggerated combinations of these qualities used by processed food manufacturers, chefs and sometimes even home cooks overstimulate our natural reward pathways (19). Commercial foods are professionally designed to maximize reward, because reward is precisely what keeps you coming back for more. Processed junk foods such as ice cream, fast food, sweetened soda, cookies, cake, candy, pizza and deep fried foods are all archetypal hyper-rewarding foods.
Palatability is a related concept—it’s determined in part by inborn preferences (e.g., a taste for sugar and energy dense foods), and in part by the reward system (acquired tastes). Palatability is governed by the hedonic system in the brain, which is closely integrated with the reward system. Imagine yourself sitting at the dinner table, stuffed after a large meal. Then the cake and ice cream appear, and suddenly you have enough room left for another 250 calories of food. Would you have eaten a large, unseasoned baked potato (250 calories) if someone had put one in front of you at that point? Foods that stimulate the hedonic system have a well known ability to increase food intake, and this effect can be replicated using drugs that activate these circuits directly (20). The reward system is what motivates you to get food and put it to your lips, every time you eat. When scientists shut it down in mice, they stop seeking food, even though they’ll still eat if it’s put into their mouths (21). The hedonic system influences how much you eat once you begin a meal (22). Together, reward and hedonic circuitry in the brain determine in large part how often you seek food, what foods you select, and how much you eat at a sitting.
Reward and hedonic systems, if stimulated in the right way by food or drugs, can increase food intake and body fatness. The marijuana ‘munchies’ (whose existence have been confirmed by science) are a good example of what happens when they’re chemically stimulated via the CB1 cannabinoid receptor in the brain (23). One of the most effective weight loss drugs ever developed, Rimonabant, is basically ‘reverse marijuana’, blocking the very same CB1 receptor that marijuana activates. Although it clearly reduces food intake and body fatness, it has failed to gain FDA approval because of negative psychological side effects (big surprise).
The ability of reward and palatability to influence food intake and body weight is mediated by connections between reward/hedonic and energy homeostasis systems. For example, if you haven’t eaten in a while, your brain detects declining energy stores and acts to increase food intake. It does this by increasing your motivation to obtain food, and your enjoyment of food once you obtain it— known as ‘hunger’, this sensation is caused in large part by energy homeostasis systems activating reward and hedonic systems. But the connection goes both ways. Reward and hedonic systems also influence energy homeostasis systems, such that excessively rewarding/palatable food can increase food intake and the level of body fat that’s ‘defended’ by the brain (24, 25, 26, 27). According to findings from my own research group (lab of Michael W. Schwartz) and others, the hypothalamus can also develop inflammation and chronic cellular damage that likely contributes to the defense of a higher fat mass as well, contributing to fat gain and making fat loss more difficult (28, 29), but the reason for this is not yet clear.
Addiction is what happens when the reward system is over-stimulated by drugs, sex, food or other high-reward stimuli. In susceptible people (about 3 percent of the US population), highly palatable/rewarding foods are quite literally addictive, leading to binge eating behavior. For the rest of us, these foods may not literally be addictive, but they do often drive us to eat them more than we think we should, despite negative consequences to our weight and health.
“Addiction.” Guyenet is being too restrictive in his use of the word, since we are all addicts (otherwise behavioral genetics wouldn’t work); the declaration of something as an addiction is a rather arbitrary matter that is more related to social acceptability/desirability than to any biological/neurological fact (for example, no one criticizes the fact that people in high latitude civilizations seem to like to work and often need to work, ala Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending; well a few people do, and I know some of them… ).
In short, apparently, we’re eating more of a lot of stuff – not just sugar – and perhaps this is what is making us fat. And this is because of the market economy, which has made food suppliers superbly skilled at feeding our cravings and ensuring that we continue to crave their products.
Guyenet’s blog provides plenty of visual examples:
For this reason, I believe obesity is here to stay. People buy junk food and stuff themselves with it because they like it. And junk food makers continue to make it because it’s what we buy – what we want to buy. And it’s made so tgar we can’t get enough of it. In many ways, this is perhaps one of the great markers of modernity: gone are the days when food was limited, bland, and uncertain. Now every edible delight one can desire can be had. The downside is that some of us become fat.
How does heredity play into this? Well, heredity influences both our susceptibility to indulging (and overindulging) in food (through our taste and through the psychological reward we get from eating certain foods) and through our the level of body fat our bodies and brains “defend”:
Over the ensuing century and a half, researchers gradually uncovered a network of circuits in the hypothalamus dedicated to maintaining the stability (homeostasis) of body fat stores, by regulating food intake, energy expenditure, and the deposition of energy in fat tissue. This research culminated in the discovery of an extraordinary hormone called leptin in 1994. Produced by fat tissue in proportion to its mass, leptin enters the circulation and acts in the hypothalamus to regulate body fat stores. If you consistently restrict food intake, fat mass declines and so does leptin, and this signals the hypothalamus to stimulate hunger and make the body use calories more efficiently, in an attempt to regain lost body fat (4). Conversely, if you consistently overeat, the increase in fat mass and leptin suppresses appetite and increases calorie use until body fat stores have declined back to baseline (5, 6). Leptin and a few other hormones are part of a negative feedback loop that acts unconsciously to keep fat mass in a specific range, sort of like a thermostat does for temperature (7, 8). This is called the ‘energy homeostasis system’.
So if we have this built-in system to regulate body fatness, how does anyone become obese? Some researchers believe the energy homeostasis system defends against fat loss more effectively than fat gain. However, most obese people regulate their body fat just fine, but their brains ‘defend’ it at a higher level than a lean person. Going back to the thermostat analogy, in obese people it’s like the ‘temperature’ has been gradually turned up. That’s why it’s so hard to maintain weight loss—when body fat stores decline, the brain thinks it’s starving even if fat mass remains high—and it acts to regain the lost fat.
That last point is primarily why diets don’t work for most people. After “unnaturally” restricting food intake, whether it be the composition or the quantity or both (at least, in a way that has become unnatural in today’s world), appetite doesn’t diminish and indeed often ramps up in an effort to restore the lost body fat.
In reality, almost any diet will generally cause its adherent to lose weight – if you can stick to it. The primary reason for diet failure is inability to stick to the diet (this includes low-carb and “paleo” diets). Guyenet discusses this:
Diet trials have shown that a ‘simple’ diet, low in palatability and reward value, reduces hunger and causes fat loss in obese humans and animals, apparently by lowering the ‘defended’ level of fat mass (30, 31, 32, 33). This may be a reason why virtually any diet in which food choices are restricted (e.g., Paleo, vegan, fruitarian), including diametrically opposed approaches like low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets, can reduce food intake and body fatness in clinical trials. As stated by Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “The common denominator of such diets is that neither allows consumption of the very caloric and seductive foods that combine high fat with high carbohydrates” (34). Hyper-rewarding/palatable foods—candy, chocolate, ice cream, chips, cookies, cakes, fast food, sweetened beverages and pizza—are uniquely fattening and should be the first foods to go in any fat loss attempt. Some people will benefit from further simplifying the diet.
The bottom line is that any diet requires discipline – indeed, an almost inhuman amount of disciple (especially for certain people). Diets are most successful amongst individuals willing to make considerable lifestyle changes, being mindful of what they’re eating at all times, and for the rest of their lives. That is, individuals with certain personality traits, particularly high on conscientiousness and low on neuroticism (and generally, higher in IQ) These individuals are highly unusual. Most people are quite incapable of living this way for the long term.
Long-term behavior modification, which would be required for successful weight loss for overweight individuals, is a central point of Daniel Callahan’s idea that obese people should be “shamed” into losing weight. Callahan’s thesis is that society is too permissive of overweight people and that is why they unable to lose weight. Numerous commenters have explained why he is likely wrong. One of his largest pieces of evidence is a study in which a treatment group received dietary guidance over two years and achieved (slightly) better weight loss than a control group that received no such counseling. Callahan believes that this is evidence overweight people can achieve permanent weight loss if they are given proper incentives.
The flaw in this idea should be obvious: there is no way to perform population-wide “counseling” necessary to achieve this effect; Callahan’s hopes are unrealistic.
It’s also worth noting that Callahan’s prime example, the decline of smoking, declines just as obesity was on the incline:
Shaming smoking didn’t get people to give up on their disgusting habits; it just caused them to trade one vice for another.
Of course, as we saw in my earlier posts, obesity is hardly everybody’s problem – even in the developed world. In the West, it’s primarily an Anglo/Celtic/Germanic problem (also a Latin American problem). Southern and Eastern Europeans seem much less affected, particularly the French. As well, it’s barely a problem in East Asia. In my previous post, I suggested genetic factors were at least partly to blame for this, and with what I’ve discussed in this post, I’m free to speculate on which genetic factors may be at play. The most obvious is metabolism: likely, these groups “defend” much lower levels of body fat. The others are behavioral, both on an individual and on a cultural level. On an individual level, taste, impulsivity, and palatability (as defined above) likely vary between groups. Perhaps the French, for example, are much less susceptible to the excesses of highly “palatable” food than say the Scots are.
On a cultural level, perhaps the collective attitudes and tastes prevents the food-industrial complex that feeds Anglos highly palatable foods from becoming established in these countries. This may explain the difference we see between France and Quebec, for example.
In any case, the existence of the food-industrial complex – one which supplies Westerners with highly palatable foods – means that it’s foolish to expect any meaningful reduction in obesity rates. The system would need to be dismantled – such that highly palatable foods were rendered scarce commodities – for reductions in obesity rates to take place. In a market economy, this prospect an exceedingly unlikely one.
Obesity may simply be a fact of life we need to accept in the modern world.
So if obesity is here to stay, what does this mean? This brings us to the key issue associated with obesity: health. Obesity is blamed for the poor health of many individuals in Anglo countries. As we saw in my previous post, the association between obesity and heart disease, while present, is weaker than we might believe. Furthermore, it’s unclear that lowering the obesity rate – even if that were possible – would improve cardiovascular outcomes.
For some food for thought, take a look at this:
Deaths from cardiovascular disease actually peaked during the Baby Boom years and have been declining ever since, in fact decline as obesity rates have risen. In short CVD is becoming less of a problem, not more. Surely, much of that is due to advances in medicine:
While there is some inquiry into the matter, it is clear that the link between obesity and health is even more tenuous than we’ve been led to believe, especially when you compare the CVD incidence map to the map of obesity:
There may not be much we can realistically do about obesity, and its causes may ultimately be pretty simple (genetics, too much tasty food), but yet nonetheless apparently intractable. But, that may be OK. The impact on health is not as severe as we might imagine. And despite the alarm of the term “obesity epidemic“, it may turn out that concern about its effects are primarily aesthetic ones. Some people may see that as itself a cause for alarm, but (if you will excuse the pun) perhaps we have bigger things to worry about.