TCS Daily


Darwin's Dangerous Diet

By Kenneth Green - July 3, 2002 12:00 AM

Conservatives say it's sloth that makes you fat. Liberals say that it's urban sprawl that makes you fat. Public health crusaders say that it's the evil fast-food industry that makes you fat. Most physicians are stuck in the 1940s and think all you need is a mimeographed copy of the USDA food pyramid and a 1200 calorie-a-day diet that wouldn't satisfy a Buddhist monk.

Well, as someone who has been locked in mortal combat with his weight since he was eight, and who subsequently studied more than his fair share of biology, I suggest that everybody take a deep breath, then take a few classes in evolutionary theory and the bell-shaped curve.

We don't need a new, wild-eyed theory to explain why people are getting fatter. We don't need to hunt for new causes, or new villains, or new social factors, or increases in the sin of sloth. There is already a perfectly fine theory that explains the global fattening we're seeing. That theory is called evolution.

Simply put, evolution favors a distribution of traits among people. Traits like height, bone thickness, musical ability, hair density, and so on. This distribution of traits extends all the way down to the molecular level. Some people have more effective milk-digesting enzymes than others. Some have more effective blood-sugar regulating enzymes than others.

The upshot is, some people wring more calories out of the food they eat. Some people spend less calories than others to do the same amount of work. Some people's nervous system makes them feel hungry more often -- and sated more slowly -- than others. Those energy-efficient traits are pretty valuable evolutionarily, and so, where food becomes plentiful and cheap, people get fat. No conspiracies need apply.

Now, let's talk about the "solutions" floating about out there. Most conservatives basically say, "buck up, fatty! It's your civic duty to get out there and jog, so you can be most productive in the War on Whatever. The President got his act together, so can you!" Meanwhile, many liberals and "public-health" activists say, "Hey Mr. Fat-person, you're a victim of the horribly evil food-marketers who are hooking you on fat like some kind of crack-whore. Worse, you're consuming our public health money, and dying before you pay enough taxes to satisfy us. So, we're going to take control of your lifestyle for your own good and tax that french-fry right out of your fat little fingers!" Finally, most physicians have taken the radical step of giving out the same nonsense suggestions on computer printouts instead of mimeographs.

Thanks for the advice, but I respectfully suggest that you think again. Instead, consider a few ideas that might change the complexion of the increasingly insane war on fat.

First, how about we do something to remove some of the restrictions that keep people from really taking control of their own weight? As soon as something pops up that starts working, some ambulance-chasing lawyer finds someone they can represent as a victim and gets it banned, or some FDA bureaucrat starts trying to regulate it more (if they actually bothered to let it onto the American market in the first place!). I'm still hearing phen-fen lawsuit commercials even though more and more studies come out showing there was little or no risk involved in using that drug combination to lose weight.

Now they're going after ephedra, since the 'buzz' is out there that it actually works to help you stay thin. Yes, these drugs might have side effects, but so does everything else. How about we get our regulatory agencies to let people decide whether they're willing to risk the side effect of some drug or surgical procedure that might work for them rather than just waiting to drop dead of a heart attack?

A bit more sound science in schools, courtrooms, and regulatory agencies might make for a people who are less likely to fall for every health-scare hoax ginned up by a trial lawyer or scaremonger.

And how about we drop this lunatic notion that one's entire life is owned by the state, and every sick-leave day you take deprives "our nation" of something you owe it?

Finally, how about taking some of that government money that's used to promote the USDA-food-pyramid-high-carb-low-fat diet thing and giving it to researchers who promise to study anything but that, since after 50 years of experience with it we know it doesn't work.

Of course, we're unlikely to see proposals to solve the nation's "fat problem" through acceptance, science education, personal empowerment, and deregulation. After all, none of those approaches help flag-wavers, trial lawyers, and tax-seeking politicians to justify wringing money and energy out of people whose main victimizer is a dead white European guy named Darwin.

Dr. Kenneth Green is chief scientist at the Reason Foundation. Before you ask, yes, I'm fat.
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