The Strangest Factor Yet for Rising Obesity?


We’ve posted repeatedly on this blog about the rise in U.S. obesity and its causes. While there may really be only one “cause” — calories are cheap and plentiful, and consuming them is fun — there are surely a number of contributing factors, including a decrease in smoking, the prevalence of restaurants that serve large portions, and so on.

The other day, while reading a children’s book called When I Was Young in the Mountains to my daughter, I came across a passage that made me wonder about another possible contributing factor:

When I was young in the mountains,

Grandmother spread the table with hot

corn bread, pinto beans, and fried okra.

Later, in the middle of the night,

she walked through the grass with me to the

johnny-house and held my hand in the dark.

I promised never to eat more than one serving of okra again.

Is it possible that the availability of good plumbing has contributed to our national weight gain? This may sound ludicrous, but think about it for just a moment. Very few people have to trek through the night to use an outhouse anymore; furthermore, restroom facilities are readily available just about everywhere — which means you don’t have to worry about getting rid of your waste, which frees you up to consume as much as you’d like.

As a kid, I remember taking a long bus ride to New York City for a ballgame. There was no bathroom on the bus. No one on the bus was drinking anything either. (Yes, this was before you could readily buy bottled water; but there were such things as cans of soda.)

A few times in the recent past, I’ve rented a summer house with no garbage pickup. This meant not only paying for how much waste you produce, but also storing your trash until the one day that the dump is open. During these times, our behavior changed radically: not only did we compost all our food waste to cut down on stink, but we thought about everything we bought before we bought it to make sure we wanted to deal with the waste. As a result, we bought a lot less.

I know of no legitimate research connecting plumbing and obesity, though I would be interested in hearing from anyone who does.

The idea does remind me a bit of a book by the economist Werner Troesken called Water, Race, and Disease. It argues that life expectancy for African-Americans rose even at the peak of the Jim Crow era because of unintended consequences of white racism: in their zeal to “protect” white neighborhoods against waste from black neighborhoods, public officials upgraded the sewer and water systems in black neighborhoods.

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  1. Dan G says:

    I think the argument can be stretched to include a much broader range of activities. I essence, you could argue that the increase availability and lower cost of “convenience” is fueling the growth of obesity. Gleaning any causality out of all the correlation would be a herculian effort, but it makes a whole lot of sense, and it’s fairly easy to understand.

    Tangentially, I wonder how much “convenience” collectively produces annually. It might be interesting to see exactly how much our fat behinds is costing us (or at least how much it’s worth to us).

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  2. Steven says:

    I think this article makes a good point, however, I don’t think plumbing is the key. With the introduction of plumbing, numerous other technological things have come about. I would say techonology in general, as people were required to walk less(cars, trains), eat more(stoves, microwaves), play easier(tv, atari, video games). When there were outhouses, people had to rely more on their own feet for transportation, and were more outdoors related, aka less technologically dependent.

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  3. Nancy says:

    Try mentioning any modern convenience.

    microwaves make snacking and reheating all that stuff in 22 cubic foot refrigerator/freezers too easy.

    Get a dorm size fridge, get rid of the microwave and live one mile from any grocery store or restaurant.. Hide the keys to the cars.

    For more tips for call 1-800-jenny, you got my number. Send your spare $change so i can give it to my favorite los hobos.

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  4. RZ says:

    Seems to me it’s all about the modern lifestyle…

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  5. Mark B. says:

    Good points about convenience and consumption, but perhaps plumbing is not the best example. Biologically, increased food consumption does not correlate that well with frequency of waste expulsion. You would find a much better correlation between liquid intake and such use of plumbing facilities.

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  6. PedroCMS says:

    @ #2 (Steven)

    I agree completely. Making life easier for Americans is indirectly making it worse. Video games, the Internet, stoves and microwaves, personal computers, and many more things have made life easier and more comfortable for people. This ultimately means that our bodies are having to do less work than the body of an average person in the early 20th century.

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  7. JoseAngelCMS says:

    Toilets are causing obesity?

    It may be a contributing factor, but in this case, what can the solution be, tax the toilet factories more for producing toilets, and that way they are more expensive and people will not be willing to pay such high price, or forcing people to have an outhouse? Both of these solutions are not very intelligent ones, but they are the only solutions to the case.

    As Dubner said, the main cause is still the selling of calories at a cheap price. If people can get hold of these calories for a cheap price, and they really want to eat, then they wouldn’t care taking the trip to the outhouse, but the problem arises. People would maybe go to fast food restaurants, where the toilets are also inside, and the people are still going to be eating and obesity will remain a main problem.

    In this case, the technology of having indoor toilets exists, and since toilets are a necessity, people shouldn’t be forced to go to an outhouse to go to the toilet, so if having toilets inside is a cause for obesity, then, this is one cause that cannot be fought.

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  8. Andre says:

    Sorry, I still think most of our health problems boil down to chemicals being cheap and nutrients being expensive. Nobody ever got fat eating carrots is what I’m saying. HFCS, hydrogenated oils, etc.. are cheap to produce and last forever. Therefore they are cheap for consumers who don’t have to worry about them spoiling.

    Side note:

    Am I the only one that finds anything wrong with burgers that cost $1. Just seems wrong to me.

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