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.