Freakonomics Radio, Fat Edition: Is the Obesity Epidemic for Real?
Is America’s Obesity Epidemic for Real? Hear from a 280-pound woman, a top White House doctor, and an overweight but underbelieving academic.
We’ve just completed our second full-length podcast. It’s called “Is America’s Obesity Epidemic for Real?” It costs $0.00. (The podcast, that is, not the epidemic.) Get it here at iTunes; if you subscribe, all future episodes will be delivered in your sleep. You can also get it here via RSS feed, read the transcript, or listen with the audio player above.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you could be forgiven for thinking, Geez, when will these guys shut up about fat already? True, we have written on the topic repeatedly, including: an astounding spike in bariatric surgery; the female-male weight gap; a possible connection between plumbing and obesity; the usefulness of posted calorie information in restaurants; whether behavioral nudges like “piano stairs” help keep people trim; and whether it may be time for a fat tax.
The podcast touches on several of these ideas and more, and features quite a few differing voices and views. It opens with four young women in New York who spent a recent Saturday evening consuming five meals, in a row, at five different establishments. To their credit, they walked from place to place, which had to burn a good 100 calories right there.
I tried to talk to Michelle Obama about “Let’s Move,” her new program to fight childhood obesity, but that interview never happened.
I did speak to a very good proxy: Ezekiel Emanuel, the M.D. and bioethicist who advises the White House on healthcare reform. (He is also the older brother of a certain chief of staff named Rahm; the third brother, FWIW, is Ari, who runs the talent agency now known as William Morris Endeavor, with whom I happen to do business.) Ezekiel made a strong case for government intervention in Americans’ eating habits. When I asked, however, if it was time for a cheeseburger tax, he made clear his limitations. “That’s a political question,” he said. “I think you got the wrong Emanuel brother.”
The podcast also explores the degree to which anti-fat sentiment is a moral one, as opposed to medical or economic. You’ll hear a bit from Steve Levitt on the topic, but more directly from Peggy Howell, a fat and proud woman who has a fascinating (and sobering) story to tell about fat discrimination.
I also interviewed my own physician, who specializes in diabetes control (thanks, Dr. Blum!), as well as Brian Wansink, the outspoken author of Mindless Eating, whose extensive research on eating habits — and his stint at the U.S.D.A., helping rebuild the food pyramid — has given him a ton of insight into the topic.
Perhaps the biggest star of the podcast, however, is someone you’d never think would have something useful to say about obesity: a political scientist. He’s Eric Oliver of the University of Chicago. He is the author of a book called Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic, and nearly all his research runs counter to the prevailing wisdom. In a nutshell, he argues that the “epidemic” is an overwrought product of moralism, shady statistics, and perversely misaligned incentives. His most controversial argument is that the causal relationship between weight and maladies like heart disease, cancer, and even diabetes has not been firmly established.
Here’s one exchange with Oliver from the podcast:
SJD: You write that in 2004, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that obesity is killing 400,000 people a year. Right, do I have that right? That obesity is killing 400,000 people a year?
EO: They issued an article that was published in the Journal of the America Medical Association claiming that, yes, obesity was killing 400,000 people a year.
SJD: And you vehemently disagree, correct?
EO: Well, there were a number of problems with this report, one of which is it was based on data that were about 30 years old. Secondly, the report itself made some computational errors that called into question the findings there in the conclusions. Another set of research from a different division of CDC then later issued a report that said, in fact, that number was probably closer to more like 20,000 people a year. And in fact there were just as many people dying from weighing too little as there were from weighing too much.
I hope you enjoy listening to the podcast; I very much enjoyed making it. As always, feedback is welcome, along with topics you’d like to see covered in the future.