Why people get fat, from a systems perspective

June 25, 2014 by Joshua
in Fitness

Most people look at fitness from an individual perspective—what you eat, how much you eat, how much you exercise, who you spend time with, and so on. I find that perspective useful for many purposes, but not all. I consider it the most important perspective for the individual to plan what to do about their fitness.

People don’t live in vacuums. They have contexts. I find a systems perspective helpful to understand this context because we’ve created an environment where a lot of people are going to get fat, no matter how diligent we think people can be.

If you create a system that keeps people, including medical doctors, ignorant about nutrition and fitness, pay food producers hundreds of billions of dollars to produce and distribute unhealthy food, create an infrastructure that makes people sedentary and exercise inconvenient, advertise candy and junk as exciting and fun, and generally value being sedentary, you’re going to make many people fat, even if they want to be fit. No matter how strong-willed and intentioned a person, a system like we’ve created will overwhelm a big portion of them/us.

A powerful system doesn’t mean you as an individual can’t find ways to eat healthily and exercise effectively! You can. In my experience doing so improves your life.

Education

Medical schools hardly teach nutrition.

Our schools don’t teach nutrition effectively. Junk food producers sponsor texts and pay for vending machines and ads to blanket schools as much as they can. The food pyramid is confusing and keeps changing. I think it’s a plate now, but I can’t understand how it’s suggesting I eat.

I didn’t even know until recently that fruit juice is no healthier than soda. When I wrote about Coke and Pepsi make most orange juice and how much they process it a few years ago “When 100% orange juice isn’t: Pepsi, Coke, and agribusiness turn fruit into chemical concoctions,” someone from some PR firm wrote me to try to get me to change what I wrote.

Government funding

The U.S. government subsidizes farms with about $20 billion per year, with corn receiving the most, about a third. Comparing subsidies to apples, over five years we subsidized $16.9 billion to corn and soy syrups and oils versus $0.26 billion for apples.

Farm aid sounds nice if you think of farms like this:

Idyllic farmBut today they are more like this:

Factory FarmGovernment subsidies motivate farmers to produce volume of food, not necessarily nutritional value. And while farmers used to make up 25% of the U.S. population, they now make up less than 2% so typical decision-makers probably look more corporate than like farmers from picture books.

Smoke Filled RoomThe U.S. also spends nearly $200 billion for food to indigent people. Sounds nice, but it pays for cheap, easy-to-store things like high-sugar juices, but not, for example, fresh fruit.

The U.S. Government stated that the only problem with refined sugar was that it caused tooth decay.

Health insurance

Our health insurance pays for cures more than prevention.

Infrastructure

Most Americans couldn’t walk or bike to work if they wanted. How many of us live lives where we break a sweat without having to schedule it, let alone get their heart rate up for more than a couple minutes?

Advertising

Fast food companies spend over $3 billion to advertise, much of it to children, much of that to children illegal. You may have never seen an ad for asparagus.

We advertise convenience, comfort, and avoiding physical labor.

Cultural values

Our culture values many things, but convenience, comfort, and avoiding physical labor seem particularly high.

We value sports, but in an odd way. We promote them to children, but few adults actively play sports. We tend to value more passively watching them. While eating unhealthy “food.” With lots of advertising for more unhealthy “food.”

Summary

I can’t help but repeat what I wrote above.

If you create a system that keeps people, including medical doctors, ignorant about nutrition and fitness, pay food producers hundreds of billions of dollars to produce and distribute unhealthy food, create an infrastructure that makes people sedentary and exercise inconvenient, advertise candy and junk as exciting and fun, and generally value being sedentary, you’re going to make many people fat, even if they want to be fit. No matter how strong-willed and intentioned a person, a system like we’ve created will overwhelm a big portion of them/us.

A powerful system doesn’t mean you as an individual can’t find ways to eat healthily and exercise effectively!

Read my weekly newsletter

Initiative leadership spodek

On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter