“Wave of guzzling”

by Chris Bertram on July 23, 2004

I’d planned to post on the obesity panic before Belle’s latest , but no harm in making it theme of the day. I was reading John Ardagh’s Germany and the Germans and was interested to come across the following passage, which suggests that the current obesity panic in the US (and the UK) has a precedent in postwar German experience:

For centuries the Germans were famous for their hefty appetites—and their waistlines proved the point. The fat-faced, beer-bellied Bavarian, two-litre tankard in hand before a plate pile high with Wurst or dumplings, was a stock character and no far from reality. In pre-war days, poverty often dictated diets, and potatoes, bread and cakes were staple items of nutrition. In the 1950s this pattern changed dramatically as sheer greed steadily replaced subsistence eating. The Wirtschaftswunder period was equally that of the notorious “Fresswelle” (“wave of guzzling”), when a new-rich nation reacted against the deprivations of wartims by tucking in more avidly than ever before—and this time to a far richer diet. This continued until about the early 1970s, when alarming medical statistics appeared suggesting that 10 million Germans were overweight, including 25 per cent of children (spas began to offer cures for fat children).

Ardagh recounts that in the face of this panic the Germans did succeed in changing things, and that consumption of potatoes fell from 163 to 82 kilos per capita per annum between 1953 and 1987. Meanwhile consumption of fresh fruit and green vegetables went up over the same period.

{ 17 comments }

1

paul 07.23.04 at 2:57 pm

So to what horrid deprivations are we reacting, with our increased physical magnificence? I can attest to the obesity in school-age children: not mine, but I do see some kids at their school who are beyond the canonical “fat kid” I can remember from my own school days. I don’t deny the problem, but other than a lack of self-control and the food industry’s tendency to supersize everything, what is the root cause?

2

blurry 07.23.04 at 3:32 pm

Part of the root cause for the US might be the cost per calorie of low-nutrition versus high-nutrition food. Market intervention could raise the price of corn syrup and lower the cost of fresh vegetables.

Cost per calorie could also remain constant across food sizes. If a large soda has 2x the volume of a small, it should cost 2x as much, not a few cents more. Same for all fast/junk foods.

3

Simstim 07.23.04 at 3:45 pm

Paul,

I’d add lack of exercise. A combination of bad town planning (out-of-town shopping centres, ultra-low density suburbs) and near-universal car ownership means that people (and their children) no longer walk or cycle anywhere as a mode of transport. Indeed, even public transport usually requires a brisk walk to the station or bus stop. Unless you go to a gym or play some sort of sport, your average person’s biggest piece of exertion in an average day is across the car park.

4

praktike 07.23.04 at 3:55 pm

I blame the liberal media.

5

Mrs Tilton 07.23.04 at 4:10 pm

Ehh… as a rule those are not two- but one-litre tankards (a Mass; Munich is worth one). And that’s mostly limited to Bavaria, which is… different. Elsewhere one generally gets a halbe, .5l, or even .33l. And in Cologne one gets a thimble.

Mind you, there’s nothing says one can’t order refills.

6

The rake-thin and sour-toothed Count von Bladet 07.23.04 at 4:37 pm

Call me simple-minded, but I’d swap the potato consumption for cake consumption as a barometer of likely obesity any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.

Also, I finally fulfilled an important ambition when I got a litre (“liter”) glass of beer in Latvia, and now I find that there are (or have been) _2_-litre (“liter”) ones. This is very distressing. Even if a litre (“liter”) was large enough for the beer to be warm and flat by the time I got to the bottom, there are important principles at stake.

7

reuben 07.23.04 at 4:51 pm

Twice the cake on Sundays? Now that’s a national food policy I can get behind.

8

q 07.23.04 at 5:38 pm

Surely some bright spark (lefty or righty) can come up with a plan which simultaneously tackles the US problem of obesity and the Iraqi problem of unemployment.

Iraqi unemployment rate reaches 70%

How about employing the 10 million unemployed Iraqis as personal fitness trainers to the 10 million most obese Americans?

9

Cranky Observer 07.23.04 at 7:30 pm

Four factors that seem key to me:

1) Less exercise as previously noted

2) An “all snacks all the time culture”. Moms used to smack your hand for asking for a “treat” between meals. Now dad shovels out cookies and pop 24×7

3) Increasing use of trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils). I don’t entirely blame the food industry for this, as I am sure they felt forced in that direction by the desire for “low fat” snacks that tasted good, but the more I learn about trans fat the more it scares me

4) Supersizing. The human brain isn’t well suited to resisting modern marketing techniques, and the marketers shoved this one right down people’s throats – literally. Now it is built in to our culture and will be very hard to break. I remember in the late 80s/early 90s I used to ask chain restaurant servers if they could take my meal back and bring me 1/3 of what was on the plate.

Cranky

10

Walt Pohl 07.23.04 at 7:40 pm

q: That’s very funny.

11

Sebastian Holsclaw 07.23.04 at 8:07 pm

My advice: don’t drink so much soda pop.

12

Buffalo Gal 07.23.04 at 8:48 pm

As a warrior in the Fat Wars (the fat is winning), I am of two minds about this. One is that I recognize how hard it is to keep a healthy weight in the face of so much cheap, abundant, high-calorie food. The other is that I am greatly bothered by the defining of obesity as a disease. Our physiology hasn’t suddenly become diseased in the past generation; it’s our lifestyle that has gradually become more unhealthy. Saying, “oh, I have the obesity disease” simply lets us off the hook for our own behavior. Until the heart attack, that is.

13

denise 07.23.04 at 11:18 pm

Why don’t kids get as much exercise? In addition to cars and video games, which are always mentioned, there is also fear.

When I was a kid (chubby, but would not be on the radar screen as overweight compared to kids now), we were outside a greate deal of the time! Now, you can’t let your kids play in the front yard for fear of kidnapping; you can’t let them go to the pool all afternoon for fear of UV rays; you can’t let them run around in the back yard at night for fear of West Nile virus.

14

agm 07.23.04 at 11:41 pm

Well, I can mention a couple of things that have helped me over only since January.

1) Little to no soda. As a personal preference I decided to cut out soda since tea is so much more enjoyable. This has made much more of a difference than, say, cutting back on alcohol. (I’m a physics grad student; sobriety is not an option.)

2) Eating in more often. By dint of my budget (shades of comment 1 again) I have to cook most meals at home and buy cheap stuff. Thus lots of rice and vegetables, with meat of any kind exclusively when I go out since animal protien is so much more expensive.

3) No link between weight and health. Instead I keep a mental link between body fat and health since there’s such a large difference in density between fat and muscle.

3) Lots of dancing. Also good for mental health; see comment in 1 =).

As a result, I’ve lost about 5% by mass (~15 pounds out of ~265), but the composition has changed dramatically. I am slowly buying new clothes because the old ones are getting uncomfortably large, and I never have a shortage of follows.

15

bellatrys 07.24.04 at 11:36 pm

It’s partly genetic, in no small part. I have various friends with health issues that require careful diet management so I’ve learned some interesting things, because I also follow it in the science press from time to time.

One of them is that pretty much all the diet stuff being marketed is junk. (Hey, they’re trying to sell you stuff.) And most of your friends who think they know about nutrition and talk about sugars and fats and how we’re naturally carnivores (sporfle!) or how OTOH you should only eat soy (sporfle!) or whatever etc etc etc – haven’t a clue.

One thing which is true is that we evolved in an environment where sugars were rare, likewise salts and fats, so we tend to crave them because they *are* necessary. This is why food makes us not just *not hungry* but also *happy* and emotionally content. If we didn’t *want* the payoff for those hard-earned nutrients the species wouldn’t have survived, because it’s easier not to hunt and gather all the time, but you end up nutrionally deprived if you don’t. (Same is true for sex, ideally.)

But becase we have altered our environments so radically, this creates a problem: our instincts say to eat all of them (this is the same reason weasels kill more chickens than they can eat: they’re not evil, it’s just that there is no “off” switch because in nature there aren’t smorgasbords of flightless birds sitting there to be eaten by us), but we’ve increasingly made these nutrients easier to get. Just look at the size of a wild blueberry compared to domestic, or strawberry, and compare the taste too: there is much more flavor and tartness in the little original model. The “improved” versions we have bred are a) much larger and b) blander and a lot sweeter.

Same with corn, all fruits, and then of course sugar plantations themselves – it also feeds into world economis, guaranteed cheap sugar a thing wars have been fought over.

So some of it is ancestral, ancient omnivore heredity.

Then there is the individual aspect, which is where your parents’ lifestyles come in. Just as you can be born a drug addict no fault of your own, you can be born a food addict. If your mother didn’t get proper nutrition – and this can be through dieting, and yes, doctors did used to in the bad old days when they said smoking was okay, tell mothers to diet so they wouldn’t have unhealthy children. (!) Or it can be through eating only junk food, or a biochemical imbalance, or sickness or the like.

Either way, before you were born your system was programmed to think that there was famine in the world outside, and so it was critical that you not only digest your food and store it in the normal way, but that you load up extra good, because there wouldn’t be much.

Of course, modern habits of not walking and not doing manual labour, plus all the supersizing – and parents who instil a hideous guilt in kids who don’t “clean your plate, they’re starving in Africa!” are doing them a TERRIBLE disservice – are real factors. But it isn’t as simple as “fat people are lazy,” by any means. Healthier foods are expensive, too, and this isn’t a small thing if you’re living on the edge; and again with the economics, there is a cold war going on where the food instutries don’t want people eating less corn sugars and processed foods.

(There’s also the environmental factor, where in a lot of places the air quality is too bad to let kids go play outdoors much of the time…)

16

bellatrys 07.25.04 at 12:00 am

Of course, there is always the Alternative Thought take on things, which includes the commentators (we few, we deranged few, we band of buggers) – this from one gark, bringing it back more onto the economics topic:

Do you realize what you’re advocating, my man? I’m appalled at your suggestion that it would be right to liposuction the fat man. The fat man has a right to that fat. The fat man’s fat is the hard-won profit from all the years he spent diligently eating. For them to take his fat for the benefit of the less-fat is nothing less than pure, evil Socialism. If the less-fat had been more diligent, they’d have their own fat and could be stopping up their own mineshafts right now. But no—you want to redistributr the fat of the righteous to a bunck of whining state-dependant pissants…

17

Tracy 07.26.04 at 9:10 am

Cranky – I feel impelled to defend the definition of the word “literally”, so we have a word we can use in opposition to figuratively. If food marketers were literally shoving food down people’s throats, the police would have been called in on a regular basis to charge them with assault. My throat hurts at just the thought of someone doing that to me.

Hyperbole about high pressure marketing tactics in order to call up strong mental images is all very well and good, destroying useful words in the process is not.

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