We’re often told that we live in a “toxic environment.” This term was coined by the Yale professor and director of the Rudd Center For Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.
Wikipedia notes, Brownell uses the term “toxic” to describe:
[U]nparalleled exposure to high-calorie, high-fat, heavily marketed, inexpensive, and readily accessible foods. The toxic environment is the result of ubiquity of unhealthy, processed foods, an increasingly sedentary lifestyle in which individuals spend more time watching TV and using computers than they spend exercising, the explosion of fast food restaurants, the enormous growth of portion sizes, the power of food advertising and marketing, and the junk food industry’s take-over of schools by selling unhealthy items in vending machines, cafeterias, and through school fundraisers.
Leave aside the fact that the country has seen obesity epidemics in the absence of this “toxic environment” (Gary Taubes opened his recent cover story in Newsweek with this very observation), and focus on sedentary lifestyle as a causal factor in our nation’s obesity epidemic.
The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which is a survey research program conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States, and to track changes over time - in comparison of 1975 to 2006 - showed that the number of inactive people has diminished in this period from 50 percent to 24 percent, and looking at studies on North America and Europe, we are expending more energy than we used to while the obesity epidemic has been growing.
We've been told that we live in a toxic environment where we avoid exercise at every turn, yet the data doesn't support this observation. Health club industry revenues, for example, were $16 million in 1972. Today revenues are closer to $20 billion, a twenty-fold increase.
In 2007, The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research (WCRF/AICR) published a large report titled Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective.
Here is a small summary and recommendations for preventing cancer:
- Be as lean as possible within the normal range of body weight
- Be physically active
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Sedentary ways of life are a cause of cancers and of weight gain, overweight, and obesity
In other words, sedentary behavior is carcinogenic. By this logic, if you’re reading this, it’s causing cancer (unless you’re multitasking on the treadmill), and in this way it’s ostensibly no different from smoking cigarettes. That this notion is obviously absurd (but a natural consequence of the conclusions by the WCRF/AICR) should be a clue that this is flawed logic and the idea that sedentary behavior causes obesity is equally flawed.
We have always had plenty of relatively sedentary children. We haven't always had plenty of obese children. When a child is a "bookworm," it may not be a great idea to keep him away from the classics and point out that the latest edition of Harry Potter causes cancer. And, it might be interesting to note that Potter himself, his fellow bookwormish friends, and the common stereotype portray these people as bespectacled and slight, not obese.
Why would the inactivity of computer games, for example, (have you seen someone play Modern Warfare? I wouldn't exactly call this a sedentary behavior) or watching SpongeBob be any more fat-promoting than the inactivity of reading books, back when books were the choice for indoor entertainment?
So what happened to Fat Albert? Was he sneaking in games of Halo, which produced his corpulence despite being otherwise active?
The authorities have turned to a toxic environment of sedentary behavior to help explain the obesity epidemic, but they seem to pick and choose what’s toxic, or causing cancer, and what’s not:
- Watching Family Guy: TOXIC
- Reading: NON-TOXIC?
- Surfing the Internet: TOXIC
- Studying: NON-TOXIC?
- Playing video games: TOXIC
- Surfing the Internet for School: NON-TOXIC?
- Sitting on the couch: TOXIC
- Watching a video for school: NON-TOXIC?
- Sitting in your car: TOXIC
- Sitting in class: NON-TOXIC?
- Dozing off in class: TOXIC
- Sleeping: NON-TOXIC?
Using the logic of the WCRF/AICF, and presumably the various organizations that believe sedentary behavior causes obesity, all of the above are TOXIC and cause cancer, weight gain and obesity.
Being active is important part of a healthy lifestyle, but being sedentary is not a cause of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, rather it’s a side effect of an underlying disorder of excess fat accumulation.
As Susan Sontag wrote more than 30 years ago: “Theories that diseases are caused by mental states and can be cured by will power are always an index of how much is not understood about a disease.”
When you're trapped in a foolish paradigm, your conclusions are going to look foolish, too.
Bob Kaplan holds advance degrees in exercise physiology and business, an undergraduate degree in nutrition, is a nationally certified personal trainer, and owns six locations in Bedford, Wayland, Wellesley, Westford, Weston, and Winchester.