A Mathematical Challenge to Obesity – NYTimes.com

Seems to be obesity awareness week with the HBO The Weight of the Nation and a number of other articles. Interesting use of mathematical modelling to predict and analyze obesity. Key points:

  1. The fatter one gets, the easier it is to gain wait.
  2. It takes about 3 years to reach a new steady state – so quick diets don’t work.
  3. Average food intake over the year is more important than daily variations.
  4. Levels of physical activity had not changed much over the past 30 years – food ‘supply’ – and consumption – has.
  5. One key policy prescription is to stop marketing food to children.

I think the food industry doesn’t want to know it (that food supply is the issue). And ordinary people don’t particularly want to hear this, either. It’s so easy for someone to go out and eat 6,000 calories a day. There’s no magic bullet on this. You simply have to cut calories and be vigilant for the rest of your life.

A Mathematical Challenge to Obesity – NYTimes.com.

And a critique in Scientific American, noting that obesity is not as simple as a physicist or mathematical model of a single equation. Quote:

But perhaps a calorie is not just a calorie. Perhaps, as some prominent researchers argue, the body processes calories from sugar in a fundamentally unique and harmful way. According to this hypothesis, we’re not getting fat because we’re eating more. We’re getting fat because of what we’re eating more of. The biochemistry that explains why this would happen is complex—certainly difficult to include in a computer model—but that doesn’t make it wrong.

Ultimately experiments will decide if this hypothesis is true, or if it is not true, or if it is true but just one part of a nuanced understanding of obesity that includes biochemistry, microbiologyneurobiologypoliticseconomics and much more. The obesity crisis isn’t rocket science. It’s complicated.

From an individual perspective, the simple equation approach (eat less, particularly sugars and fats, exercise more) works for me. From a societal and public policy level, in terms of changing behaviours, it is much more complex as noted above – not rocket science but complicated.

The Mathematician’s Obesity Fallacy


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