Once battling starvation, some developing countries now face rising obesity rates. What’s causing it?

In 1975, four percent of school-age kids were overweight and the NCD Risk Factor Collaboration says that was up to 18 percent in 2016. Like with smoking and alcoholism, obesity is often a pediatric disease – people who start early are far more likely to keep doing it in adulthood.

Obese people have shorter life expectancy and risk factors like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease and the easiest indicator for obesity is weight gain.

Is that increase in childhood weight due to less exercise? It’s not a bad deduction, since all weight gain occurs because more calories are consumed than burned, but a new paper finds that it is instead increased calories, including in more rural areas that are less wealthy but more active than rural kids.

In 1975, obesity was not a worldwide issue because some elites instead believed there was a Malthusian population bomb looming and that mass starvation and forced sterilization were not only coming soon but needed. The Obama Administration’s “Science Czar”, John Holdren, Ph.D, even co-authored a book with famed doomsday prophet Paul Ehrlich, Ph.D, outlining their concerns. Science ignored the nihilism and now feeds the world for less money using less energy, water, and land per calorie than at any time in history. That keeps food costs low, which overwhelmingly benefits the poor, who can then use that excess money to live better lives. Yet people with choices will often choose pleasure, including buying a hamburger instead of overpriced quinoa.

Will eating traditional Shuar lunch items make you thinner? It’s almost certain to appear in a diet book, and therefore on the New York Times bestseller list, because correlation can do anything, but the reality is it’s calories. Credit: Samuel Urlacher

The paper finds that consuming more calories makes the difference rather than having less exercise. The world of science already knew that, of course, but food activists who want to sue food companies and their allies in academia have instead argued that specific foods make people fat; high-fructose corn syrup but not honey, for example, even though the fructose content is the same. Trans fats in donuts but not the donuts themselves. You get the idea.

While bad correlation gets a lot of traction in places that believe in non-denominational mysticism, like the New York Times, it makes no more sense than the astrology and acupuncture the Times also covers way too much. People lose weight 100 percent of the time if they cut calories. That guy who did that movie where he ate McDonald’s every day left out of his shockumentary that he was eating 250 percent of the calories he should have been eating. The same experiment by a skeptical nutrition expert ate the normal number of calories and had no ill effects despite a diet of 100 percent “junk” food.

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The authors are actually more in the ‘some food is worse for you’ camp even though a critical look at their own evidence doesn’t show it. No observational paper can do that, it is why they are in the exploratory camp rather than ‘X leads to Y’ that chemistry, biology, and toxicology do.

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Though this is a cross-sectional analysis – asking a group of people one time about their behavior and looking at their health – they still make the leap from ‘more calories without more activity’ to blaming weight gain on the fact that city kids have more access to purchased food, and even claim that their immune activity is different so therefore it must be causal. That is completely speculative. Health experts should be alarmed because that is the same argument the anti-vaccine space use when they are throwing measles parties for kids; more nature fixes everything.

The speculation aside, the data are good, especially because they are not western kids, they include indigenous Amazonian children. And the data show that eating too much is the problem – but it is a better problem than developing countries used to have, when the boom and bust of famine cycles led to mass starvation and deaths.

Hank Campbell is the founder of Science 2.0 and co-author of the book Science Left Behind. Follow him on Twitter @HankCampbell

A version of this article was originally posted at Science 2.0 and has been reposted here with permission. Science 2.0 can be found on Twitter @science2_0

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