Magic hat

Illuminating the Obesity Epidemic With Mathematics

is the title of a new paper by Dr. Carson Chow. A recent New York Times article captures Chow’s conclusions succinctly, “There’s no magic bullet on this.” So, what does it take?

A mathematician, Carson Chow has modeled the obesity epidemic. While some of the findings are surprising (e.g., an extra 10 calories a day puts more weight onto an obese person than a thinner one), the main message of his modeling is not. There’s too much food around, and we eat it.

As Claudia Dreifus summarized well in her recent New York Times article (May 14, 2012), A Conversation with Carson Chow: A Mathematical Challenge to Obesity, “weight change, up or down, takes a very, very long time.” You can experiment using your own data in this model at

Ironically, one of the key messages is that nobody wants to hear Chow’s message. The food industry is invested in selling food. They don’t want to hear about a need to reduce consumption. Neither do the consumers. It takes effort not to eat when you’re tempted by a plentitude of food.

The take-away message for me is that “it takes effort.” In fact, Dreifus ends her article by writing, “You simply have to cut calories and be vigilant for the rest of your life.”

Ouch. Now, there’s an “inconvenient truth,” as we’ve become accustomed to saying.

So, it’s about self-control. As Daniel Kahneman has explained in Thinking, Fast and Slow, it’s our System 1 (the “fast” thinking system) that’s primed to consume, and it’s System 2 (the “slow” thinking system) that has to deliberate, suppress impulses and otherwise act volitionally to avoid over-consumption. Kahneman also argues that System 2 thinking is lazy. It takes a lot of effort to reason according to logical standards, to articulate rules, to be analytic. We typically don’t want to invest in System 2 thinking. Perhaps that’s why Chow documented at 20-pound increase in average weight between 1975 and 2005. We’re too lazy to put in the effort.

Of course, being strategic helps. Although it always takes effort to exert self-control, it’s easier when we’re rested, well nourished, alert and committed to a goal. As I and other bloggers here on Psychology Today have written, strategies like making specific implementation intentions help too.

The thing is, there is no magic bullet. I like how clearly Dreifus put it, “cut calories and be vigilant for the rest of your life.” Actually, if you’re dutiful and vigilant long enough, you’ll probably establish a new habit, and it will become easier. Yet that takes us back to one of Chow’s main findings—all of this takes more time than we’d like to imagine.

It’s not surprising that Chow’s model and his conclusions are controversial. It may not only be an inconvenient truth, but it’s mathematics, and as Kahneman has also shown in his work and a review of related research, people are simply not good at thinking mathematically. It’s a System 2 type thinking that we’d rather avoid.

Inconvenient or not, the truth is about the sustained effort required to exert self-control in our goal pursuit. Here too, a recent book provides insight. This time, it’s Alfred Mele’s Backsliding: Understanding Weakness Of Will. Mele does an excellent job of integrating philosophical issues with modern psychological research findings to help us understand our willpower shortcomings. At one point (p. 104), he quotes our colleague Roy Baumeister who has written “If it were up to me to set national policy in psychological matters, I would recommend replacing the cultivation of self-esteem with the cultivation of self-control” (Baumeister, 2002; p. 130).

Given that Chow’s research has identified the overproduction of food in the U.S.—the result of a national agricultural policy—as a main contributor to the obesity epidemic, maybe Baumeister’s suggested policy is exactly what we need. Let’s fight policy with policy. At least then we won’t be relying on what seems to be one of the weakest aspects of self to overcome some of our strongest desires which are being fueled by overproduction, low food costs and strategic marketing.

Baumeister, R. (2002). Ego depletion and self-control failure: An energy model of the self's executive function. Self and Identity, 1, 129-136.

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