The Overweight Mystery
By David Henderson
Note: So many bloggers, including my fellow bloggers at EconLog, have posted on Covid-19. You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t. The reason is simple: I haven’t had anything to say beyond the sensible things I’ve seen by others, including co-bloggers Scott Sumner, Pierre Lemieux, and Alberto Mingardi. I am thinking about something but it involves more research and so it will be a day or 3 before I post on it.
Scott Alexander, over at slatestarcodex.com, knocks it out of the park yet again with a thoughtful piece titled “For, Then Against, High-Saturated-Fat Diets,” March 10. There’s no way I can summarize it. It’s a typical long Scott Alexander post, walking the reader through a labyrinth of reasoning.
The bottom line I got out of it is that why we in the United States are so overweight on average is a bit of a mystery.
But it did get me thinking about some basics. And so here’s my contribution to the discussion. I admit in advance that this is based on a sample size of one.
I think the basic reason is the incredible increase in wealth in North America. I’m referring to two components of wealth. The first, and more obvious one, is that we can afford so much food. The second, and less obvious, is that our jobs have changed so much that there is much less physical labor involved.
I’ll focus on the first. I didn’t study median income when I was a kid, but I did pay a lot of attention to consumption. My father was a high-school teacher and my mother taught piano lessons part-time to earn money for things like clothing and booze. Because my father was always worried about the next depression, he saved a large part of his income and put it in Canadian government bonds: he literally never bought a stock in his life. Because he saved so much, we consumed less than the median family did. We ate fine, but not fancy, and never had seconds at a meal. We didn’t starve or come close. It’s just that I got up from the dinner table still slightly hungry. We were allowed snacks at night but nothing fancy, which probably limited our snacking. I still remember that when we would complain about the small range of neat snacks available–no cookies or ice cream, except on special occasions–my mother would say “If you’re not bread and butter hungry, you’re not hungry.”
The big change happened in the summer of 1969. That summer, at age 18, I hitchhiked up to Thompson, Manitoba and got a job in an underground nickel mine. The employer took $1.50 or $2.50 (I’ve forgotten which) out of our daily pay for room and board. The room was very small and shared with another guy, Harry Subtelny. The board was incredible. We could eat all we wanted and the food was very good. When I was on night shift, I would wake up at about 11:30 a.m. and go for lunch. At lunch, I would typically have 2 pieces of pumpkin pie (half a pie) for dessert. At dinner, before going down into the mine for night shift, I would often have 2 more pieces of pumpkin pie for dessert. In other words, I would sometimes eat a pie a day.
When I returned to Winnipeg in mid-August, I had filled out. I wasn’t fat; I wasn’t even overweight. I was just no longer skinny. I was solid and probably about 10 pounds heavier than at the start of the summer, which probably put me (I don’t recall clearly) at about 140 to 145 pounds. (I’m 5’5″ tall.) Years later my sister, April, told me that when she saw me in mid-August, that’s the first time she thought of me as a man and not a boy. A friend recently pointed out, when I told him that story, that she was probably observing not just my body but also my maturity that came from working and living in close quarters for 3 months with 300 guys age 19 to 62. (That’s right; I was the youngest. I’m pretty sure also, that with 2 years of college under my belt, I was the most formally educated of all 300.)
I went back to the strict diet, due solely to my low wealth, and stayed with it through graduate school. Only when I got to the University of Rochester and had a really nice salary did I start eating more.
That caused me to put on another few pounds, probably up to about 150. I stayed there for a long time. Then, when we had our daughter in December 1984, and I was trying to publish to get tenure and do free-lance writing for Fortune to be able to buy a house in Monterey, I became much more sedentary. I actually exercise more now, at age 69, than I did from age 34 to about age 50. My eating has fallen but not as much as my metabolism. By my mid 50s, I weighed about 160, by my mid-60s, I weighed about 170, and now I weigh about 180.
No big moral of the story, but I think it’s wealth that caused me to eat more and wealth that allowed me to be making a good living in front of a computer. And both led, I think, to my current weight.