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Monday, July 22, 2013
Health / Nutrition ... Society ... Technology ...

We just survived our first major mid-summer heat wave here in New Jersey. Despite my advanced old age I’m still a bit on the thin side (BMI about 19), so the hot weather doesn’t bother me as much as for many other people (but of course, I pay the price in January and February during the dark, sub-freezing days). I recently saw an article on the Boston Globe site suggesting that perhaps we could get used to living without as much air conditioning as most of us have now come to expect. I had to smile, as I never did come to expect AC that much; I don’t have an air conditioner in my apartment, and I hardly ever use the one in my car even in July and August (except when I have have someone with me who might get ugly if the A/C stayed off).

There was another recent note in the New Yorker reflecting on how cheap air conditioning has changed our social customs and expectations over the past few decades and generations. I’m old enough to remember when many small stores and workplaces didn’t have it. I worked for a railroad during my college summer vacations, and none of the offices where I did my job had it (the railroad was broke and couldn’t afford it). Many small stores didn’t have it either. There were still trains, buses and subway cars in the 1960s and early 70s that didn’t have it. But as the 70’s, 80s and 90s progressed, air conditioners became cheaper to buy and more efficient to run, and thus conquered the world. After 2000, the victory of air conditioning became complete with world manufacturing (read “made in China”) and stable energy costs (due mainly to hydro-fracking of natural gas and oil; ask the anti-fracking advocates if they are ready to turn their AC’s off in August). You have to be really, really poor these days to be deprived of air conditioning. Most public housing in Newark (where I work) has central air, and very few houses or multi-family buildings don’t have at least one or two AC’s in the window (sometimes with anti-break-in window bars shaped to accommodate such a unit).

So today, every car, store, home, apartment, workplace, bus, office, construction vehicle, control station, outhouse, just about every enclosed space that can be occupied by humans has AC. AC has become as much of a universally recognized right here in the USA as heat in winter. Summer becomes the inverse of winter, in that we suffer short-term bouts of heat or cold when we walk between our front door and our car, take out the garbage, or park our car and run for the mall or office entrance; otherwise we live in a climate-controlled 70 degree bubbles for most of our lives. Other than people in northern Maine, northern Michigan, northern Minnesota or northern Montana, only a handful of weird-o’s like me get by without it. (And even I admit that I could hardly survive in the sealed building where I work without climate control; I could hardly get anything done in a room that was humid, still and over 80 degrees for 8 or 9 hours.)

I’ve also recently read a bit more on the obesity epidemic in America, and the costs to the public that it imposes. E.g., increased health care insurance costs and increased taxes for govt healthcare, which are felt by most everyone. Plus, the eventual social and economic costs of shortened life spans and thus lower life-cycle work productivity.

As to the cause of burgeoning obesity rates in the USA, the usual suspects are the commercialization and heavy marketing of low-cost, calorie-dense foods and beverages by big business (read McDonalds, Yum Brands, Pepsico, Kraft Foods, etc); along with changing lifestyles and workplace patterns that encourage sedentary non-activity. I myself sit at a desk all day now, unlike the railroad jobs I had back in the 1970s where I had to move about and throw mechanical levers. And yet I’m not much heavier than I was when I worked on the railroad.

By comparison, a friend who is also a former railroad guy but who remained a “working man” all his life now looks almost 100 pounds bigger then when I first met him around 1968, and has diabetes. A recent article in the Atlantic about what might realistically be done to stem the obesity crisis points out that McDonalds and other “big food” companies aren’t entirely to blame for what my friend is going through (even though they are getting rich from this crisis). Many of them have tried to develop and market healthier food (e.g. McDonalds’ “McLean Delux” burger) but sales were low. Foods that are convenient, cheap, satiating and high in “taste intensity” are what the overall public (including my friend) seem to demand; that’s what sells, versus lighter and more natural foods with less fat, salt, sugar and with better nutrient structures. E.g., a simple bowl of cooked lentils, brown rice and broccoli.

Obesity is not a simple subject, though. Various studies show correlations between obesity and socio-economic poverty, i.e. with lower income and lower education levels. There is also correlation with the trend towards lower work participation rates over the past 15 years (i.e., increasing numbers of working-aged people getting by somehow without working, thus having more time to snack on Doritos). And with the predominance of TV, computers, video game toys and smart phones used mostly indoors by children, along with increasingly unsafe street conditions, outdoor play isn’t as prevalent as it used to be for many kids, contributing to the childhood obesity problem.

So given the recent hot weather and those earlier-mentioned articles pondering “what if” there wasn’t as much AC out there, I couldn’t help but wonder if the air conditioning revolution also had something to do with the obesity revolution. I did a bit of Googling (or Bing-ing or Ask-ing, take your pick, they’re all good) on the topic, and in fact, there is at least one legitimate university study that finds a causative correlation between AC and fatness. The study says that experiencing constant year-round indoor temps “causes the body to expend less energy, because it does not have to work to warm up or cool down, potentially leading to increased fat stores.” (Another possible contributor cited in the study is less sleep).

Some other bloggers have also been considering an AC / obesity link based on lifestyle changes and body physiology. In fact, one fellow from Las Vegas decided to experiment on himself by going “cold turkey” on AC during the blazing desert summer heat. He reports having lost weight because of this (not too surprising; more surprising is that he made it all the way through the summer). He reports having to sleep wrapped in wet towels — sounds a bit messy unless you use a vinyl bed cover. By comparison, during the heat wave in NJ last week, I still needed light PJ’s and a light sheet over me as I slept, because my window fan and room fan were doing such a good job at circulating air into and out of my bedroom. But then again, our heatwave range is 80 to 95, versus 90 to 110 in Nevada.

[One more AC / obesity anecdote: back in 1999, I was negotiating a new car purchase at a Chevy dealership, and I told the sales guy, whose name was Mark, that I didn’t want an air conditioner in my new Prizm. At first Mark looked at me like I was from Jupiter, then his face wrenched as though contemplating his being tortured. He said “I could never survive these summers without air conditioning!” Come to think of it, Mark was a rather stocky, hefty fellow.]

There is no policy solution to what I’m discussing here. We can’t put a “fat tax” on A/C as to discourage it. That would never fly politically, any more than taxes or bans on fatty or sugary foods (give Mayor Bloomberg credit for going down trying). Thus, this essay is nothing more than an ironic observation on how the seemingly positive economic and social effects of advancing technology and world trade (thus keeping us cool and comfy in the summer with near-universal air conditioning) sometimes backfire a bit. I.e., they might help to encourage even higher levels of obesity than Coke, KFC and indoor video games have otherwise caused, and thus contribute to shorter life-spans, higher health care costs as manifest in higher insurance premiums and higher taxes, and lower overall quality of life.

The present generations, from aging Boomers to the youngest Millennials, have bought the program and won’t give it up. It will be up to future generations (“Generation Z” and whatever the following ones will be called) to decide if the almost unlimited pleasures of eating an Extra Value Meal in air-conditioned comfort while being entertained by continuously dancing images on your I-Pad are worth the eventual long-run cost to the enterprise of being human.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:03 pm      

  1. Jim, First of all, I must note here that this is a *jumble* of observations and not a completely well-thought-out comment on your topic here.

    Frankly, obesity in America is a conundrum to me. I think it is a multi-faceted “problem” (if “problem” it is); furthermore, I think that A/C and obesity likely have little correlation. I should also mention that I will address this topic from the standpoint of women although men are affected too; I simply do not feel that knowledgeable about how men are affected by “obesity”; so women it is for me here.

    I think there are varying degrees of “obesity”. There are those who (and again, I’m talking about women here) are so slim as to be approaching starvation – and this condition is seen as a sign of beauty and prosperity. (What’s wrong with that picture?) There are those who might be called “fat” – that is, those who carry what are considered by the standards a bit too much weight; specifically, those who do not meet the standards of what is considered “beauty and prosperity” in America. Yet in India, as least in the recent past, those who were “fat” were proud to show that they were rich and had money to eat so much that they could carry extra weight.

    Furthermore, I tend to think the “standards” of what is considered “obese”, “fat”, etc., (i.e., the BMI) are arbitrary. I find myself asking: Exactly *who* made up these “right” ways to carry weight in the human body? Exactly who made up exactly how fat a person “should” be? When primitive man killed a large animal, everybody ate as much as they could and got “fat”; when times were slim in the food department, they got thin.

    I am what may be considered “fat”. Yet, I seldom, if ever, eat fast foods; I just don’t. I’ve also seen individuals who never ate sweets *at all*, some of whom were vegetarians, who were either obese or fat.

    Then there are those who are what the medical profession calls “morbidly obese” which is a condition that causes other medical problems in the individual. Furthermore, I also can see that “starvation slim” to morbidly obese are the obverse of the coin – at least to me. (I once met a woman in a ladies room who I tho’t was quite ill. She was “starvation slim”. Only later did I realize she was bulimic.) Again, I find myself wondering, what’s wrong with this picture?

    I think that only in America would obesity become such a problem as it seems to be here. I can’t help but think that food is so plentiful in America that only here would being a size zero (to say nothing of a size double zero — and here I’m talking women’s sizes) would be a sign of really great prosperity and health. And again, I find myself asking, what’s wrong with this picture? And (again), in poor countries a sign of beauty and prosperity is being what we here would call “fat” (not necessarily “obese”); that is, a “fat” person (woman) is saying, I have enough money to be “fat” and not “thin” like the starving poor.

    As to the hubbub about what are the causes of “obesity in America”, I think they are multifaceted. There are plenty of psychological issues that one could address – which I have no intention of doing here.

    I would say, I myself fall in the category of “fat” – definitely not slim; definitely not obese. One thing I do know is that I tend to eat when I am tired; I find myself thinking I might get some energy if I ate a little; so I have a snack. I tended to do this a lot when I was working 16 to 18 hours a day. (I never counted up how long it was that I worked those hours, but I know it approach – or maybe exceeded 15 years. During those years, I walked several miles each day as a part of work; thus my weight was down.)

    Yet, I find myself these days, with the sedentary workstyle, wondering why no one has tho’t to address the correlation between people being overworked (and maybe even ill) with eating more than they should.

    I wonder, with all the new technology and people being used to multitasking up a storm all the time, every day, if the toll that technological work takes on the individual, while not physical, still depletes the energy of the individual in hidden, subtle, and unnoticeable ways; and the individual, unaware, tends to eat more than necessary, trying to shore up his/her energy.

    I know I’m going against the social tide here, but I find it strange that there are so many people in American so willing to control what other people eat – and they do this, not directly but indirectly by the show of disapproval and distaste for anything “fat” or “obese”.

    As to people losing weight when the A/C is turned off: The explanation for that seems simple to me – water loss in the body from perspiration; one can get the same effect from diuretics like green tea. [RESPONSE FROM AUTHOR: ACTUALLY, the effect I am discussing goes the other way; people don’t GAIN weight when the A/C is kept off. Nowhere do I suggest that turning off the A/C is a good weight LOSS strategy, right up there with Weight Watchers or the Paleolithic Diet . . . although constant summer heat and humidity would be rather Paleolithic, wouldn’t it now . . . ]

    Now to take a *very* tangential approach to this topic: I find myself very disappointed in Michelle Obama. While I am sure she considers herself concerned about the health of children, I tend to think that her energies could be much better spent on, perhaps, education than, what seems to me a kind of subtle judgmental approach to obesity.

    People who are going to be addicted to food (and, therefore, morbidly obese) are no different from other addicts. For the most part addiction to drugs, alcohol, etc., is seen as a disease; for the life of me I cannot understand why obesity (extreme obesity) is not seen the same way – as an addiction. Perhaps treating and approaching it as an addiction would be a better solution than other approaches we have in this country.

    I find that individuals who need to consistently purge and/or eat next to nothing at all (and even when they eat next to nothing at all still purge) to have as much a problem as the morbidly obese. I find myself wondering what psychological issue has caused this situation in both cases. As to the just plain “fat” people: I say, OK perhaps more exercise that is pleasant and enjoyable and less work (that is not unconsciously draining) would help the situation.

    I also think there is room in our thinking as a nation for a continuum of weight for individuals. Some people have a metabolism and/or physical makeup that allows them to simply stay thin; others have the same that allows them a little extra “fat”. As long as they are healthy, I say, who cares?

    In addition, strangely enough, I’ve read that a study was done on people who had major surgeries. It was found that those who were fatter survived much better than those who were thinner.

    As to the just plain “fat” people: Somehow it seems to me that there always has to be someone the rest of the people can judge, look down on, etc. As I say, only in America . . . .

    And as is obvious from the above, this is simply a “jumble” of tho’ts on this subject; there is not a well-thought-out idea in any of it; but it’s been what’s come to my mind on this subject (unbeknownst to others) for quite a while now. MCS

    Comment by Mary — July 23, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

  2. Hi Jim! So much has changed over the last couple of generations. My Sicilian great-grandfather was a stone mason who made ovens for baking bread. My Polish great-grandfather was a farmer who raised horses for the military. Heavy labor burned off calories. Obesity was a rare condition among the working classes. Now, for so many of us, labor is limited to key-strokes. One has to make a concentrated effort to exercise and work off the calories. Who has time for that after a 60-hour week in the office? Well, our parents wanted a better life for us, and now we have it. Air conditioning. Rich foods. Automatic Everything. And as with all things in life, bad comes along with the good. Along with our comforts and luxuries comes obesity and diabetes. I remember the days when air-conditioning was pretty-much limited to movie theaters. It was a rarity in New Jersey back in the 1950s. People dressed much more formally in those days when they went out in public. Men wore suits and ties in mid-summer heat. I don’t know how they did it. I also remember being in the presence of adults who stank out in public. Our society would not tolerate such a gross offense today. Turn on the A/C!

    Comment by Allan Lacki — August 22, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

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