Friday, September 23, 2005

Obesity and recycling myths challenged

Two modern sacred cows challenged this morning: the causes of the 'obesity epidemic,' and the need to recycle.

First, Sue Kedgeley. Specifically, her obsession with what kids eat. TechCentralStation reports on
a new [American] study arrived which once again (See Kicking the Can, 7/8/05) suggests that it is not pop, but lack of exercise and family poverty that are driving up rates of childhood obesity. The study, from two researchers at the University of Alberta looked at the health, nutrition and lifestyle factors of 4,298 fifth grade school children in an effort to determine which risk factors were most important for overweight children.

Unlike so many studies that rely on estimates of height and weight -- estimates which always lead to an overestimate of both overweight and obesity -- the study actually took measurements of the kids' height and weight, as well as assessing their dietary habits including whether they ate breakfast, whether their lunch came from home or was purchased at school, whether they ate in fast food restaurants, whether there were regular family suppers, and whether supper was eaten in front of the television.

The results are startling, for they disprove so much of the contemporary "wisdom" that appears to be driving America toward a series of completely ineffective obesity policies... [Read on here]
Do you think Sue will stop her obsession with school vending machines? Yeah, right.

How about challenging another sacred cow: recycling. The Mises Blog has the argument:

Oh, I used to believe in recycling, and I still believe in the other two Rs: reducing and reusing. But recycling? It's a waste of time, money, and ever scarce resources. What John Tierney wrote in the New York Times nearly 10 years ago is still true: "Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America."

How does the author know recycling is wasteful? Simple:
I know that the costs of recycling exceed the benefits. This is the simple result of the observation that recycling doesn't return a financial profit...

What's wrong with recycling? The answer is simple; it doesn't pay. And since it doesn't pay it is an inefficient use of the time, money, and scarce resources. That's right, as Mises would have argued: let prices be your guide. Prices are essential to evaluate actions ex post. If the accounting of a near past event reveals a financial loss, the activity was a waste of both the entrepreneur's and society's scarce resources.
[Read on here]
So there you go. As always, PJ O'Rourke said it better:
I have a friend, Jerry Taylor, who is the director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute... Jerry pointed out that when used items -- Ferraris, for instance -- have real value they don't need to be "recycled", they get sold. "If recycling is so great," said Jerry, how come no private individual will pay you to do it?"

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10 Comments:

Blogger DenMT said...

I read the article, and I failed to find a single reason as to why 'family poverty' has a greater influence on childhood obesity than diet.

America should be trying their hardest to overcome their blubber problem - I was working there for six months in 2001/02 and constantly amazed at the sheer amount of gigantic people everywhere. It would be scary if New Zealand went that way too - we are already headed down a slippery, lard-greased slope.

OBVIOUSLY physical activity (or lack thereof) is a big component in the obesity problem, but so is diet. The quoted (but unreferenced) study seems to show that it would be pointless to arbitrarily limit intake of sugary drink or fast food, as these are 'unproven' causes of obesity. Instead, kids should be signed up to schools with good PE programmes.

I say this sounds like a carefully spun piece of targeted propaganda for the sugar/junk food lobby. Be interesting to know what the study actually was, who commissioned it and how large the sample was.

I say send all the fatties to Muay Thai training - we'll have them whipped into shape inside of a few months!

9/23/2005 10:27:00 am  
Anonymous Robert Winefield said...

denmt,

Take your nanny-state pointing finger and shove it up your arse.

I'm in the USA and the problem isn't the number of obese people here, it is the number of people who - like you - refuse to keep their noses out of other people's affairs.

What and how much you eat and how much you exercise is your own damn business and nobody else's. Which is appropriate because the only person who can fix the problem is the individual WITH the problem. That is especially true in the USA because - by comparison with NZ - the health care is privately funded.

Besides, for most people there comes a time when they realise that the pleasure derived from treating their bodies like shit (doing drugs, drinking heavily, eating crap) isn't worth the cost and they do something to fix it.

And, of course, if Sue Kedgley and the rest of the Luddites would stop putting barriers in the way of people who want to run interesting events that inspire people to get off their butts (ie the Coast to Coast, Stock Cars at Western Springs, Late Night cricket at Eden Park etc.) then it'd be a hell of a lot more fun to exercise.

9/23/2005 11:14:00 am  
Blogger Richard said...

"I know that the costs of recycling exceed the benefits. This is the simple result of the observation that recycling doesn't return a financial profit."

This assumes that there are no market externalities, which is patently false. Producers are often able to offload the environmental costs of their production on to others, rather than paying the price themselves. This makes it profitable for them to engage in courses of action where the real costs (payed by others) outweigh the benefits (which accrue to them). If it weren't for this market failure, recycling might well be the more profitable after all, who knows? It all depends on whether the real benefits outweigh the real costs, and that's not something you can tell from looking at a corrupted market.

9/23/2005 12:40:00 pm  
Anonymous Alex said...

People get fat because they eat too much. Calorie-wise. I eat all sorts of takeaways, sugar, shit, anything. I don't gain weight because I restrict my caloric intake to what my metabolism can handle. (Muscle helps.)

The message should be simple. If you're gaining weight, EAT LESS. If you don't, you better exercise to burn off the excess calories.

And, don't restrict what I or anyone else eats; let them take responsibility for themselves (and stop publically funding treatment necessary due to obesity).

9/23/2005 12:42:00 pm  
Blogger DenMT said...

Robert Winefield,

"Take your nanny-state pointing finger and shove it up your arse."

Hold up! Spidey-sense is detecting some hostility, take some deep breaths, mate... I'm not advocating direct personal intervention for the fatties in the US (from what I saw they get enough motivational ribbing from the non-obese population), however you'd have to be blind not to notice the large size of the average American.

As a Kiwi, I was as I said above, bloody astonished at the sheer monstrousness of not just the fatties, but also the movie seats, public transport seating, and general public amenity provision. Their 5-95 percentile is way larger than ours, I'd say, given the physical evidence.

While of course I respect the right of every individual to cram as many Twinkies into their gob as they personally desire, when a trend is so very apparent, it would be remiss of the government not to at least examine ways to alleviate great big fatness.

Although I assume the libertarian response would be that as the American competitive edge begins to ebb due to mobility problems, rather than advocating diet or personal change, the free market will come up with some sort of robo-tronic exoskeleton.

Imagine! The worlds super-power as giant, all-powerful cyber-fatties! I'm off to my concrete bunker now...

9/23/2005 01:01:00 pm  
Anonymous Sam Vilain said...

Yes, exercise plays a large part in health. Yes, enough exercise can counter the effect of an awful diet.

However eating sugar rich foods leads to the well known "sugar crash", where you release insulin into your blood and subsequently have no energy left for being active. Doing this too much leads to Type II diabetes. This link is well studied, and pretty hard to refute. The problem is exacerbated by foods containing caffiene like Coca Cola, which also provokes an insulin reaction.

However junk food is not just bad because it is high in calories - fats and sugars are essential and not to be avoided - but as a general rule, the further you stray from natural sources of fats and sugars, like nuts, fruits and vegetables, the more they screw up your body's metabolism on a hormonal level. This leads to poor emotional states and cell development. The key words to research here for the interested are lipids and icosanoids.

alex, putting weight on is not purely based on calorific intake - the fundamental problem with the calorific model is the way that calories are measured (burning the food in a chamber and measuring the heat given off) - after all, we don't pass ash :-). In a balanced diet, for instance, you can add pretty much any amount of fat you like and you will not find an increase in weight gain.

Barry Sears has some very accessible and extremely well referenced works in these areas, particularly _The Zone_ and _The Omega Rx Zone_. They make for sobering reading for people on both sides of this debate.

"You can judge the success of a capitalist system by the amount of waste it generates"
-- Karl Marx, I think :)

About the recycling. Plastic recycling may not be profitable now, but if the price of petrol rises then it will get more and more profitable.

The only other realistic alternative to recycling, long term, has to be one of:

1. not generating the rubbish in the first place - avoiding excess packaging

2. using biodegradable materials (such as plastic / hemp mixes that degrade to soil in periods around 50 years)

3. re-using containers, such as with bottle deposits (a green policy)

Recycling may not be the best of the options out of reducing and re-using, but in lieu of some panacaea of pollution free rubbish destruction or bottomless pit that we can throw the mountains of rubbish we make, what else could we possibly do?

Also of note is that the cost of the packaging is being "externalised" to the future generations that have to deal with the packaging - a reason that generating packaging in the first place is artificially cheap.

9/23/2005 03:44:00 pm  
Anonymous Alex said...

"In a balanced diet, for instance, you can add pretty much any amount of fat you like and you will not find an increase in weight gain."

!? What absolute rubbish. Things like GI, meal spacings, fat content etc. can affect the metabolism, and calories absorbed is obviously what the calorie number they put on foods is supposed to be trying to measure. But to say you can add any amount of (fat) calories to your diet and have them magically disappear is unadulterated bullshit.

9/23/2005 04:17:00 pm  
Blogger DenMT said...

Nah, but hang on. The problem is that in a 'balanced' diet, you wouldn't be adding as much fat as you liked, because as soon as there is too much fat in there, the diet ceases to be 'balanced'.

So there.

xDen

9/23/2005 04:36:00 pm  
Anonymous Julian Pistorius said...

Sam Vilain said:

Recycling may not be the best of the options out of reducing and re-using, but in lieu of some panacaea of pollution free rubbish destruction or bottomless pit that we can throw the mountains of rubbish we make, what else could we possibly do?

Also of note is that the cost of the packaging is being "externalised" to the future generations that have to deal with the packaging - a reason that generating packaging in the first place is artificially cheap.


Sam, it is a common misconception that we are going to run out of space to put all our rubbish.

Let's take the US as an example. They generate just under 2.5 kg of landfill waste per person per day, the highest rate in the world. Accounting for increasing amount of waste per person, and for population growth, we can work out how much waste will be generated by the US for the entire 21st century. We can pile all that waste into a square hole 28 km on a side, and only 30 metres deep. To put that into perspective, it is only 0.009% of the surface area of the US - insignificant.

So no, we don't need a bottomless pit to contain the rubbish we are generating - far from it. Landfill space is cheap, and probably will be for a long time.

So, as long as it is cheaper to produce virgin packaging, there isn't really a reason to recycle. Well, other than personal psychological gratification, that is - but please don't make me pay for your gratification. :)

9/26/2005 12:07:00 am  
Blogger sagenz said...

"Children in schools that sold soft drinks consumed an average of 4.0 cans of pop per week, while children at schools which did not sell soft drinks consumed 3.6 cans per week. This works out, according to the authors, to 33.5 and 32.5 grams of sucrose per day. The extra gram would mean an additional four calories for the kids where pop was sold"

0.4 cans less is 10%. 33.5 to 32.5 grams is less than 3%. someone is talking BS! In accounting terms 10% is a material difference. No question that the best diet is exercise more, eat less. but bullshit statistics does the argument no credit whatsoever.

9/27/2005 09:46:00 am  

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