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Interview with Richard McKenzie, author of HEAVY!

Richard McKenzie
What is the number one cause for the weight gain in the US?
So many factors affect people’s weight that almost all factors, when singled out, have small effects, according to econometric studies. However, beyond the nonsense explanation that “People eat too much and exercise too little,” I would stress a three-word explanation: Our good fortune. A century or more ago, most people lived in poverty. They couldn’t afford to get fat, much less reach today’s obesity standard. The wealthy packed on pounds as a form of “conspicuous consumption,” a symbol of their status. Now, low-income people can afford to pack on the pounds, which they have in droves.
Beyond that very general observation, I would point to ongoing technological developments in food processing, ranging from the development of preservatives to flash freezing of foods to growing efficiency in the distribution of processed foods through grocery stores and restaurants. Probably the single most important technology has been the development of the industrial French fry process that has dramatically lowered the total cost (including labor-time cost) of people downing French fries. These technologies have greatly reduced the labor time in meal preparation and consumption, which means they have increased the number of meals and snacks – and calories – consumed each day. Moreover, technological advances have lowered the count of calories that need to be expended to earn the income required to “buy” added fat and then cover the added medical costs that can be caused by the added weight.
What do you think will be the biggest battle in the "fat war" in the next 5-10 years?
The likely biggest battle in the “fat war” will be over sugared soda taxes and taxes on one sort of fatty food or another. However, studies are showing that such taxes (and bans on sugared sodas) can cause people to gain weight by shifting people’s consumption to non-taxed sugared and fatty foods and by increasing their appetites. Then there will be legal battles over fat discrimination and fat accommodation. “Fat labeling” seems to have already become a done deal.
Given the various factors that have contributed to the US weight gain (sedentary lifestyles, access and marketing of high-fat foods, etc.), what do you predict will happen in the next 20-30 years with regard to American's weight and health?
For the short and intermediate term, the upward trend in weight gain will be slowed, if it doesn’t level off. And there are preliminary signs that this has begun to happen. The Great Recession has put the country on a diet partially because of slowdown in the growth of incomes, which has reduced consumptions of high calorie pre-processed foods and restaurant meals. The higher price of gasoline will also work against weight gain in two ways: First, Americans will be less inclined to eat out and more inclined to walk and ride bikes. Second, the higher gasoline prices will feed into higher prices of foods. The ethanol craze will also increase the prices of corn-based products, which can be fattening. Continuing instability in the Middle East can contribute to higher gasoline prices, and lost weight. More businesses are likely to follow the lead of the airlines and charge customers for the added costs of their weight.
Long-term? Harder to say. On the one hand, a return of prosperity will likely give rise to more weight gain. By enabling people to “externalize” the medical-care costs of weight gain to general taxpayers, Obamacare will encourage weight gain. On the other hand, there are anti-weight technologies from pills that choke off the blood flow to fat cells (killing them in the process) to stomach implants that will send chemical signals to the brain that effective say, “I’m full.”
The interview was conducted by Jeff Rutherford.

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