Guyenet’s argument is that we’re looking at it the wrong way. First, it’s not that some foods are more fattening because of how they affect our bodies — they’re more fattening because of how they affect our brains. And second, it’s not a particular food group; it’s not fat or carbs or sugar. It’s that we have become extraordinarily good at developing foods which are hard to resist, are full of calories, and which don’t fill us up. Essentially, through the simple workings of market capitalism, the food industry has been steadily optimising for the most obesogenic, “hyper-palatable” foods it is possible to make.
…Luckily, says Guyenet, there is a way around it. But it’s a bit bleak. The problem is not fat, or carbs, or sugar. It’s not ultra-processed foods or crisps or sweets. It’s the fact that all this tasty stuff is being combined in increasingly tasty ways; the problem is that tasty food is really hard to stop eating. “What do we do,” asked Scott Alexander in his excellent review of Guyenet’s book, “when the enemy is deliciousness itself?”
The sub-heading tells us that “Capitalism is cooking up food designed to short-circuit our brains.” Speaking of willpower, I will demonstrate restraint by avoiding the easy joke about how non-capitalist societies have indeed done very well at limiting excess (or even minimal) caloric intake among their citizens. Instead, I’ll just note that it appears Guyenet will be to obesity what Nicholas Carr was to the decline of reading in a digital age: a purveyor of convenient excuses. No, no, you see, I would eat better and exercise, just like I would have read more books, if only “the system” hadn’t rewired my brain, corroded my agency, and made me a slave inside my own body. The good that I would, I do not…
There’s a Buddhist parable of the poisoned arrow, in which the Buddha, responding to someone pestering him with irrelevant metaphysical questions, says:
“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored… until I know his home village, town, or city… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.’ The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.”
Speculating about the nature of the soul and the afterlife versus simply doing your best to live an honorable life, or endlessly analyzing the origin of obesity rather than practicing moderation in diet and exercise — the Buddha was describing the countless ways we rationalize, procrastinate and stall rather than simply do what we know we need to do to make our lives a little bit easier or more pleasant. We demand that the world itself be changed before we exercise our own agency, an absurdity that should reduce us to helpless laughter at our own foolishness. “But…but…how can I be expected to avoid temptation? Why can’t some benevolent, omnipotent overlord simply remove all temptation from my grasp instead?” We may invoke the jargon of neuroscience and economic radicalism these days to pretend that we’re explaining things more thoroughly, but the dilemma is the same as it ever was: we never work as hard as when we’re trying to avoid necessary, boring work. As Neil Postman wrote, “Like moral theology, social research never discovers anything. It only rediscovers what people once were told and need to be told again.”