A Conversation Between Gary Taubes and Russ Roberts

The latest EconTalk podcast features my favorite science writer and my favorite interviewer. Like Roberts, I have a strong bias in favor of believing that Gary Taubes is right about his essential claims, which is why I’m grateful that he and Peter Attia are launching the Nutritional Science Initiative, an ambitious effort to rigorously test various claims about the impact of various diets on human health. 

And with eerily perfect timing, The Economist reports on a new study in The Lancet that compares rate of physical activity across various countries:

Malta wins the race for the most slothful nation, with 72% of adults getting too little exercise. Swaziland and Saudi Arabia slouch close behind, with 69%. In Bangladesh, by contrast, just 5% of adults fail to get enough exercise. Surprisingly, America does not live up to its sluggish reputation. Six in ten Americans are sufficiently active, compared with less than four in ten Britons.

Naturally, this led me to Eurostat to lack a look at obesity rates:

For both women and men aged 18 years and over, the lowest shares of obesity in 2008/09 were observed in Romania (8.0 % for women and 7.6 % for men), Italy (9.3 % and 11.3 %), Bulgaria (11.3 % and 11.6 %) and France (12.7 % and 11.7 %). The highest proportions of obese women were recorded in the United Kingdom (23.9 %), Malta (21.1 %), Latvia (20.9 %) and Estonia (20.5 % in 2006), and of men in Malta (24.7 %), the United Kingdom (22.1 %), Hungary (21.4 %) and the Czech Republic (18.4 %).

Rather remarkably, the obesity rate for the U.S. adults was 35.7% in 2009-2010. Obesity prevalence is not markedly different between men and women in the U.S.

There are, of course, many more variables that deserve our attention, e.g., it could be that the impact of physical activity is reflected in the share of the population that is overweight but not quite obese, but my crude sense is that this is not the case. It might also be true that, as Taubes has argued, the key issue in the obesity epidemic is not a lack of physical activity, but rather a hormonal imbalance caused by the excessive consumption of certain carbohydrate-rich foods. Others suggest that sugar consumption is the main culprit. Regardless, this physical activity data should give us pause.

For more on this subject, I strongly recommend Taubes’ Why We Get Fat, a book that will have particular resonance for those of you who are interested in intellectual history and for those of you who are instinctive contrarians. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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