On obesity amongst humans and animals

in biology •  16 days ago  (edited)

Orange Cat, one of the family cats
17 March 2010

Humans are prone to gaining extra weight. This is something well known - and, well, in most Western cities, especially in the US, it is enough to wander the streets for a bit and you are bound to see some people who are clearly obese, carrying far more fat than can possibly be metabolically beneficial. That was historically not so - though there are historical records of some people getting to be rather chunky even centuries ago, when food was far more scarce than it is today.

It is also worthy of note that standards of beauty - which mostly go hand in hand with the perceived appearance of health - have also changed throughout history. For example, Peter Paul Rubens's 17th century paintings depicted women who some may view as overweight - yet they were depicted as examples of beauty and health. It is likely that at the time a few extra pounds corresponded to a higher chance of surviving the travails of life such as an occasional food shortage of colder than usual weather and a female packing those pounds was thus viewed as more viable and thus more attractive. However, a person so obese that they can barely go up a few stairs - a sight not uncommon across the US and many other countries today - is clearly not a healthy one as many studies indicate.

The Judgement of Paris
Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1636

So why do people get to be obese? Why do some animals, like a late family cat of ours, pictured above, also pack some extra weight? I guess the answer - the first layer answer, if I may say so - is rather simple: you gain weight when you consume enough food to have enough energy and carbohydrates to provide for your energy needs and then the rest goes into accumulating fat.

That may be approximately accurate - yet fails to address the key question: why does it happen? What motivates us to eat more than necessary? What motivates the animals to do the same? The answer likely is the same: the subconscious fear of starvation and death. That would be strong negative motivation, though. For many generations, living creatures have been conditioned to survive the scarcity - and preparedness for scarcity may translate into utter unpreparedness for plenty.

Situations of plenty do happen in the animals world. Polar bears running into a whale carcass, or rabbits hitting a lush Spring lawn, or a lynx scoring a deer - they all get more food than they can eat in one seating and have to contend with this challenge. Yet scarcity is the usual state of affairs in nature for one simple reason - whenever acquisition of food becomes easy enough, the population tends to reproduce until competition for food kicks in again. Or other species species and populations join the competition and introduce the scarcity again.

However, human advancement and technological prowess introduced the situation where scarcity became a thing of the past for a substantial part of the humanity. And so we the humans are now often getting more food than we really need - so much so, even pigeons in our cities get to get fat off that excess. And we have a challenge now - we suffer from a condition that we have inflicted on ourselves for which we are not prepared by our evolutionary conditioning.

So what can we do about that? Of course, there are numerous answers provided by the many players involved in the fight against obesity: diet, exercise, meditation, mental conditioning. They all make sense - and every one of them works for some people for sure.

However, I would like to offer a suggestion of my own on this subject. I suggest conscious rejection of some of the technological advances as a way to overcome obesity and improve one's general health. No, I am not calling on you to abandon your smartphone as a way to avoid its radiation though practicing some moderation in its use is a good idea. However, I do suggest not getting a floor sweeping robot if you are able bodied as you can likely sweep your floors without too much of a time expenditure - and yet you get some exercise in the process. If you live within a half hours' walking distance from home don't drive there even if you have a vehicle to drive. If you need a lawn mower for a small yard, use a manual mower - that too is exercise.

In short - try to abandon some of the conveniences afforded us by the technological progress. Try to acquire the mind of scarcity. Try to imagine the food you eat is far more expensive than it actually is and thus hold yourself back. This is how I am trying to train myself to bush against my own weight problem. And that is not easy - but I think this may be a sort of conditioning that has a real chance of being successful.

This mental exercise is, of course, only a stop-gap solution in the great schema of things. If the situation of plenty stays with us for enough generations we will evolve. But for now, genetically, we are still conditioned by hundreds of generations who had to survive under the weight of scarcity. And hence we can not afford not to take that into account.

As for animals who depend on us - we need to watch their diets. And yes, sometimes the most humane thing to do is to leave the beast hungry - even if the beast fails to immediately appreciate that.


Where Are The Obese Wild Animals?
Rory Boothe, Indiana Public Media, 28 June 2018

Are New York’s pigeons getting fatter? An investigation into animal obesity.
David Merrit Johns, Slate, 17 April 2012

Polar Bears Feast On Dead Whale | Wild Alaska | BBC Earth (video)
BBC Earth, 23 October 2015

Peter Paul Rubens

The Impact of Obesity on Your Body and Health
The American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS)

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I like this blog for a number of reasons. For one, it doesn't castigate or blame. It just assesses how the problem arises and then comes up with a possible solution. And I like the way you tie notions of beauty to cultural circumstances. This can also apply to other notions of beauty besides body mass. For example signs of health, such as rosy cheeks, indicating a likely successful partner for reproducing.

One area in which I have a slight disagreement: eschewing labor/time saving devices. I don't see this as an efficient use of personal resources. Better perhaps to take advantage of the labor/time saving device and use the time saved in productive physical activity. Maybe volunteer for Habitat Humanity, for example. Build a house for somebody. Or mow an infirm neighbor's lawn. There is so much to be done and with free time, you'll be able to do it. Just an idea.

Beautiful cat :)

Thanks for a thoughtful comment.

I believe foregoing labor saving devices makes sense when the use of said devices does not save much time but merely saves some physical effort. Example: walking up to the 5th floor does not save all that much time in comparison to taking an elevator - but does give you exercise and physical stimulation.

This is the sort of behavioural modifications I was referring to.

I'm with you on this. It's amazing to me that people take elevators to the second floor. My limit is usually four stories, unless I'm feeling particularly energetic :))