Sedentary Work and Obesity: How the Times Got It Wrong

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The New York Times says a lack of physical activity at work is making us fat. Could that really play a greater role than diet?

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On May 26, The New York Times published a report of a new study on causes of obesity. The study examined changing rates of physical activity in the workplace. Its conclusion? Sedentary work is a major cause of rising rates of obesity in the United States:

The shift translates to an average decline of 120 to 140 calories a day in physical activity, closely matching the nation's steady weight gain over the past five decades, according to the report.

Eric Schlosser and I wrote a letter to the editor pointing out a few flaws in that argument. The Times did not publish our letter, but here it is:

To the editor:

It makes sense that sedentary work is a factor in the current obesity epidemic (May 26). But it cannot be an important cause. The changing American workplace cannot explain why the obesity rate among the nation's preschoolers has doubled in recent years and that among elementary schoolchildren has tripled.

The rise in obesity worldwide is linked to the embrace of the American diet, not to a decline in manufacturing.

In China, childhood obesity has increased at least five-fold since 1985.

Simplest explanations are usually best. Reversing obesity means eating less and making healthier food choices.

It also means making it easier to do that by setting policies that promote smaller portions, lower prices on fruits and vegetables, restrictions on marketing food to children, and healthier school meals.

Of course, an increase in well-paid manufacturing jobs would help too.

—Marion Nestle and Eric Schlosser


This post also appears on Food Politics.
Image: Kirsten Neumann/Reuters

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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