Computers Make You Fat

This post originally appeared on my old blog on April 18, 2010. It presents my views on why body mass is increasing so rapidly in America. I was dissatisfied with the various claims that the nature of our food had changed because those claims A) didn’t get borne out by various research studies and tests and B) were usually  linked to someone’s paranoid fantasies of what Big Pharma/Mechanized Food/McDonald’s was trying to do to us. It is where I first talk about food ubiquity (though sotto voce) and physical inactivity.


Yes, I’m alive. No, I’m not returning to regular blogging anytime soon. But I had a thought and wanted to note it down.

There are many theories about why there is an outbreak of obesity among affluent nations and affluent segments of not-so-affluent nations. It’s the high fructose corn syrup. It’s the carbs. It’s the trans-fats. It’s the pollution. It’s the vaccinations. Etc.

There is one global phenomenon that pretty much tracks the growth in obesity and that is the growth in adoption of personal computers at work and home.

Computers make you fat.

Or, to be a little more detailed, the expansion of computers combined with the increasing speed of the data pipelines – good enough now in many places to stream movies and conduct first-person shooter games over the internet – changes the human environment to such an extent that opportunities for physical motion has been dramatically reduced and the always-on (and thus always intrusive) connection discourages us from turning to other things. Let me check that email one more time!

Instead of walking to a colleague’s office, you IM or email her. Work becomes keyboard and screen interaction and it becomes almost inescapable. You spend your evenings answering emails or preparing for tomorrow instead of taking a walk around the neighborhood or just puttering in the yard or taking care of some odd job around the house. It’s not just that we sit in front of computers (we’ve had TVs a lot longer), but the combination of the PC and the perpetual connection that narrows our physicality. I have 8 emails on my company issued phone right now from my previous manager (who can’t seem to understand I don’t work in that department anymore), sent since close of business Friday. Leisure time vanishes.

The high-speed and highly fragmented mode of interaction that is paradigmatic of current computing reinforces behaviors that are conducive to obesity. The explosion of hyper-processed food fits a form of life that needs a hand free for the device. Phone, mouse, game controller; if it interferes with the flick of the wrist, it’s worse than toast. Toast you can eat with one hand. I stare in awe at the variety of prepared foods – fresh, frozen, shelf-stable – that are available to me.

When the physical representation of the society is molded around the ideal of a man sitting with an electronic device in one hand and accomplishing important business with the other, that mold affects how our public spaces are arranged, how our food is conceptualized, produced and delivered, how our interactions with our social circles (work, family, friends, associations) are channeled.

Games. Social networks. Business. Video calls. Ubiquitous computing. Perpetual connections. Thoroughly mediated experiences. The mundane corners of my life, things like the kinds of food I can find on the shelf and the presumption that I will always carry a GPS enabled device on my person, have been colonized by the ever present computer.

It isn’t the sole reason for obesity. I eat too much for the amount of calories I burn. That’s the mechanics of the problem. But it is a powerful factor in the environment that makes it so easy for me to type, munch, type, munch, type, munch, answer that incoming call….

The expansion of my ass is directly in proportion to the expansion of my time in front of a computer.


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Posted in Culture, Food, Health, Obesity
2 comments on “Computers Make You Fat
  1. me says:

    Do you know about obesogens? For example, Bisphenol A is an endocrine disruptor obesogen. Its used in the liners of soda cans, and what seems like thousands of other things. It causes morbid obesity in children when its given to pregnant mothers. And some other people. It seems to cause endocrine system abnormalities. And its everywhere in the environment so its hard to avoid.

    there are lots of obesogens. here are some other pubmed searches

    Several chemicals in plastics, actually, BPA, DEHP and DBP – which may have been present in fumes from heated plastics. like the CRT monitors and TV sets of the recent past, may be obesogenic.


    • anglachelg says:

      I am aware of so-called obesogens. I lump them under the environmental/pollution explanations for the societal problem de jour. Let me be clear – I think environmental pollution is a significant problem and don’t doubt that chemicals like this are yet another hazard of modern life. BUT… there are plenty of people who are exposed to this stuff who are not obese, there are plenty of obese people who have not had sufficient exposure for it to be causal to their instance of obesity, etc. I have a post on my old blog about precisely this chemical (though not explicitly as an obesogen) which will get copied over here at a later time.

      My point is, before we start looking for complex causes (which may only be correlations, or may only be causal in x% of cases, etc.), let’s look at ordinary things and use Occam’s Razor. Also, let’s not keep the punch line of “Why is [substance X] so bad? that it will give you Teh Fatz. The endocrine disruption that BPA is implicated as causing has many effects, only one of which (and probably not the worst) is weight gain. I’m tired of the constant drumbeat that body fat is somehow worse than anything else EVAR! I hate that a recent article in the BBC about treating diabetes (a change to eating patterns) spent as much time talking about how it can be used for weight loss [because Teh Fatz!] as for controlling the damaging effects of diabetes. My biggest concern is that threats to public health are being privatized by reducing them to some kind of personal pathology of porky people, and if they would just change what they do (eat different food, exercise a different way, live a different life, be someone and something other than they are), then the problem would go away.

      Poisons in the environment need to be addressed as poisons, with all of their negative effects called into question, not just their obesogenic qualities.



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