Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Obesity, Caloric Restrictions, and protecting children

Recent news stories report on a case in England where it was seriously proposed that an eight year old boy be taken away from his mother because she had let him get too fat; eventually the social workers and the mother reached an agreement by which she got to keep her son, apparently in exchange for some sort of promise to mend her ways. The argument for taking the boy away was his welfare, presumably based on evidence that being very much overweight reduces one's life expectancy. Googling around, I find that "Additional research has shown that people who are severely obese — with a BMI greater than 45 — live up to 20 years less than people who are not overweight."

One of the better supported results in the study of aging is that, for almost all species for which the experiment has been done—fruit flies are the exception—caloric restriction increases life expectancy. Keep mice or rats on a diet at the bottom edge of adequate, hungry but healthy, and they live considerably longer—almost twice as long in the first such experiment (with rats), a more modest 20-30% longer according to summaries I was able to find. While we do not know for certain that the same will hold for humans, it seems likely.

If so, then virtually every parent on the planet, including those who proposed taking Connor McCreaddie away from his mother, is guilty of child abuse by the same standard by which Connor's mother was. She provided him a diet which, arguably, reduced his life expectancy to 20-30% below what it would have been if she had followed the social workers' advice. We provide our children with a diet which, very probably, reduces their life expectancy by a similar amount below what it would be with a suitably calorie restricted diet.

This leaves us with only one question. After all of our children have been taken away to protect them from their parents, whom do we give them to?


At 1:38 PM, February 28, 2007, Anonymous Mark said...

Another way of looking at it would be to say that this mother reduced her son's life expectancy by more than 40 percent, compared to a low calorie diet, while other parents reduce their children's life expectancy by only 20 to 30 percent compared to such a diet.

Maybe it's a bit a bit hypocritical to say that parents who reduce their children's lives by a little are more fit than those who reduce them by a lot, but it's not entirely unreasonable.

At 5:25 PM, February 28, 2007, Blogger Mike Huben said...

I knew there was going to be a build-up to "the guvmint wants ta take yer chilluns away! Panic!"

And of course that's silly. In the past, there was widespread malnutrition among US children, but it didn't result in separation of children from parents: it resulted in food stamps, programs for women and infants, school breakfast and lunch programs, etc.

And belief in human life extension through caloric restriction diets is just about as silly. it hasn't been demonstrated in humans. Attribution of the marginally longer Okinawan average lifespan to caloric restriction diets is silly: it's only a year or so longer than the Japanese lifespan, and less than 5 years longer than the US lifespan. If we believed in the 20-30% increase claims, we'd expect about 15 to 20 years longer lifespans. That's something too obvious to miss, and we'd find plenty of evidence from the innumerable dietary experiments of ascetics and others.

And the other silly thing is that restricted calorie diets are not beneficial to children: they cause stunting. Parents that restricted the diets of their children that much would probably have to answer to social services agencies for malnutrition.

At 5:28 PM, February 28, 2007, Blogger scintor said...

Funny, countries where people's caloric intake are restricted by lack of food (famine) have a much lower life expectancy that countries where people have a problem with being overweight. In fact, if you look at the data, the higher a country's weight problems, the longer their life expectancy. This is the overwhealming trend in the data, although there are known execptions.
Your arguement, sir, does not hold water.


At 7:06 AM, March 01, 2007, Blogger Leonard said...

After all of our children have been taken away to protect them from their parents, whom do we give them to?

Well, there's plenty of people besides parents. The problem here with parents is that they are unconsciously working to maximize not their kids' lifetimes, but their own reproductive fitness. Hence they fatten the kids up to max out their abilities to attract mates, etc. When we "restrict calories" to our kids to near the edge of starvation, the problem is they whine, and we are not well-evolved to resist that.

Other people, however, those who don't care about our kids, would be just fine as proximate parents. A good caring government bureaucrat can have no incentive other than to do what the voters want. Presumably, we could monitor the weight of the kids carefully and whenever one got slighly too heavy, we'd know that his assigned bureaucrat had failed in his job by becoming too attached to the child to parent him objectively any more. Then of course we'd reassign the bureaucrat to a new, strange child, and the child, to a new bureaucrat.

Although children are endearing, it does take a while to get to know them enough to fall in love. So I'd guess than an average child would require no more than one or two bureaucrat "parents" per year. We can all easily afford this.

At 8:42 AM, March 01, 2007, Blogger markm said...

One recent study seems to show that it's smelling food that reduces the life expectancy, not the actual food restriction. (Science News, 2/10/07. It's on the web at, but it's subscription only.)

At any rate, I rather doubt that studies of this type on mice in a cage are all that applicable to human beings who have to get out and do something. That kid that's 3 times the average weight for his age and looks like a hog standing on two legs is certainly getting too much food and not enough exercise, but underfeeding children results in lower intelligence, reduced growth, and a lower height as an adult. I doubt the researchers measure any of these factors in their mice, but what human would choose a longer life if the price was being an undersized moron?

And finally, in a prosperous modern society I wonder how much influence a parent can actually have over a kid's calorie consumption. Cut back on what you feed him, and he'll likely manage to get junk food elsewhere, resulting in a worse diet.

At 10:48 AM, March 01, 2007, Anonymous Arthur B. said...

An explanation with the CR diet is that it is a genetically evolved resistance of the species to period of starvation, there's no food so you cannot make children but if you can hold a little longer you'll be able to perpetuate the specie when foods come back. For some reason I can't remember, it seems that this explanation would hold for small animals but not big one.

There can be a huge benefit to do it , just in case of course, but I guess your life becomes a little miserable then.

"Every calorie says 'yea' to life"

Weighting the potential advantages and certain inconvenients of the CR diet is not easy.
This case is clearly beyond the grey zone of what constitutes best interest. The mother's right to raise the child is dependent on her acting in his best interest it means it is either legitimate to:

- Coerce her into acting in his interest (what was done)
- Remove this right

Where would the child go? On the adoption market. The price of adoption might be positive or negative in which case it would have to be bore by the previous gardian.

At 10:53 AM, March 01, 2007, Anonymous Arthur B. said...


Thanks for illustrating why statistics are a poor if not dangerous economic tool.

CR increases the maximum lifespan and you are talking about the expected lifespan, which is quite different, especially when it takes infant mortality into account.

But mostly, countries with a good economy have more purchasing power of health and calories. Thus the wealthier countries have both more health and more calories while the poorer countries have less health and less calories.

You cannot draw a conclusion from this data because you are not doing a ceteris paribus analysis.

At 2:35 PM, March 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is another pernicious manifestation of New Labour’s pit of Cocytus. After social services have taken the fat children away from their parents, what next? Do not underestimate the macabre imagination of these people. Christians and Jews will be targeted, followed soon after by those parents who fail to show suitable obeisance to Gaia - that is to say, drive 4X4s and put the wrong rubbish in the recycling bin.

In '1984', Winston Smith was amazed that O’Brien could turn off his telescreen. When Patricia Hewitt (Health Secretary) expressed support for North Tyneside Council , it is a pity that she did also pay attention to obesity closer to home (her rotund Cabinet colleagues). Or, perhaps, is eating what you like a luxury reserved only for the ‘party’?

At 10:45 AM, March 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"for almost all species for which the experiment has been done—fruit flies are the exception—caloric restriction increases life expectancy."

What about other life expectancy explanatory variabes like health treatment technology changes?

Note that caloric intake has been increasing over time in addition to average BMI. But average life expectancy has also been increasing over the same period.

Bottom-line: Your statement above is incomplete. Please clarify.

At 11:06 AM, March 03, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous asks me to clarify; several people observe that human lifespan correlates positively with average calorie intake.

The experiment hasn't been done with humans, because the experiment consists of maintaining calorie intake at the lower edge of adequate for all members of one group, at its normal level for the other, and keeping everything else the same for both. That's easier to arrange with mice or fruit flies than with humans.

In real human societies, low average calorie consumption means that some people are getting well below the lower edge of adequate and also correlates with lots of other things that reduce life expectancy, such as low incomes, little medical care and the like. So our observation of human societies doesn't tell us whether keeping a human thin but not malnourished would reduce or increase his life expectancy, all else held constant.

At 3:54 PM, March 03, 2007, Blogger Mike Huben said...

Ah, handwaving excuses.

If the 20 to 30% increase in lifespan existed, it would stand out like a sore thumb: do you really think there are no people who eat calorie-restricted diets? You would notice in 90 and 100 year olds that many more of them had a history of restricted diets than among 70 year olds.

Lab species tend to have quick reproduction cycles and short lifespans. Humans are quite different: we have unusually long reproductive cycles and lifespans for our size and for any sort of animal.

My personal, unscientific guess based on those facts is that we ALREADY employ the same life-extension mechanism that caloric restriction produces in other organisms. Restriction then would not do anything more for us except reduce our pleasures.

But like innumerable quack formulas for longer life, life extension promoters peddle their books and fantasies to the credulous because they can make a buck at it. The only bright side is that they have few new products to sell (no snake oil or magic milkshakes) and most people will not be able to hurt themselves this way.

At 9:29 PM, March 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Suppose that CR diet does, indeed, extend the human lifespan, and that young Connor's mother has really been shortening his lifespan. Who is to tell me that taking a few extra calories and living shorter is any worse than taking fewer calories and living longer?

At 1:16 AM, March 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you adopt a 'caloric restriction' diet, your miserable life will certainly seem longer.

At 5:19 AM, March 04, 2007, Blogger Mike Huben said...

Back to the original point of this post: it seems to be a resurrection of the CHILDREN'S RIGHTS plank of the Libertarian Party platform:

'... We hold that guardianship belongs to those who most love and value the child and his or her development, normally the parents and never the state. We oppose all laws that empower government officials to seize children and make them "wards of the state".'

This is a fine example of NAMBLA logic:
'"NAMBLA" logic - an extreme absolutist position which demands that for logical consistencies sake that certain gross crimes be allowed, in order that no one might feel restrained.' [Stirling S. Newberry]

Now, David is not a big-L Libertarian to the best of my knowledge. But I find it surprising that the man who uses an example of a "thousand megawatt laser beam" as causing problems with free speech would defend child poor parenting in such an indiscriminate manner.

At 5:36 AM, March 05, 2007, Blogger markm said...

"Lab species tend to have quick reproduction cycles and short lifespans." Also, they don't go to school or work for a living.

At 3:12 PM, March 05, 2007, Blogger Matt B said...

To me the interesting question is why there is a ubiquitous presumption in favour of life expectancy over the pleasures of high calories food and low activity. I have not seen explained why this is not simply an example of an informed adult's legitimate preferences, and by extension a parent's expression of their values towards their child.

The usual response on obesity is that there are externalities because healthcare is socialised, to which I say either a) tax the obese in proportion to the additional burdens they put on the system, or b) de-socialize medicine. Handing the offending parent's child over to government care seems like severe overkill, particularly given the mild effect of all but extreme obesity on health costs.

At 1:53 PM, March 06, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Huben wrote:

This is a fine example of NAMBLA logic ... an extreme absolutist position which demands that for logical consistencies sake that certain gross crimes be allowed, in order that no one might feel restrained.

This is a curious assertion.

I should have thought that a logically consistent position is better than a logically inconsistent one. Its status as true is unaffected by its characterisation as extreme.

However, in this case it is not obvious that Professor Friedman is proposing an 'extreme' position. I do not know how Mr Huben measures extremity but I venture that it is based on some form of democratic test. Putting aside the merits of democracy as a measure of what is extreme - Hitler polled some 37% of the popular vote in the first German election of 1932 - I observe that public opinion in England is, by and large, strongly opposed to this intervention. The popular antipathy to the actions of the local council would appear to render Mr Huben, by his supporting the local council's actions, as the extremist.

At 11:41 AM, March 07, 2007, Blogger Pace said...

Obviously things have to be pretty bad before a child should be taken by the state, but to suggest that not practicing CR is tantamount to overfeeding your children is absurd. 20 years off your life from obesity largely comes from all the complications from being so fat: cancer, heart disease, diabetes etc. The benefits of CR come from an actual slowing of the metabolism and the aging process. One is actually healthier under a normal diet than they are under CR, they can withstand illnesses and such much better, and are generally stronger and fitter and reproduce more on a normal diet. CR people have no sex drive and are basically willing to sacrifice health for time. A normal, healthy diet is thus not abusive. Arguably a CR diet and definitely an overweight diet is abusive and the State has a right to consider intervention.

At 7:21 AM, March 08, 2007, Anonymous Chaim said...

Do you know who commits child abuse every day, on a massive, widespread scale?

The Government.

At 11:45 AM, August 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The studies that link caloric restriction to increased life expectancy have a few very significant components. #1 the studies have only been done on adults. #2 They require that all nutritional needs be met. Malnutrition would obviously reduce life expectancy, but reducing nutrition is not necessarily linked to reducing calories. Twinkie anyone?

The larger issue is if a parent who refuses to provide a child with limits that are set for their own damn good is acting in a neglectful manner. If the child was running around by themselves, not getting clean clothes and staying out all hours of the day and night, then the authorities would step in. We aren't talking about a chubby kid. We are talking about an 8 year old that outweighs the ideal weight of most adults. That is a concern, and if the parents aren't going to care for the child then society needs to. The rights of the child outweigh the rights of the adult to 'keep their kid'.

At 4:46 AM, October 16, 2008, Blogger Diana Obesity News Watcher said...

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