Couch Potatoes

A colleague has lent me a copy of Oliver James’ book “Affluenza” and, while I am not far through it yet, it is scathing in its damnation of the effects of capitalism on individuals in society. At a time when capitalism is rapidly losing it shine on a global scale, with the financial sector collapsing around us, this individual perspective is an interesting small scale counterpoint to the large scale picture we are seeing on the news each day.

The thesis of the book is that an “affluenza virus” has spread thoughout English-speaking countries. This virus leads us to be obsessively focused on shallow material pursuits. At the same time, it leaves us anxious and prone to low self-esteem, addictions and depression as there is always someone with a faster car or a bigger cigar (to quote The Beautiful South).

The engine of capitalism, or “Selfish Capitalism” as James prefers say, is a society of consumers and it must constantly encourage further consumption to survive. Not surprisingly, this leads James to a particularly hostile attitude towards marketing, the art and science of generating the wants of consumers, thereby driving consumption. Since television (for now) remains the biggest medium for advertising, James not only sees it as a particularly sinister vector for the affluenza virus, but also the primary cause of increasing obesity in affluenza-afflicted nations:

It achieves this by a combination of discouraging exercise and encouraging, through adverts, the consumption of highly calorific food. It also lowers mood, which increases the likelihood of comfort eating…often done in front of the telly (p. 46)

Since James does not provide detailed references for all of his claims, referring readers instead to his monograph “Selfish Capitalist Origins of Emotional Distress”, I saw an opportunity here. I decided to test the link between television and obesity myself, not by commencing a TV-viewing binge, but by indulging my data-mining proclivities.

Last year, the OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry published the OECD Communications Outlook 2007, which includes data on the amount of television watched in a selection of 18 countries (Table 6.8). The data is patchy, so I have taken the average over the years from 2002 to 2005. For data on obesity, I turned to the World Health Organisation (WHO) which provides a range of health statistics by country. The obesity statistics are all based on Body Mass Index (BMI) and I have taken the obesity rate to be the percentage* of a country’s population with a BMI of over 30, a level that is widely used as the threshold of obesity. The WHO data is a few years old now and, if recent reports on increased obesity in Australia are to believed, may be a little out of date. However, the OECD data is also a few years old, so the comparison should be a reasonable one. As usual, I have published the data on Swivel.

Starting with a correlation between average viewing hours per day and the obesity rate of 58% suggests that there may be a link between the two. However, the scatterplot of the data below tells a different story. Most strikingly, the USA is an outlier, both in terms of television viewing habits and obesity. Furthermore, the remaining points show no clear pattern and taking the US out of the sample reduces the correlation to -8%. Japan also diverges from the other countries, this time in a different direction: the Japanese watch a reasonably large amount of television, but exhibit the lowest obesity rate of the countries in the sample. Removing both Japan and the US results in a correlation of 5%.

While this is admittedly a small data set, it does not seem to support James’ contention about the link between watching television and obesity, however plausible the argument. Perhaps finer-grained data or a historical perspective with greater variation in television habits would bear him out, so I would  be very interested if any readers are aware of research on this subject.

* The WHO data separates statistics for males and females and I have used a simple average of these

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12 thoughts on “Couch Potatoes

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  2. Shane

    More useful would be an analysis of TV hours and diet, and possibly what is being advertised on TV. Although it is no longer as good as it used to be, I understand that the Japanese diet is considerably healthier (eg higher in protein from fish etc) than the US diet.

    The unscientific conclusion I would draw is that if two people are as sedentary as each other, the one with the better diet will be less likely to be obese, all other things being equal.

    It’s also possible that US advertising has a greater level of promotion for junk food than Japanese TV, but I have no clue at all on that one. It’s just an idle though that occupies my mind sometimes.

    Of course, it’s very hard to get solid data on either of these concepts.

  3. stubbornmule Post author

    @Shane: your comments all make a lot of sense. When I set out to dig out the data, I fully expected it to bear out James’ view. There are probably a couple of reasons why it does not:

    (a) the effect may require significant variation in viewing hours and all but the US are too close together (a longer historical analysis could help here, going back to when watching hours were much lower.

    (b) while the effect may be real all things being equal (as you say), but it may simply be that TV is not “the primary” factor and that there are too many other variables.

  4. Gerad Suyderhoud

    Excellent analysis and post. I wonder if tendency toward obesity is cultural. Hence the TV-obesity correlation might be observed between sample within the USA.

  5. Alastair

    I’m not sure that the obesity rate is a good indicator of consumption overall. Those of us suffering from gadget affluenza do not necessarily have bulging waistlines, for instance.

    Also, I had recently seen results that the US was not as much of an outlier as your figures suggest. Guess which other country had recently ascended to the obesity throne? Yep, that one.

  6. Bast

    I have been saying it for awhile – we are in the midst of an Affluenza pandemic. Now does TV watching increase obesity? Well, that would give me one more reason to blame something/someone other than me for weight gain. But ultimately it’s ME! It’s all about choices, and making good ones, be it what you put in your mouth or what you spend your hard-earned credit on (I know, I know, a bit of an oxymoron). A good dose of personal responsibility would go a long way to getting us out of this mess.

  7. stubbornmule Post author

    @Alastair: here I was feeling good about being relatively affluenza-free and you have to bring up the gadget strain of the disease! No I realise I am definitely a sufferer.

    @Bast: James blames Selfish Capitalism for the disease, but like you, I think that some of he victims should look to themselves as well!

  8. Anne Murray

    Personally, I am very impressed with the Americans’ dedication to watching TV and eating. I have tried to emulate their lifestyle but unfortuately, British TV is against me. The reason: not enough commerical breaks. Our lucky American cousins have many more opportunities per hour of TV to heave themselves off the couch and waddle to their giant fridges for high-calorie top-ups. We have so much to learn from them.

  9. Duncan

    An interesting attempt to show a linkage, Mule, but as you have acknowledged yourself in the comments, the data selected is not really up to casting any light on the thesis. It’s interesting to try and paraphrase what James is claiming in words that could be tested. It seems that James is saying : “TV watching is causing obesity by advertising poor diet and sedentariness” (awful word, but in some dictionaries I’m afraid). To translate that into something that could be measured, maybe: “The more TV an individual watches, the more likely he/she is to be obese”.

    Your data could (but interestingly doesn’t) address the accuracy of the statement: ‘Countries with higher average TV viewing habits are more likely to have higher rates of obesity’, but focussing on country statistics leaves too many non-control factors such as diet, sports participation and genes. Better data would show variation within given groups inside a country, using time as the variable – but this still could indicate a correlation related to other factors; anecdotally obesity and TV watching are both on the rise, after all.

    The ideal study, of course, would take a randomly selected group within an otherwise similar strata of society and record obesity and watching habits over time. In the meantime we can enjoy your speculation.

    One other point that would be worth investigating: Is TV worse than other sedentary activities such as video-gaming, reading – and blogging ? James, I believe, would argue that it is, due to the inclusion of advertising as well as simple arse-camping. I wonder if there’s any data out there to support that contention !

  10. stubbornmule Post author

    @Duncan: I agree that there are too many extraneous variables to be too definitive in the conclusions drawn from the data I dug up. However, I would note that James made a stronger claim than “TV watching is causing obesity by advertising poor diet and sedentariness”. He in fact said that watching TV is the main cause of obesity, hence my hope that it would be evident in the national data. I still suspect that the key problem with my data is that, other than the US, there is a fairly tight range of average TV viewing in the 2.5 to 4.5 hour range.

  11. evo

    I don’t get it…I thought Jamie Oliver usually spends his time producing television cooking shows advocating eating a load of unhealthy food…how come he’s now writing about obesity?

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