actually, the problem might not be overconsumption, but stress. Obesity seems to be a natural reaction of the body to cope with stress. Overdoses of stress hormones (especially glucocorticoids) lead to shorter life-span. Body fat is not "deadweight", it is quite active and one of its activities is counteracting the effects of long-term stress hormone overdoses. The negative "side effects" are increased cardiovascular diseases, but the increase in mortality from this is lower than from the stress hormone. Evolution has probably been more effective than we thought. Eating is a kind of self-medication. Cardiologists have long wondered, why people with moderate overweight actually live longer. My wife (who is a cardiologist) is now consulting her patients that diets do not make sense unless they reduce the stress. Once you reduce the stress, also the obesity problem seems to reduce (without a diet). If "bad foods" are to blame is empirically at least not so clear-cut as often stated.

An overview article (somewhat technical) you can find from Dallman, Pecoraro & la Fleur (2005) Chronic stress and comfort foods: Self-medication and abdominal obesity. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 19: 275-280, downloadable at

So the interesting question is, if economists are equipped for dealing with stress-reduction instead of the consumption questions closer to the classical conceptual set of economics as a science. That is of course more of a behavioural/ psychological and less of a material problem, at least up to a certain degree.



On Fri, May 13, 2016 at 4:31 PM, Philip Pilkington <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

Seems to me perfectly coherent. Hunger -- as in, the need for food -- is not a problem in most Western countries. And yes, obesity and obesity-related interests (diabetes etc) now seem far more prevalent among poorer people.

Food banks and soup kitchens do still exist in the US. But these appear to be mainly for homeless people and drug addicts. I think it's the homelessness and drug addiction that are the main problems here, not lack of food per se.

You also sometimes find children that are hungry in very run-down schools, for example. But this is typically because the parents are flogging food stamps for drugs or alcohol.

In Greece you do seem to have old style soup kitchens reemerging:

But even there it's not really like the classic soup kitchen that would literally feed starving people. It seems more so that people who are hard up use the facilities to save money that they then spend on other things -- like clothes and books for their children.

I think you're right: poverty today increasingly looks like poisonous overconsumption; of bad quality food and of drugs and alcohol.



On Fri, May 13, 2016 at 3:11 PM, John Watkins <[log in to unmask]> wrote:



Thank you for your comments. I agree: hunger is imprecise. And while most people maybe fed, they are not well fed. Even here, as you suggest, there is controversy regarding what it means to be well fed. Obviously, we have many people who are not going hungry (nutrition is another issue), but other needs are going without.


My point is that the nature of poverty has changed. And it is important to trace those changes. Amartya Sen had an interesting comment, which may seem obvious after said. Needs are a function of what is possible. His point is that living 200 years is not a need because it is not possible. Hence, poverty itself, loosely defined as the inability to satisfy needs, is a matter of what is possible.









From: AFEEMAIL Discussion List [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Michael Keaney
Sent: Friday, May 13, 2016 12:19 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Ideological element among Institutionalists?


Hi John


Hunger is perhaps too imprecisely defined – and reducing everything to calories ignores the issue of nutrition. I attach two relatively recent FT reports that have some bearing on your topic. Especially the Fifield article is quite damning about the state of grocery retail in the US, and may be read in conjunction with Eric Schlosser’s classic “Fast Food Nation”. Not so long ago Europe had its own horse meat scandal, revealing just how little is known of the supply chains feeding us. “Soylent Green” also comes to mind!




From: AFEEMAIL Discussion List [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of John Watkins
Sent: 12. toukokuuta 2016 20:39
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Ideological element among Institutionalists?


At the recent AFIT meetings, I presented a paper that received considerable criticism. Criticism, of course, is fine, even desirable. I have to wonder, however, if the source of the criticism, in fact, lay in our own ideological blinders. The point that received the most criticism was my claim that hunger is not the problem it was once, at least in the West.


The response led me to wonder if I had attacked a sacred cow, if ideology had blinded my fellow institutionalists to changes in the American economy. I know of no way to go about research other than the use theory and facts. I try to confront ideology wherever I find it, which is usually among mainstream economists. This is not to say that we, too, wear occasionally ideological blinders.


Polanyi refers to the use of hunger as a means of motivating people in the19th century civilization. Polanyi uses hunger as a term for needs generally.


I asserted that the muted response to the financial crisis was, in part, that hunger was no longer the problem it was once. Although the popularity of both Trump and Sanders may reveal up to now a silent, growing response to the crisis and how it was handled. Its silence, however, is not motivated by hunger.


My point is despite the rise in inequality, most people suffer from too much food, not too little. The United States Department of Agriculture prefers the term food security to hunger, meaning that the people have sufficient calories (2100 calories per day for an adult) to perform their daily functions. The importance of food security cannot be underestimated. Good nutrition improves the ability to avoid and fight disease, improving longevity (See McKeown 1983). Data from the US Department of Agriculture indicates that food insecurity with hunger increased from 3.1 % in 2001 to 5.7% of households during 2008 and 2009. Overall, food insecurity comprised 19.2 percent of households. The USDA defines food insecurity as households “unable to acquire adequate food for one or more household members because they had insufficient money and other resources for food” (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, Gregory and Singh 2015a, 8). Admittedly, there is a difference between the threat of hunger and hunger itself. In 2014, nineteen percent of households expressed concern that money until the next check would be insufficient (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, Gregory and Singh 2015b, Table S-5, p. 10). Nevertheless, the report surmises that food insecurity in the United States is not chronic.[1] Even so, food insecurity persists among more marginalized groups: minorities, single women with children, low-income groups, and so on.


All of this was resurrected for me by an article in The Wall Street Journal today titled “Obesity: The New Hunger.” The Journal, of course, is hardly a progressive paper. Nevertheless, we would be remiss to ignore analyses and the facts presented. I do not deny that hunger still exists in America. And the criticisms I received were anecdotal, which I do not deny. Nor do I deny the increase in inequality and the inability of many people to satisfy other needs. But is hunger the issue that it once was? Or as progressives, are we ignoring the facts? Are we ignoring changes in the nature of poverty itself?


John P. Watkins

Professor of Economics

Westminster College

1840 South 1300 East

Salt Lake City, UT 84105

Office: 801 832-2628

Cell: 801 550-5834


[1] “When households experience very low food security in the United States, the resulting instances of reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns are usually occasional or episodic but are not usually chronic” (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, Gregory and Singh 2015a, 11).

Philip Pilkington

Tel: 0044(0)7825371244

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