Why we no longer need hordes of barbarians to come rampaging over the hill to kill us
Several years ago I was working at an NIH-funded research institute that was investigating the mechanisms of aging and of age-related diseases. One research team had been looking at the effects of mild-to-moderate weight-bearing exercises on a cohort of people aged between mid-fifties to late-seventies. A regime of 30 minutes, three times per week, induced quite remarkable changes in the gene expression profiles of the experimental group, while the control group who remained largely sedentary with only daily walks as their exercise showed no changes.
The consequences of the shift in gene expression among the experimental group included improved sleep, increase in both muscle mass and bone density, reduction of inflammation, better digestion, and measurably enhanced cognitive performance on a standard battery of tests.
Listening to a summary of the findings, I was thrilled. Here was reasonably good evidence that a simple lifestyle change within the reach of nearly everyone could deliver significant health benefits. Presumably, I thought, the conclusion of the talk will be a recommendation that everyone incorporate moderate weight-bearing exercise in their weekly routine.
Of course, dear reader, you already know the punchline. At the conclusion of the talk, the researcher looked out across the audience — which comprised almost entirely people within the age range of his experiment — and said, “we hope that by collaborating with pharmaceuticals companies we can one day reproduce these results by taking a pill.”
Since that time I’ve co-founded two health-oriented startup companies, both of which created products and services that enabled clients and customers to achieve very significant improvements in their physical health and cognitive abilities. Both had to be shut down because we were unable to raise funds to scale up. Investors understood what it took me two startups to learn: most people can’t be bothered to do anything to improve their health.
For reasons I’ve never viscerally grasped, most people are semi-detached from their bodies. Most people consume vast quantities of junk and spend their lives avoiding as much as possible the onerous task of moving. By 2010, statistics indicated that the average US citizen walks less than 3 miles (5 kilometers) per week — and this includes everything from bed-to-bathroom to cubicle-to-snack-machine. Our modern world contains so many conveniences and so much convenience food-slop that we’re literally eating ourselves to death as we sit.
But hardly anyone cares.
The diet industry thrives on transiently fashionable nonsense that reliably induces a very temporary weight loss at the cost of depriving the body of essential micronutrients. In other words: fad diets make people ill. Meanwhile the exercise equipment industry thrives on the desire of people to persuade themselves that they’re doing something positive while avoiding doing anything positive. Houses and apartments across the USA are thus littered with unused exercise bikes, unused treadmills, unused dumbbells, and every other (unused) variety of home workout equipment you can imagine. Gyms likewise depend on the 70% of clients who sign up in January in a fog of post-holiday remorse, only to appear once or twice before giving up entirely for another year.
And while I understand this intellectually, I cannot really understand it at all. Health is the most important thing we have; without it, all the electronic toys and McSlop in the world are insufficient to compensate for our aches and pains and bad backs and cancer and emphysema and diabetes and cardiovascular disease and foggy heads and vast blubbery bellies. Yet 97% of people ignore their health entirely.
And then these same people expect a miracle pill to cure them when their ailments become so unpleasant they can’t be ignored any longer.
I recognize, however, that I can neither change the world nor change people’s fundamental predisposition. Consequently I must welcome the announcement, made recently, of yet another pill that is being touted as a miracle treatment for our most prevalent and deadly pandemic: the obesity tsunami.
Although the sensationalist mass media has been forcing us to dine on endless coronapanic stories for the last year, nearly ten times as many people have died from lifestyle diseases as from the supposedly dangerous SARS-COV2 which in fact kills less than two-tenths of one percent of the population even in the worst-hit countries. And although the big pharmaceuticals companies have responded heroically to demands for a vaccine, they know their long-term financial health rests on far more mundane matters. Furthermore, whereas vaccines can be injected into people only a few times per year at best and a few times per decade at worst, pills to address the many chronic ailments causes by our profoundly unhealthy lifestyle will be consumed multiple times per day, every day, for life, by hundreds of millions of sick fat customers.
And that’s a fantastic source of predictable recurring revenue.
In fact, a smart CEO of a major pharmaceuticals company would be wise to consider taking significant positions in the shares of the companies that cause health problems in the first place: the McSlops, the Kentucky Fried Cancers, the Colon-Colas, the Krap Foods and General Ills, and all the other manufacturers of junk that should never be eaten by people under any circumstances whatsoever. This would enable huge amounts of cash to be banked by (i) creating the problem and then by (ii) selling palliatives to mask the problem.
And while hundreds of millions of people will continue to be sick as a result, at least the profits will be healthy!
But let’s return now to our latest miracle cure: semaglutide. This chemical is an appetite-suppressant that is administered in tablet form one or more times per day. It works by mimicking the hormone GLP1 which is released about twenty minutes after one eats a reasonably-sized meal. One of the many reasons so many people are fat these days is because, being indolent, we’re insensitive to the various self-regulatory mechanisms that operate in a healthy body. All we know is that we feel hungry and we keep eating until our swollen stomachs can’t accommodate any more food. Worse yet, the big food manufacturers long ago learned to dose everything with salt, fat, and sugar — the Big Three triggers for over-consumption and hence obesity. It’s no coincidence that as US food products arrive in countries, obesity rates begin to soar.
Even more wonderfully (if you happen to own shares in a junk food company) consuming lots of sugar leads predictably to a sugar crash a little later which results in the desire to eat even more junk to nullify that awful feeling of hunger caused by the sudden crash.
But don’t despair! Aside from gastric bypass surgery, our new miracle drug semaglutide will artificially suppress appetite and thus make it slightly easier to hold off on raiding the fridge for that large tub of ice-cream, the three thick slices of cheesecake, and those irresistible Corn Dogs that taste so yummy after they’ve been dropped into the deep-fat fryer for five minutes.
So what’s not to love? Weight loss without the hassle of getting off the sofa! What could be better?
Sure, side-effects include constipation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches. But there are pills for those problems! And sure, the moment you stop taking semaglutide, all the weight will come piling back on again, but that’s actually a benefit — remember that all-important recurring revenue we mentioned earlier?
Well, it’s a benefit for the pharmaceutical industry, at least.
We can thus continue on our marvelous path of avoiding the obvious (eat healthy foods in moderation, take daily meaningful exercise, don’t spend much time sitting down) and relying instead on an endless succession of pills and fads to compensate for our inherently self-destructive way of life. And all those unpleasant side effects can be masked with yet more pills, many of which have side effects that can be masked with yet more pills, many of which have side effects…
So long as we act as though human beings are merely fleshy garbage bins into which unscrupulous companies pour endless quantities of toxic slop, we will continue to imagine there’s an easy way to avoid the worst consequences of our profoundly unhealthy excesses. And there’s zero sign that the vast majority of people have any interest whatsoever in living more active and healthy lives. Even more disturbing is the currently fashionable posture of pretending that obesity isn’t a health issue at all, but merely a “valid body choice” that should be embraced by all (assuming one’s arms are of sufficient length to do the embracing, that is…). Thus we are not even acknowledging the horrific personal and social costs of the obesity epidemic but instead we’re pretending it’s a fashion option.
Which means this is as good a time as any to load up on stocks of JunkFood Inc and Happy Pharma Ltd, because the future is only going to get bigger and bigger.