The thrifty gene and obesity

Posted on April 2, 2011
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Delancey Place ( offers an excerpt from a non-fiction book each day. Recently there was an item, from Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals”.  David Wallerstein invented super-sizing. He discovered that customers would choose supersized orders of popcorn and drinks when they would not choose a two-for-one offer. Wallerstein went to work for McDonald’s and eventually convinced Ray Kroc of his findings.

The theory is that people do not want to appear gluttonous by taking two orders. The psychology at play is called “the thrifty gene”. It goes back to the days when hunters feasted when they could, not knowing when the next feed might come.

By coincidence, the “St. Petersburg Times,” one morning last week, carried an article, by Mary Beth Breckenridge, “Taming your inner packrat”. One of the recommendations was to limit the number any particular item you save. You should set a number or allot a space for such things as pens or margarine tubs.

These articles make me think my thrifty gene may be too strong.

On the food side, my adult life has been a constant battle with chronic obesity.

On the packrat side, it bothers me deeply to discard perfectly good mason jars that came with pickles or pasta sauce or plastic containers that are as, or more, serviceable than some containers we buy.

The rest of the article could have been addressed to me personally too. I have enough clothes I’ve put aside for yardwork to clothe a prison chain gang.

I wash Baggies!

Breckenridge’s tip about clothes, by the way, is to hang items with the hanger hook facing out. When you wear something, rehang it with the hook facing in. At the end of a season or a year, the clothes whose hangers have not been reversed are candidates for culling.

Obese packrats, of course, have the additional challenge of knowing when to discard clothes of different sizes.

The articles also answered another question I’ve had about my behaviour over the years. I wondered why I could be so disciplined about managing some aspects of my life and so hopeless about food and paper. Now the Breckenridge article is part of that pile.

I think it may be that thrift, conservation and re-use are useful and productive in many areas of existence but counterproductive in others.

Over the years, I have learned to avoid buffets. I have learned no longer to save every joke or item of trivia someone emails me.

The question now is, can we save David by dialing down his thrifty gene and save the planet by dialing up our collective thrifty gene so we stop consuming mountains of resources and discarding them.

On we go.                                                      DAC


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