The Perfect Storm Revisited

The Coming Storm

A meme is like a mental gene, a little packet of information that carries a cultural idea from one mind to another. The “perfect storm” meme illustrates a truth that has been around forever, in an original way that can be adapted to many situations. Bob Case, a meteorologist, is credited for naming it in 1991.

In Case’s words:

A strong disturbance associated with a cold front moved along the U.S.-Canadian border… At the same time, a huge high pressure system was forecast to build over southeast Canada. When a low pressure system along the front moved into the Maritimes southeast of Nova Scotia, it began to intensify due to the cold dry air introduced from the north. These circumstances alone, could have created a strong storm, but then, like throwing gasoline on a fire, a dying hurricane Grace delivered immeasurable tropical energy to create the perfect storm.

When society considers big problems, one thing that gets in the way is that people are looking for the answer, and debating over which theory is the right one… And all the time, there are different answers, because there are different causes. And sometimes you get a confluence of events that drastically aggravate a situation. Many different things are going on at any given time, and maybe not one of them alone could have much influenced the normal flow of society, but they pile up, and all of a sudden you’ve got a perfect storm.

A perfect storm isn’t about either/or, it’s about a lot of things being true at the same time. The whole point here is that you can’t put your finger on one cause, because that one cause alone wouldn’t have been enough to make a disaster. But the causes work together, and the synergy thing starts happening, where the whole is something different from, and more than, the sum of its parts.

For instance, studies have shown that when schools are located near fast-food outlets, and vice versa, the kids have a worse obesity problem than their age-mates at other schools. That can be true without making other things false. It can be true without being mistaken for the sole and only cause of food addiction or of the obesity epidemic. It might even be characterized as an indirect cause, because fast-food outlets alone can’t do the job of making everybody fat. It takes a certain amount of cooperation from the people who walk in and buy the stuff.

The taco stand is not what logic would call a “necessary condition,” because there are other ways for people to become addicted to food besides buying it at a taco stand. And it’s not what logic would call a “sufficient” condition, because the taco stand cannot, simply by existing, turn anybody into a food addict or make anybody obese. But it certainly is a contributing condition.

Addiction-prone teenagers would be better off if there were not so many burger joints around their schools. Many people feel that this is reason enough to make laws that restrict fast-food vendors from clustering near schools, and they may be right.

In Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Pretlow wrote,

Several extraordinary factors, which alone would not produce the childhood obesity epidemic, appear to have come together at the same time to produce the epidemic, in the same manner as unusual weather conditions occurring together produce a ‘Perfect Storm.’

More recently, he also wrote,

It is the perfect storm of factors causing food addiction, which then leads to obesity.

What causes any addiction? Availability — there has to be a supply of the substance (or an opportunity for the activity, in the case of a process addiction like gambling). A cloistered nun is unlikely to become a crack addict, because there is no way to get it. And still, supply alone is only one-half of availability. The addictive substance is not truly available unless a person has either the money to buy it or the cunning to obtain it in another way. When it comes to kids and junk food, they seem to have no problem getting their hands on it.

Unwholesome pseudo-food is available like never before, because of high technology in both the production and the distribution. It’s cheap to make, and it’s sent to every remote outpost of vast America. But, although availability is a necessary condition, it’s not a sufficient condition. Plenty of people have junk food available but don’t get hooked.

Another element of addiction is a person’s expectation that the substance or activity will help them feel better. In the case of junk food, most kids unfortunately discover this at a very young age. At his recent presentation at the European Congress on Obesity in Istanbul, Dr. Pretlow talked about the food addiction continuum. Overweight children appear to be partially addicted, and heading in the wrong direction on the road to a full-blown addiction, because they have already learned how to drown their sorrows in hedonic food.

Obese children are fully addicted, and morbidly obese children are in tolerance mode, where there is literally no such thing as “enough.” The substance does not deliver the same pleasure reward as it used to, no matter how much of it is consumed. So keeping kids away from junk food is helpful, because (aside from the other obvious health benefits) they don’t get a chance to discover the dubious pleasures of ecstasy derived from that particular source.

But experience is not the only teacher. The expectation of pleasure that erases troubles can of course be raised by advertising — and oh boy, is it ever. Junk food marketing, in case you hadn’t discovered this on your own, will repeatedly tell you how comforting and rewarding the experience of eating can be.

Stress, either chronic or acute, puts the predisposition to the test. This is a big factor, where kids are concerned. They are, or perceive themselves to be, under a great deal of soul-crushing stress. Comfort eating, binge eating, eating as a displacement activity to keep from punching out the teacher — all kinds of things are going on.

The propensity of humans to become addicted is notorious, but not universal. Maybe everyone has some degree of predisposition, but not everyone becomes addicted to something, even though they live with stress. Stress can be a contributing condition, but it’s obviously not a sufficient condition. Not everyone becomes addicted to food, even though it’s delicious and available, and life is stressful. Why are some people different? This is one of the most promising areas for research.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “NOAA Meteorologist Bob Case, the Man Who Named the Perfect Storm,” NOAA News, 06/16/2000
Source: “Addiction to Highly Pleasurable Food as a Cause of the Childhood Obesity Epidemic,” Weigh2Rock.com
Image by Daniel D’Auria, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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