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A Personal (and National) Problem Government Can’t Fix

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The United States may lead the world in military and economic power, as well as cultural influence, but we’re also “Number One” in another category: no nation on earth possesses so many citizens who qualify as obese.

According to new figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an alarming 38 percent of all Americans above age 15 meet medical standards of obesity​–​not merely overweight, or carrying a few extra pounds, but heavy enough to face serious health consequences.

The U.S. stands at nearly twice the OECD average in obesity rates, and some ten times the rate of world leader, Japan. Korea, Canada, Poland, Israel, Germany, the United Kingdom and 38 other countries also do much better than the United States. Only Mexico joins us in an adult obesity rate that exceeds 30%, and that approaches (but doesn’t equal) our own. Not surprisingly, obesity rates closely correlate with poverty: poor and uneducated people are twice as likely to be obese, and obese people are far more likely to stay poor.

There’s no quick governmental fix for this crisis, which highlights the need for individual initiative and accountability to begin tackling private problems with a big public impact. America’s obesity problem re-enforces the timeless truth in a brilliant couplet written by Dr. Samuel Johnson 300 years ago: “How small, of all that human hearts endure,/That part which laws and kings can cause or cure.”

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  1. Aaron  •  Jun 2, 2017 at 7:36 pm

    It seems odd that obesity and poverty are linked. It may be our definition of poverty is less than accurate. If you have enough food to be obese, are you really impoverished? Poor may be a more accurate term. Poor and perhaps exercising poor judgement.

    Some of that poor judgement lives with the irresponsible players in the food industry. However, food producers are in the business of making a profit. The consumer ultimately decides what they will vote for with their dollar. What's on the shelf at the store is a direct result of what people are willing to purchase.

    I find it odd that a pound of white processed flour is far less expensive than a pound of whole wheat berries. Far more time and energy goes into producing the processed flour, so why the substantially lower cost?

    It's very frustrating trying to find nutritious products that are ready to eat. A health lifestyle requires effort and discipline. I would love to be able to go to the average corner deli and buy organic whole foods ready to eat. This is not usually the case outside a few locations in large population centers. Until the public demands and is willing to pay for healthy foods, I don't see the average options at the quick stop changing. Demand must force changes in supply.

    The American consumer must become unsatisfied with processed foods. As long as there is high demand for quick and cheap over quality, the producers will continue to market and provide what sells and nets them the greatest profit.

    Education may be part of the equation, but I don't think its necessarily the answer. Every obese person I know understands that they're poor food choices aren't good for them. The choices are still made in spite of the knowledge.

    This leads us to a very uncomfortable conversation about health insurance. Is health insurance a right, if your lifestyle choices directly impact the financial obligations of your neighbors? Should a person who makes good choices be forced to pay for the consequences of another person's poor choices? Can we coerce in this way and still have freedom?

    Perhaps we should lets each state decide for itself. I don't see the power to coerce people regarding health insurance as one of the specifically enumerated powers constitutionally provided to the federal government.

    • CK  •  Jun 2, 2017 at 11:20 pm

      Its not odd that poverty and obesity go hand in hand, as you point out they both often are the result of poor choices, especially as to delayed gratification. You also have to keep in mind this is the government's definition of poverty which isn't the same as destitute. People in poverty don't always, but can have 2 cars, everyone in the family with cell phones, cable TV and internet.

      The food industry isn't only responding to the public's choices but also to gov't pressures. For decades the "experts" in the gov't have told us how bad fats are for us and pressured the food industry to lower fat content — which they did, replacing fats with sugars! It turns out fats aren't bad, including the saturated kind (with the exception of trans fats, those are bad and we got more of those too in the push to avoid saturated fats, sigh). The preferred fat replacement, sugars, *are* bad and most likely the cause of the increased obesity. The heavy use of high fructose corn syrup and the alphabet soup of hard-to-pronounce ingredients (a lot of them sugars) derived from corn are also due to gov't action — the subsidies for corn production. Corn is artificially cheap, so its used as stock to create all those artificial ingredients.

      The reasons processed foods are cheaper is simple. 1) The cost processing is cheap compared to the cost of food spoilage and the processing prevents spoilage. 2) As you mention, supply and demand. We got hooked on white flour decades ago and the demand hasn't shifted that much so the efficiencies of a large supply to meet that demand make it cheaper. Think of it this way, a model T is a fairly cheap car, but the price of a new or slightly used car can be cheaper than that of a model T today because of supply differences. Organic is another story altogether.

      I 100% agree on the problems with health care (not just insurance), why should those making good choices pay extra for those who aren't? It incentivizes bad choices and discourages good ones. My preferred health plan would flip what we do today, free care for the young, who's health problems are largely not of their doing, and give people incentives to save for their old age health care (HSAs that are inheritable, shareable and transferable for starters) and tell them their own their own in their old age and they'd better plan for it, both by saving for it and by taking better care of themselves. Let the people pay for their lifestyle choices and they'll start making better ones. As people age start provide less and less "free" care, weaning them off the gov't system (say staring around age 25). But that's just one approach, as you say, lets leave it up to the States, I'd rather have 50 concurrent experiments in how to best run health care and see what works than 1 system dictated out of DC that's nearly impossible to change.

  2. Susanna Pyron  •  Jun 3, 2017 at 12:47 am

    Beware of a fat beggar. Temperance and moderation are not popular in an indulgent society. Gluttony is not a word we use anymore. It might trigger an emotional breakdown or worse. In the 1800's nearly no one was fat even a little bit. People don't walk anywhere anymore. Without exercise, people get cranky and they eat because it feels good on the tongue.

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