America has a weight problem. A stroll through the local mall or middle school is proof enough that adults and children are packing on extra pounds. Public-health experts call the obesity epidemic hitting the US a public-health crisis that threatens to shorten the lifespan of today's youth and bankrupt the health care system we all rely on. Curbing the epidemic requires going beyond gimmick diets and changing social norms like California, New York, and other progressive states have done around smoking and tobacco use. America must reconstruct environments that promotenot discouragehealthy living.
Extra fat can lead to health problems later in life.
Whose fault is it that we're getting fatter? Is it a lack of individual willpower? Can personal laziness and gluttony account for the soaring rates of obesity? Health experts say no. They point out that human genes have not changed in the last 30 years, but our surrounding environments have. We've created communities that discourage physical activity and push high-fat, high-sugar foods at us all hours of the day. "It's a direct result of public policy," Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, tells Gelf. "The environment has changed to seduce us to eating more unhealthy foods and being less active."
America has more sugary and fatty foods available than ever before, and we exercise less than ever before. Scientifically, that's our problem. We're consuming more energy than we burn off and so our bodies store it as fat. Food lures us at every meeting, event, and activity. It bombards us on the television, on billboards, and in magazines. Humans are genetically predisposed to crave high fat, sugary foods, Goldstein says, and, well, those foods are everywhere.
Willpower only goes so far. Our culture needs to change its approach to food. We need to invert the economic structure that makes potato chips cheaper than strawberries. We need to subsidize school nutrition programs with money for fresh fruits and vegetables instead of paying farmers not to farm their land. Society must quit blaming the fat people and start blaming the government leaders and businesses that create unhealthy environments, Goldstein says. Shaming people because they are overweight will get society nowhere. People must support one another to make a healthier America, says Susan Foerster, chief of the Cancer Prevention and Nutrition Section of the California Department of Health. "You really can't do it alone," she says. "You need environmental support. You need social support."
But where should the changes start? Multiple factors contribute to America's weight problem. Many children have virtually unregulated access to television and videogames. Parents want their children to stay sedentary inside instead of running around outside because they live in unsafe neighborhoods. Food and beverage companies spend billions to advertise their products to young children. The companies hope to hook kids on sugary sodas and fatty French fries at an early age. Communities favor the automobile and discourage walking and bicycling. Many places lack safe parks and walking trails.
Underfunded schools share the blame for seizing lucrative soda contracts to fund their sports programs. But can local schools be blamed for cutting out physical-education classes because their students need more time in math and reading to pass the tests required by No Child Left Behind legislation?
Goldstein and Foerster say every category of American society must share the blame and the responsibility to initiate change. It's in society's best interest to do so. "[Obesity] is eroding our productivity and bottom line," Foerster says.
The food and beverage companies hide behind lobby groups with Orwellian names like the Center for Consumer Freedom (Wikipedia). They denounce the strict school nutrition laws passed in California and attempts to limit fast food in communities as "unAmerican." They preach free enterprise and consumer rights and worry about their bottom line. The arguments sound very familiar to the public-health experts who led the anti-tobacco campaign through the 1980s and 90s. It took decades of educating the public about tobacco use and second-hand smoke, but people can no longer smoke in most public places in California. In 2004, California's adult smoking rate reached a historic low at 15.4% compared with 22.8% in 1988, when the state launched its antitobacco program (California Department of Health Services in PDF).
Super Size Me has helped to spark a national debate about who is to blame for skyrocketing obesity levels.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called a health and obesity summit in September where he asked business leaders to take a step toward making California a healthier place. Businesses can save money by promoting healthy living. They can stock vending machines and fridges with healthy snacks. They can sponsor gym memberships and encourage nutrition programs. If fewer employees are overweight, the company's productivity will increase and their health insurance and workers' compensation payouts will decrease. Some minor, inexpensive changes could lead to big-time savings.
Local city officials must take a new approach to designing their communities. They must think like walkers and bikers and plan mixed-use neighborhoods with safe trails and access to grocery stores. Cities should ensure children have safe parks to play in and paths to walk to school. Schools must bring back physical education.
Sounds impossible, right? Well, people would have roared hysterically 20 years ago at the thought that no one could smoke in restaurants or bars in California. Cultural norms can shift. The success of the antismoking campaign proves that. Now it's time to apply those same principles to obesity.