May 14 2012

Government's New Obesity Message: Give Up!

Julie Gunlock

I was out of the country last week with no computer, no IPhone, no television. In short, I was totally out of touch...and it was perfectly wonderful.  Yet, my break coincided with a big week on the obesity front--a topic on which I write a lot of commentary.

Last week, several high-profile events occurred.  First, the CDC hosted a large, multi-day conference on the topic of obesity in Washington, DC.  The foodie glitterati (read: food nannies) were all in attendance. Second, HBO, in coordination with the CDC, launched a 4-part documentary on obesity to accompany the conference (save yourself a couple hours of boredom and see my commentary on the documentary here). Third, the Institute of Medicine released a 400+ page report warning Americans that we're all getting fatter (read Lori's thoughts on the report here).

I have yet to drive down into the details of all that I missed but one thing I noticed almost immediately is the broader shift in the obesity message coming out of Washington.  That shift is perfectly encapsulated by IOM committee member Shiriki Kumanyika of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine who when discussing the fact that obese people are often given the common-sense advice that in order to lose weight they must "eat less and move more," told Reuters:

That advice will never be out of date. But when you see the increase in obesity you ask, what changed? And the answer is the environment. The average person cannot maintain a healthy weight in this obesity-promoting environment.

Mr. Kumanyika is simply parroting the IOM’s report which argues that people cannot truly exercise “personal choice” because their options are severely limited, and “biased toward the unhealthy end of the continuum.”

Really?  Our food choices are limited and unhealthy?  Have members of the IOM panel visited a grocery store lately?  Have they seen how the food industry has reacted to consumer demand by creating low-calorie food that is still appetizing and flavorful--creations that make it easier for dieters to lose weight?  One only has to take a trip down the chip and snack aisle to see the incredible range of choices: snacks come in low salt, no salt, reduced fat, baked, whole grain, vegetable-based, trans-fat free, organic, etc.  Those choices extend to almost every category of food sold in our grocery stores—from cheese to meat to candy.   

Despite this, the mantra, as Mr. Kumanyika stated above, is that the food industry and images on television and the internet are to blame for our collectively expanding pant size.  That’s right, don’t feel bad, you’re not fat because you sit on your duff too much and eat too much food.  You can’t help it that you fail to get a modicum of exercise.  Hey, don’t worry; you’re not in control of your hand and your mouth…two items critical in over-eating.  No, no, no, you’re not doing anything wrong when instead of making a simple, nutritious lunch for your kids; you let them eat that rot they call “school lunch” and then feign surprise when their weight starts to tick up after years of chicken nuggets and French fries.  That’s right, listen to the government agency hack who says “the average person cannot do it.” 

Does anyone else feel the burn of his insult?  I certainly do.

What Mr. Kumanyika said is a highly controversial statement but you’d be silly to think it he misspoke.  No, Mr. Kumanyika didn’t make a mistake.  He won’t be issuing a retraction; the IOM won’t be requiring him to make an apology. Why? Because this is the new reality being pushed by public health officials, food activist and government regulators: Humans are powerless to the forces of big business, big agriculture, and to the images displayed on the internet and television.  Therefore, government must move, must rescue helpless Americans through regulations on the food, beverage and entertainment industries.   

By nurturing and promoting this excuse, people will become somewhat more amenable to the idea that the whole diet battle is hopeless and that we should all throw our hands up and surrender to our enemy—corporations. After all, if you're told you have no control over these forces--forces that are making you eat and drink products that are making you sick--why wouldn't you get behind a little government butt kicking.  

Don’t believe it.  People must understand that when it comes to weight loss, Occam’s Razor still applies: eat less, move more.  I’ll only add one more clause to this famous law of economy: ignore the food nannies. 

 

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