With more than 20 percent of preschoolers being obese or overweight, America might be on the verge of waking up to its food problem, a problem that contributes to serious health issues, such as cancer and heart disease.
Underscore the word “might.” We have serious disagreements about the root causes and remedies.
Columns are popping up across the country that reflect the scope of disagreement.
Under the title “Genetics Drives Obesity; So Don’t Judge” in USA Today, David Linden criticized our culture’s negative attitude toward an imaginary obese man who lacks willpower.
“Willpower is a fine thing, but the best intentions of this man’s conscious mind – indeed, all of ours – must struggle against tens of thousands of years of evolutionary history,” wrote Linden, a professor of neuroscience.
“Today, when we try to lose large amounts of weight and keep it off, we are fighting against an evolutionary history geared to a food landscape that no longer exists. Our appetites are calibrated to a diet of roots and shoots and very little meats or sweets – not the McDonald’s Extra Value Meal and a 64-ounce soda,” he wrote.
In the Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker played the anti-government card, calling for “more personal responsibility.”
Assuming that the food industry today is the same as the food providers of yesterday, she said she “hated nanny-statism” and favored listening to mother.
“[M]aternal advice is one thing, and a government-enforced nutritional mandate is another. Trans fats are now outlawed in places; spuds in school lunches are the latest target,” she wrote. “The questions of when and whether the government should intervene in matters of personal taste are not harmless. As government becomes more involved in health decisions, as inevitably will be the case under the Affordable Care Act, government necessarily will become more involved in personal nutrition issues.”
Parker opined that “it seems clear that the real solution to obesity isn’t more government regulation but more personal responsibility.”
Of course, the government is already neck deep on the nutritional front, especially with the farm subsidy for corn. But more on the industrialization of food later.
Denny Banister, an official with the Missouri Farm Bureau, advocated in the Missourian for what his grandparents ate – cheese, ice cream, real butter, eggs and meat, fresh-cooked food.
Giving no hint that he knows about the industrialization of the American diet, Banister offered his theory about obesity.
“People are so confused from conflicting reports about what foods are good for them and what foods are bad for them, they just do not care anymore and eat whatever they want, whenever they want, in whatever portions they want,” said Banister.
Kim Clarke Maisch launched an attack on a ban on trans-fat by the Illinois House, claiming that “the main alternative to trans-fat isn’t much healthier.”
State director for the National Federation of Independent Business, Maisch wrote: “America’s obesity problem isn’t the result of regulatory failure… Better choices, better parenting, exercise and personal restraint are the keys. None of it can be mandated by government. In the meantime, the trans-fat ban will result in higher prices, fewer choices and more government.”
Former Republican Sen. Bill Frist, an M.D., wrote in the Tennessean that obesity cost the nation almost $150 billion each year and threatened national security since 25 percent of young Americans are too overweight to qualify for military service.
“Solving the problem, however, is more complex; there is no silver bullet. Private-and public-sector leaders all have a critical role to play,” wrote Frist, vice chairman of the Partnership for a Healthier America.
“We’re asking private industry to better serve their customers and communities by helping them access healthier products,” said Frist.
While Frist rightly recognizes the need for both public and private sector involvement, others have a vested interest in defending the harmful food industry from good government – whether defending trans-fat or placing the burden on individuals.
In a McClatchy newspaper commentary, Kathryn Strong tackled a problem that many in the food industry and Washington want the public to overlook.
“The USDA’s new plate icon, as well as the department’s recently released dietary guidelines, advise Americans to limit high-fat products like meat and cheese. But the federal government continues to subsidize these very products with billions of tax dollars and gives almost no support to fruits and vegetables,” she wrote.
She noted: “The federal government spends about $16 billion per year on agricultural subsidies. While more than 60 percent of agricultural subsidies in recent history have directly and indirectly supported meat and dairy production, less than 1 percent has gone to fruits and vegetables.”
A dietitian with Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a vegan group, she said, “The government uses billions of tax dollars to encourage the production of foods that have been linked to chronic diseases, and uses billions more tax dollars to cover health-care costs for the resulting hospital bills.”
Doesn’t make much sense, does it? One part of the government promotes good health; another part of the government advances ill health.
Food, Inc., a shocking documentary about the industrialization of food, reported that America’s farm policy heavily subsidizes cheap calories – as in corn that appears in all kinds of unhealthy foods and is fed to all kinds of animals.
The documentary noted that the food “industry blames obesity on the crisis of personal responsibility” while it evades its responsibility for creating an unhealthy diet.
“The industrial food is not honest food. It’s not priced honestly. It’s not produced honestly. It’s not processed honestly. There is nothing honest about that food,” said Joel Salatin, a farmer interviewed in the documentary.
Obesity is a real problem complicated by deep disagreements rooted in conflicting ideologies and vested corporate interests.
One wonders if the faith community has anything to say about food.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.