During one of the flash points of the national debate over health-care reform, I observed a conservative moral leader ask a flight attendant for a seatbelt extension.
“Good grief,” I thought to myself.
Regrettably, he shepherds a flock that suffers from obesity.
Eight of the 10 states with the highest obesity rates in 2009 are located in the Bible Belt: Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas and North Carolina. Louisiana, Georgia and Texas aren’t far behind.
Yep. Bible-believing Christians are living big – and driving up health-care costs.
USA Today reported, “If Americans continue to pack on pounds, obesity will cost the USA about $344 billion in medical-related expenses by 2018, eating up about 21% of health-care spending.”
The newspaper quoted Kenneth Thorpe, chairman of the department of health policy and management at Emory University in Atlanta, who said, “Obesity is going to be a leading driver in rising health-care costs.”
Reed Tuckson of United Health Foundation told the paper, “There is a tsunami of chronic preventable disease about to be unleashed into our medical-care system which is increasingly unaffordable.”
Citing Thorpe, USA Today said, “An obese person will have an average of $8,315 in medical bills a year in 2018 compared with $5,855 for an adult at a healthy weight. That’s a difference of $2,460.”
A few days before the USA Today story, the New York Times reported that heavy Americans were pushing back against those blaming obese people for the nation’s health crisis.
The Times used the phrase “fat pride” to describe the movement.
An advocacy leader for the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, Lynn McAfee, said in the story that heavy people were being “scapegoated.”
Marilyn Wan, a member of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, said that overweight Americans were “a popular punching bag” and “wanted to be treated with respect.”
NAAFA’s Web site states: “Fat people are discriminated against in all aspects of daily life, from employment to education to access to public accommodations, and even access to adequate medical care. This discrimination occurs despite evidence that 95 to 98 percent of diets fail over five years and that 65 million Americans are labeled ‘obese.'”
Criticizing America’s “thin-obsessed society,” NAAFA maintains that “Fat discrimination is one of the last publicly accepted discriminatory practices.”
The cover story in the May issue of The Atlantic tackles the issue under the title of “Fat Nation: It’s Worse Than You Think, How To Beat Obesity.”
The writer, Marc Ambinder, said that obese people “are more likely to be depressed, to miss school or work, to feel suicidal, to earn less, and to find it difficult to marry. And their health care costs a lot. Obese Americans spend about 42 percent more than healthy-weight people on medical care each year.”
Ambinder wrote about his own struggle with obesity that eventually led to bariatric surgery. While he lost 85 pounds and his diabetes “went away quickly,” Ambinder acknowledged that such surgery costs $30,000 and isn’t a wise option for many Americans.
Calling obesity a “social illness,” he said the nation needed to “move beyond the stale ‘willpower versus the food-industrial complex’ debate.”
He added, “We, as a nation, must start by treating them [obese people] without condescension or contempt, and recognize the real obstacles that stand between them and better health.”
One of the obstacles is social inequities, not character flaws. Those vulnerable to obesity “do not have access to healthy food, to role models, to solid health care and community infrastructures, to accurate information, to effective treatments, and even to the time necessary to change their relationship with food,” wrote Ambinder.
“Putting individual solutions and free will up against the increase in portion sizes, massive technological and social changes, food-company taste-engineering and the ubiquity of effective television advertisements is like asking Ecuador to conquer China,” he wrote. “And yet, that is what public-health campaigns suggest we do.”
He charged that unless the American government provided real support to help its citizens achieve a healthier lifestyle, then the government was being “immoral.”
Stigmatizing overweight children is “unconscionable” and obese people of color “is both immoral and racist,” said Ambinder.
The immoral charge turns the issue back to one of society’s moral centers, houses of faith, especially those in the seatbelt-extended Bible Belt.
As Bible Belt churches once avoided sermons about tobacco, most churches avoid moral teachings about gluttony and the social injustice that contributes to obesity. Churches sidestep the need for wise calorie consumption, abundant exercise, public policy initiatives to regulate food marketing and judgmentalism against overweight people.
Complexity and controversy are reasons for a cautious approach to the issue. But they shouldn’t be excuses to avoid both the health problems and the social stigmatism associated with obesity. When the church finally tackles the issue, it needs to be with a commitment to personal responsibility, social justice and kindness.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.