By Alan Caruba
If you want the government, federal, state and local, to tell you what you can and cannot eat, please raise your hand. Apparently no one does except for the various politicians who think they were elected to determine what you should eat and drink.
Let’s get something straight, however. I’m fat. You’re fat. And your kids, if you have any, are probably overweight too. There are some easily understood reasons for this and economist, Eric A. Finkelstein, along with Laurie Zuckerman, tells us what they are in their new book, “The Fattening of America: How the Economy Makes Us Fat, If it Matters, and What to Do About it.”
Looking to the government for answers, however, is predictably a bad idea. Sally C. Pipes, president of the Pacific Research Institute, points out that “government data about what constitutes ‘overweight’ and ‘obese’ are misleading.” The standard metric for this is a person’s body-mass index (BMI). It is the ratio of one’s height to one’s weight. It is a measurement standard that “does not take into account an individual’s body type.” Some athletes would be categorized as obese, but their weight comes more from muscle than fat.
We keep hearing that America is in the midst of an “obesity epidemic” and this is just hype. Americans in general have put on more pounds, but an epidemic is a term applied to diseases that are quickly spread whereas the only thing spreading in America is our waistlines. It’s happening worldwide and even occurring in the world’s poorest countries. Finkelstein notes that “an astounding 1.6 billion people or roughly 25 percent of the planet’s population are (in a) higher than normal weight range, and 400 million of these are considered obese, according to a fall 2005 report by the United Nation’s World Health Organization.”
There are cultural and racial characteristics, too, that play a role in over-weight. “As was the case 30 years ago, excess weight remains more common among African-Americans and Hispanic children than among whites.” And, if the kids are fat, their parents are likely to be fat, too.
Plainly said, Americans are just eating more. “Between the late 1970s and today, men have increased their daily food intake by about 180 calories and woman have increased their daily food intake by about 360 calories.” For men that’s the equivalent of a pint of beer and, for women, it’s a four-ounce slice of chocolate cake. Over all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), men now consuming 2,600 calories per day and woman now consume 1,900 calories daily.
A major contributing factor has been the price of food that has dropped 38 percent relative to the prices of other goods and services. Add to this that, “high-calorie foods have become much cheaper compared to healthier alternatives such as fish, fruits, and vegetables.” Fast food establishments have thrived in the U.S. and even restaurants serve large portions these days. It’s Economics 101. Cheaper food equals eating more.
In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom recently announced he intends to tax retail chains for stocking Coke, Pepsi, and other drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. He is typical of politicians who (a) think raising taxes on anything is a good idea and (b) haven’t a clue about nutrition.
Henry Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, the author of “The Frankenfood Myth”, points out that “In sweetness, high-fructose corn syrup is equal in intensity to disaccharide sucrose, otherwise known as table sugar.” Moreover, “Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup also have essentially the same affect on the body’s production of insulin, which helps burn calories and lowers blood sugar.” According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans actually consume less high-fructose corn syrup than sugar.
As the price of corn continues to rise, thanks to the government mandates for the use of ethanol as a gasoline additive, so will the price of hundreds of thousands of food products that have relied on this sweetener. Corn syrup, for example, is about 20 percent cheaper than table sugar. Government intervention in agricultural practices and prices, as well as energy choices, has a history of being wrong, wrong, and wrong.
The other factor that is making most of us fatter than we want to be is a lack of exercise. We burn less calories because so many of us live largely sedentary lives. Finkelstein notes that, “roughly one fourth of U.S. adults get no leisure-time activity at all.” Then add in the way technology has radically reduced energy use at work, at home, and everywhere else. We use remote control to change television channels. We cook food in microwaves. We have devices to effortlessly do most things our grandparent’s generation had to physically do such as mow the lawn, wash the car, et cetera. Or we hire illegal immigrants to do much of the physical work.
Sedentary? You bet! We spend more time sitting in cars. Fully 88 percent of us drove to work in 2000 as opposed to the 3 percent who walked or 5 percent who used public transportation. Our kids spend more time watching television or playing video games than playing outside, burning off their calories. An estimated 10 percent of high school students are completely sedentary. Constant testing and increased homework loads contribute to that.
Lastly, there is the genetic component that politicians and the “food police” folks want to ignore. Studies have determined that, “The genetic component of obesity (is) as much as 70 percent of the differences between individual’s body weights (that) can be attributed to biological factors.” The most pill-popping society in history is yet another factor. “Many of the best-selling prescription drugs, including those that treat common conditions such as diabetes, mental illness, and arthritis, have one thing in common; individuals who take these prescriptions are likely to experience weight gain—and not just a pound or two.”
So, eat less and exercise more are still the best answers if you think you’re over-weight or want to avoid excess pounds. Or you could just sit back and watch all the television commercials for diet solutions, mouth-watering and inexpensive fast food, or the cars in which to drive to local restaurants.
Whatever you do, blaming the Big Corporations that are simply providing what you want and demanding that government ban various elements of the food supply is not going to change anything. It won’t reduce your waist size, but it will increase your loss of personal freedom and choice.
© Alan Caruba, January 2008