The Real Skinny on Obesity

By Harold Brown

Our culture makes the simplest problems complex and the simplest solutions expensive. None seem simpler than the cause of obesity and its cure, but nutritionists, psychologists, government and popular culture have made its cure both a complex science and mystical mission.

What we learned from nutrition courses a half-century or more ago still holds true today: If we consume more calories than we need, the excess energy is stored as fat. Popular science, however, won’t have it. A study group reporting to the U.S. Food and Drug Agency says, “The problem of obesity has no single cause.” In a nitpicking sense, that is correct. Potatoes, peanuts, hamburgers, ice cream and cake are all causes, as are watching TV, sleeping on the sofa and sitting in front of the computer. Carpentry and running are not.

Many American mothers cajoled their picky children to eat up by reminding them of “the starving children in China.” They believed more was healthier. Most of us don’t need coaxing now, and China and nearly every other country face their own problems with obesity.

Simply leaving this up to the individual to solve has become too complicated. Even the World Health Organization noted in a recommendation to help combat European obesity, “Holding individuals alone accountable for their obesity should not be acceptable.” Hence hundreds of how-to books, legions of nutritionists and dozens of government agencies to solve the problem.

Mississippi legislation would prohibit restaurants from serving to those the state defines as obese. Georgia’s getting in on the game, with a bill that would have public schools weigh children periodically to keep a running check on obesity. How that data will be used is unclear, but the intent is to enlist schools in the war on obesity. Interestingly, poverty and hunger was a main reason the National School Lunch Program began in the 1970s. Is the program working too well? Poverty has changed over the years; many now believe it causes obesity.

If schools are to become an action agency in matters other than education, will they now become the both the encourager and restrainer in nutrition?

Much of the obesity controversy is about responsibility. The responsible person is the one eating the food, unless they are too young or too enfeebled to understand. But the net is being cast wide to reassign responsibility and designate perpetrators. The blame goes to McDonald’s and other fast food places; school cafeterias, grocery stores, ice creameries, and even soft-drink companies, all accused of conniving, or at least condoning fattening the public. TV is to blame; if not for the laziness it induces, then for advertising fattening foods and lifestyles.

It is no wonder that Americans overeat. We’re encouraged by food commercials, food channels and strategically placed items on overflowing supermarket shelves. There’s extra time to eat the food we don’t have to grow, harvest or slaughter, much less prepare. Technology has so reduced the physical exercise and time required to produce or earn our food that we have to look for ways to expend more energy and eat less. But even the least educated know that improvement in food and its production is a good thing.

And they know how to solve the obesity problem.  

So why does the government need to be so involved? Because big government has never seen a personal problem that it didn’t think it owned. The Surgeon General’s Call To Action To Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity 2001 suggested that governments, “create and promote policies that promote an environment in which healthy dietary and physical activity options are readily accessible.”

The kind of advice needed is already on the National Institutes of Health Web site as simple guidelines to attain or maintain your weight:

  • 10 calories per pound of desirable body weight if you are sedentary or very obese
  • 13 calories per pound of desirable body weight if your activity level is low, or if you are over age 55
  • 15 calories per pound of desirable body weight if you regularly do moderate activity
  • 18 calories per pound of desirable body weight if you regularly do strenuous activity

Calorie content is listed on nearly every package of food sold. It is readily available for those foods that are not packaged. All that’s necessary, however, is to read the bathroom scales every few days and adjust food consumption or exercise accordingly.

Belittling the growing obesity problem and its health consequences don’t help. But the cost of the planning and enforcement required to solve this problem is outrageous. So is the money individuals spend on dietary foods, weight-loss remedies and advice. Overweight individuals ought to be free to spend their money on anything they think helpful, whether foolish or faddish. It’s a personal problem, to be solved or tolerated by those persons.

Government involvement should be limited to education and advice and it doesn’t take dozens of agencies and legislative acts to provide it. Slim Jims or Jeans shouldn’t have to pay the government to reinvent the wheel for this simple lifestyle equation: Fat equals calories eaten minus calories used.

University of Georgia Professor Emeritus R. Harold Brown is an Adjunct Scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (March 7, 2008). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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