Our obesity mess

heavy peopleFixing the obesity mess will take more than ‘freedom’ rhetoric

by Mick Ireland

Are we eating ourselves to death?

No this isn’t a column about the recent Aspen Food & Wine Classic, which is sometimes unfairly called swill and swine by the envious who focus more on the cost of admission  than the actual event. (Editor’s note: basic festival prices were $1,250 this year).

While F&W does attract a large number of large people, a sight we’re not used to in body-obsessed Aspen, it’s more about quality than quantity, the art of consumption.

One can stuff more calories in a single sitting across the mall at Aspen’s only genuine fast-food franchise than the average food and winer can nibble and sip while wandering between tastings, demos and displays under the big tent. Most of the semi-pro athletes in this town could not make it through their yoga-cycling-weight lifting-hiking routine on the offerings at Food & Wine.

Mick Ireland

Mick Ireland

So where do all these jumbo people come from and why are they so much larger than we are and why are we so much larger than we were? The obesity epidemic is everywhere and not going away.

At the risk of combining political incorrectness with excessive geekitude, the fattening of America is more about political and public policy than individual choice. Simple economics tells us that making something cheap, fun and widely available will result in more consumption.

How fat are we? It’s as difficult to quantify as it is easy to observe. The difficult part is that “fatness” is now measured by something called the Body Mass Index, a static that is more scientific than weight alone but doesn’t measure body fat directly. The 500 or more NFL players checking in at more than 300 pounds—there was only one weighing that much in 1970—are obese or overweight by the BMI standard because BMI doesn’t account for body muscle.

In some competitive high school programs, 300-pound linemen are not uncommon. Most of them will not go on to NFL or even college careers but will be tackling heart disease, arthritis and diabetes for the remainder of their lives. Very few ex-high-school heavy weights hit the weight room at 6 a.m. for the rest of their lives or schedule two-a-days in August. A 4 percent body fat, 300-pound body doesn’t stay that way on the standard American diet.

The reality is we use tax dollars to subsidize corn, wheat and soybeans, much of it going to drive down the prices of beef and corn syrup. The so-called fiscal hawks (a.k.a. Tea Party budget balancers, etc.) in Congress finally passed a farm bill that provides $134 billion in price supports and insurance guarantees over the next decade. Fruits and vegetables, by contrast, are not subsidized at all.

The same bill provides about $400 million per year to promote fruits and vegetables in the school lunch and food stamp programs. Michelle Obama’s attempts to promote healthier school lunches have been criticized by the usual voices on the right as a “government” intervention. As if “freedom” means having 8-year-olds design menu choices and childhood obesity was another hoax like climate change.

Incidentally, the idea of more broccoli and less saturated fat for kids started under the Bush administration. Seriously. Like the war in Iraq, some things are not a socialist Obama plot.

One of the primary objections to more fruits and vegetables being “forced” on school children is their relative cost. It’s much cheaper to provide the four fast-food groups: burgers, fries, pizza and dairy products.

The same dynamic works in grocery stores: Getting 250 calories of fruits and vegetables costs about the same as purchasing 1,500 calories of junk food.

quarter-pounderIn 1975 a McDonald’s double cheeseburger (today’s quarter-pounder) cost 99 cents. Adjusted for inflation that would be about $3.50 today. The real price right now? About $1. Thanks to subsidies for corn and increased efficiency in raising and slaughtering beef cows, the burger is cheaper than ever.

To say that public policy encourages obesity does not mean there is not a personal responsibility component. As adults, we should all know well the connection between more calories and less exercise. While some of us have genetic or other issues that drive up our weight and fat content, those genes have not evolved in the space of a generation and don’t contribute to accelerating rates of obesity.

Unhealthy food may be cheap but it isn’t free. The real cost is passed through to the health-care system where the once-unknown adult onset diabetes has become an epidemic as too many calories overload the system. Joints designed to support 150 pounds crumble under the stress of 250-pound bodies, resulting in a booming market for expensive artificial hips and knees. And hearts can’t cope with the bigger circulatory systems and clogged arteries.

Fixing this mess will take more political will and less rhetoric about “freedom.” Being gluten free or identifying GMOs is a fine thing but doesn’t get at the real problem: too many calories in, too little exercise out.

We could start by not subsidizing corn, wheat and soybeans to the tune of $14 billion a year, making sure adults run the menu at schools and that science, not denial, governs our future choices.

Mick Ireland, a former mayor Aspen, would never be accused of being obese. Just a guess that he sleeps in his bicycling clothes. This column originally appeared in the June 23 issue Aspen Daily News and is published here with permission of the author.

For the Guardian story in 2008 about healthy obese people, see here.

mcdonalds_us-520x379As measured by distance from a McDonald’s restaurant, where is the most remote place in the United States? Hint: It’s not in metropolitan Denver, where this writer found 183 McDonald’s in a 15-mile segment.



About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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