|Mayor Bloomberg announces large-soda ban, May 30 (NYTimes photo)|
Actually, obesity rates have leveled off since 2000, remaining about the same overall for the past 12 years. However, between 1980 and 2000, adult obesity rates skyrocketed, from about 13% up to 32%, after staying comparatively flat since 1960, when data was first collected. In the same period, the percentage of obese children aged 6-11 swelled from 7% to 20%; teens aged 11-19 from 5% to 18%.
What happened between 1980 and 2000 to cause ballooning obesity? And what happened after 2000 to halt its rise? And why is everyone so upset about it now?
Could it have something to do with last year's "hate-the-1%" reaction to the recession? Corporations have again become the enemy, the latest in an "us-versus-them" feeling of victimhood as unemployment and a real estate slump drags on, and President Obama laughably insists "the private sector is fine."
In this climate, there's a new receptiveness to explanations of our corpulence that point fat fingers to entities we consider "the powerful." The loudest pundits posit that an explosion of cheap junk food, especially high-fructose corn syrup-sweetened drinks, fattened a gluttonous public victimized by the advertising of greedy corporations marketing their high-profit foodstuffs. Dual-income parents, with no time or energy to cook, but with need for quick and easy dinners, grabbed super-sized buckets and carry-out bags from ubiquitous drive-throughs. They did this for twenty years, scarfing down more and more--enough to push girth figures higher every year for two decades, and keep rates at a distended level for twelve years since.
Warnings about our nation's burgeoning bulk are nothing new; they've proliferated since the late 1970s, when a National Institutes of Health report recommended 23 pages of policies to address obesity, including "that any national health insurance program...recognize obesity as a disease and include within its benefits coverage for the treatment of it." In 1980, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed objectives: Within ten years, no more than 10% of men and 17% of women should be obese, half of America's overweight should start a "weight-loss regimen," and 90% of the populace should understand that reducing requires fewer calories consumed and/or increased physical activity.
With obesity rates leaping, in 1999 Surgeon General David Sacher launched "Toward a National Action Plan on Overweight and Obesity: The Surgeon General's Initiative," and in 2001 Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson declared, "Overweight and obesity are among the most pressing new health challenges we face today." As a result, the 2001 "Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity" urged a wide range of measures, including mandatory p.e., healthy school meals, obesity education, and campaigning against sedentary activities like watching TV--similar to remedies put forward today. More goals were set in the "Healthy People 2010" effort, including a population of 60% healthy weight BMI, with fewer than 15% of adults, and 5% of children and adolescents obese.
But instead of heeding health leaders, the citizenry remained fat--with a third of adults and 15% of youngsters obese, and another third overweight. If chubbies can't help themselves, our benevolent legislators must save them--and so "The Do-Something Disease" becomes contagious. First Lady Michelle Obama adopted childhood obesity as her pet cause, and her "Let's Move!" campaign, with its tax-funded programs, sent tentacles of government urgency into communities. (Now a new study shows that "black girls are less sensitive to the effects of physical activity" than white girls, casting a peculiar twist on the plan.)
Mayor Bloomberg has succumbed to "The Do-Something Disease" with his limit on sweetened-drink cup size in New York. Conservatives cry "nanny state," and the public nixed the size-cap 64-36% in a Reuters/Ipsos poll. But many, including mayoral daughter Georgina Bloomberg, suggest other government-imposed means to shrink the national waistline, such as "lowering the cost of healthy food," or taxing a wider array of junk foods by at least 10%.
Recently, Disney pledged to healthify its theme-park foods, and spurn advertising from sweet and junky products on its kid-centric TV channels. At a news conference, Disney's CEO was flanked by the First Lady herself, who called the corporation's new nutritional guidelines "a game-changer for the health of our children."
Just a few thoughts: There were fast-foods, working moms, ubiquitous Coke promotion, and sedentary TV before the obesity rate escalation began in 1980. And health officials wrung their hands about overly-solid citizens before the obesity increase ceased in 2000. Given that medical experts can't even say for sure what fueled the BMI boom, where's the evidence well-meaning interventions will work?
Unless we're willing to ban all convenience or fast foods (throwing millions out of jobs, by the way), individual choice reigns. If tasty, cheap baked goods sit cheek-and-jowl on the grocery shelf with produce, well, have you ever seen anyone actually buy one of the bananas sitting in the little basket recently placed at your supermarket check-out? You can lead a shopper to apples, but you can't make him eat.
A New York Times article describing residents' pessimism about the Bloomberg soda plan interviewed people imbibing soft drinks; the ones sipping sizes larger than 16 ounces were all sharing. It's presently cheaper to buy a bigger cup of soda than two smaller ones; so the new ban could bring some a financial penalty.
Even the foremost expert on the psychological effect of portion sizes has his fears. Brian Wansink of Cornell University, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than we Think, says “I’m really afraid it will be an epic failure,” so that “people won’t have any faith that anything else will work.” Not that they should have any faith that anything else will work, because many researchers believe the rise in obesity is caused by factors outside of human control.
Sudies support that obesity could be caused by (pick your favorite) the evolving FTO gene, environmental influences on the hormones ghrelin and leptin, an Adeno 36 virus, lack of brown adipose tissue related to the COX-2 enzyme, metabolic sensitivity, or environmental chemicals like bisphenol A, pesticides and ptalates--none of them resulting from simple overeating or low physical activity. Realistically, it's highly unlikely that smaller soda cups in some venues will have an impact.
But it's the message that counts, isn't it? "The Do-Something Disease" is about making laws to protect soda-slurpers from both corporate greed (soda is a high-margin item) and themselves.
Gulps, which, the chain claims, "are genetically engineered to quench even the most diabolical thirst." Convenience stores are excluded from the cup-size ban, so help yourself to the 20-oz. Gulp, 30-oz. Big Gulp, 40-oz. Super Big Gulp and 50-oz. (down from 60 for ease of carrying) Double Gulp, all of which cost less than $1.85. You can even mix their flavors to your carbonated delight.
Of course, under the Bloomberg restrictions, fruit juices, which confer as many calories as soft drinks, may continue to be sold in any cup size. Also, you can order as many 16-oz. fountain drinks or refills as you like. So the disease to cure first might be the "Do-Something," because the "obesity epidemic" isn't understood, and may not even be a matter of choice.
"The reason we have government in the first place," intones a talking head early in the HBO four-part TV series The Weight of the Nation, which aired last week, "is to solve collectively problems we can't solve individually." In this case, for government to absolve the rest of us of weakness by tackling the conglomerates who stack our comestibles with extra calories and lure us to spend sedentary hours in front of our computers and TVs. We're fat individually, but government will "collectively" fix it.
The series offers the usual suggestions for individuals to modify their diets and activity levels in order to reduce. But as Cindy, of Bogalusa, Louisiana says in the first episode, "It's not easy to take weight off! And that's been liposuction, patches, peels, fad diets, countin' carbs, countin' calories--I've tried it all." Which would mean she failed even when following what the show offers in its very conventional list of resources. After all these years of media advice, at least one of the 1980 obesity-fighting goals has been reached: 90% of adults are well aware--incessantly informed-- that calories and exercise affect their size.
It's tough to await the research necessary to really address the causes of the twenty-year swell in America's girth, but effective cures for obesity require it. In the meantime, silly laws like restricting soft drink cup sizes won't make much difference, except to assuage lawmakers' cravings to do something--anything--about the fat of the land.