Editorial: A closer look at the obesity epidemic

The statistics presented by the district health department Saturday are alarming.  Seventy-five percent of the people in Orleans and northern Essex counties are overweight or obese, they say.

What might be even more alarming is the assertion made by the film Weight of the Nation that it’s not entirely an accident.  If you believe the documentary, done by HBO with the Institute of Medicine among others, the two-thirds of Americans who are now overweight or obese have had a lot of help putting on the pounds.

For one thing, federal farm policy encourages monoculture farming and subsidizes soy and corn, ingredients commonly used in snack and processed food.

For another, the U.S. food industry — since it’s in the business of making money — most heavily markets its most profitable products, which tend to be foods made with artificially inexpensive, government subsidized ingredients.  Those so-called foods are full of calories rather than nutrition, but they’re cheap, quick, and generally appealing, to young people in particular.

When was the last time you saw a television commercial pushing string beans?  The profit on string beans is about 10 percent.  The profit on soda is 90 percent, according to Weight of the Nation.

Any parent knows that grocery shopping these days with a young child is a nightmare.  The collection of junk foods aimed at children is daunting.

As a parent, I’ve long resented the food industry and how it’s made my life more difficult.  The snack cracker aisle alone is like running a gauntlet.

No, we are not getting Sponge Bob crackers.  No, we are not getting Lunchables; I don’t care if Johnny has Lunchables.  No, we are not getting this substance that pretends it’s related to yogurt….

At some point, grocery shopping with a child turned into a battle against marketers who want my kid to want things that are bad for him.

It wasn’t this way even 20 years ago.  When my daughter was young the battle was over SpaghettiOs, which I refused to buy.  That’s laughable now.  SpagettiOs have come to seem pretty benign in the face of the explosion of other, far worse and voluminous, possibilities.

Twenty years ago, avoiding sedentary screen time was also easy enough:  I disconnected the TV.  Today, it doesn’t even matter that the satellite dish is disconnected six months a year.  There’s the computer, Netflix, Hulu, iPads, iPhones, Wii, Xbox, so many ways for kids to engage with a screen rather than the great outdoors.

Yes, there are lots of reasons for being overweight, and lifestyle choices are among them.  But it’s not likely that about 30 years ago two-thirds of Americans got up in the morning and decided they’d get fat.

Nationally, there are good reasons why people add pounds:  No close place to buy good food, no safe place to exercise.

Those reasons don’t hold true here.  It is true, however, that obesity is linked to poverty, and we are poor.  It takes time and money to come up with lean and nutritious meals, and a poor population may not have much of either.

To understand what some call an obesity epidemic, we should look at the cheap and time saving choices people are offered today.  Many fast food restaurants have a dollar menu.  Salads aren’t on it.  Yes, it’s good that fast food places offer healthier choices, but let’s be real here.  No one is going to McDonald’s to get a great salad.

Frozen fruits and vegetables don’t take up much room in the grocery store freezers.  They’re more likely to be filled with pizzas and highly processed microwavable meals.

The cereal section is no place to look for healthy breakfast food.  Chocolate, marshmallow, and frosting are among the choices.

A time and money stressed family may have enough trouble buying and cooking healthy food without also battling a food industry that’s making the job harder.

Weight of the Nation notes there was a time when people thought it was impossible to take on the powerful tobacco industry.  That turned out to be untrue.

The food industry can also be successfully taken on, the film suggests.  It’s possible, at least, to cease marketing bad food to kids, as cigarettes are no longer advertised on TV.

Parents have to step up, as well.  But it would help if the playing field were level.  As it is, a meal of fresh fish and vegetables costs considerably more than a pound of burger and a box of Hamburger Helper, which contains soybean oil and, surprise, corn syrup, that most ubiquitous U.S. ingredient.

You can’t blame a farmer for wanting to make a living.  You can blame a farm policy that uses our own tax dollars to encourage overproduction of the cheap, unhealthy food that’s helped make two-thirds of us fat. – T.S.

To read the Chronicle’s full story on this subject, click here.

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