Over the weekend, political columnist Kathleen Parker had an opinion piece in the Washington Post entitled, “Health Reform and Obesity – Eat, Drink and Watch Out” in which she argues that the federal government should have no role in solving the obesity crisis. Instead, Parker harkens back to an earlier, simpler time, and concludes that, “[a]s with most problems, the solution is family:”
Ma would say: “Sit up and eat your vegetables.” Pa said: “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
Other common utterances included: “Go outside and play.” And, “After you finish your chores.”
Families may not have been happier . . . but neither were the words “childhood obesity” part of the vernacular.
We know that family dinners do play a role in preventing childhood obesity (here’s a recent study to support that notion, one not cited by Parker), and since TLT’s inception, I’ve been regularly writing about and encouraging weeknight family meals, including providing tips and recipes to help readers pull them off. But to say that family dinners are the sole solution to the mounting obesity crisis, and that government has no role in the matter, is like suggesting we use a squirt gun to battle a four-alarm blaze.
What Parker fears, apparently, is a Big Government nanny scolding freedom-loving Americans about their “unattractive” eating habits:
The same strategy that created pariahs out of smokers now is being aimed at people who eat unattractively. It isn’t only that you’re hurting yourself by eating too much of the wrong foods; you’re hurting the rest of us by willfully contributing to your own poor health and therefore to the cost of public health. Fat is the new nicotine.
Once the numbers crunchers start quantifying the cost to society incurred by people who eat too much ($100 billion a year, according to one estimate), you can be sure that not-such-good-things are coming your way soon. Think Nurse Ratched in an apron.
Yet the only examples of governmental regulation offered by Parker are some cities outlawing trans fats (a man-made substance injected into our food supply by Big Food solely to improve product shelf life, with indisputable ill effects on consumers’ health) and the current USDA effort to limit the number of times potatoes can be served in school lunches per week (hmm . . . so that would be a case of Big Government interfering with . . . oh yeah, a governmental program.)
If that’s all Nurse Ratched has up her starched apron, I’m not sure why Parker is so worried.
But of course, unlike Parker, I would support other governmental efforts to combat what she herself admits is an “alarming” problem. She mentions, for example, “the high cost of healthy food (rent ‘Food Inc.’ for an overview) vs. cheap, fast food” as a factor contributing to the problem, but quickly concludes that it’s “[o]ur drive-through culture, which applies to relationships as well as mealtimes” that “is the real enemy of fitness and health.” Um, what about the governmental subsidies that make that fast food so cheap? Why are we ignoring the underlying conditions that create this odd paradox, and then blaming people for making the financially (if not nutritionally) rational decision to choose a Big Mac over a meal of fresh produce and free-range chicken?
Parker also glosses over the fact that when it comes to making food choices, the playing field is not a level one. She writes:
Personally, I wouldn’t touch a trans fat if you wrapped it in gold and sprinkled it with diamonds, but this is because I can read, comprehend, digest, recall and act on the free will allotted to all sentient adults. In the absence of willpower among some, should trans fats be forbidden to all? Where exactly does one stop drawing that little line?
Does Parker really believe that, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with a masters degree, she stands in the shoes of most consumers trying to make sound food choices? Even well-educated adults are often led astray by product claims (e.g., TLT interviewee Dr. Brian Wansink has shown that simply slapping “organic” on a cookie label leads college students to believe they are consuming approximately 40 percent fewer calories and getting more fiber) and those claims are backed by, literally, billions of marketing dollars. For consumers less educated than Parker and Wansink’s subjects, trying to navigate the sometimes deliberately confusing information on product packaging, while sifting through the deluge of often-conflicting information about nutrition in the media, all while being subjected to an unrelenting marketing blitz, is a formidable challenge.
Parker concludes by recommending that readers visit a website, www. togethercounts.com, a campaign to encourage personal responsibility. The site was created by the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, which Parker tells us is “a coalition of 160 organizations.” I was curious about who these “organizations” were, so I Googled its board of directors and discovered a veritable Who’s Who of Big Food– representatives of Nestle, Kellogg’s, Kraft, Hershey, Coke, Mars, Sara Lee, Kraft, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and more. That doesn’t make the foundation’s efforts inherently worthless, but it’s notable that those now urging moderation and personal responsibility are the very entities whose products have contributed significantly to the present problem. (See also this scathing critique of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation from Michele Simon of Appetite for Profit).
Bottom line: Parker rejects the tobacco analogy when it comes to the obesity crisis whereas I accept it fully. If we’re serious about reversing the alarming rise in childhood and adult obesity in America, Nurse Ratched needs to step up her game.
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