Finally, a Voice of Reason in the Obesity Debate

If you’ve been following along the past week, I’ve discussed’s community problem-solving project concerning childhood obesity (see here for my past coverage).

While I don’t love this project, I do love Slate’s willingness to question themselves, a true rarity in media these days, no? Along with their optimism about coming up with a solution for childhood obesity, they have posted a few skeptical companion pieces. One from Daniel Engber, himself a former fat kid, and one from Nicholas Bagley (see here) about the recent push to require chain restaurants, including fast food purveyors, to reveal the calorie counts of their meals.

Bagley takes this pretty little idea and slam dunks it into oblivion:

“After all, the big problem isn’t that people are ordering badly at McDonald’s (although they are). It’s that they’re going to McDonald’s in the first place.”

This is exactly what I mean when I say that the problem isn’t carbs per se, but the fact that they are ubiquitous and accepted as normal food. For many people, McDonald’s is a daily stop and a major source of…what? Nutrition? Food? Fuel? I can’t really think of an appropriate term. But it’s not just McDonald’s, although they obviously make for an easy target. It’s that folks eat cereal, chips, crackers, pasta, fries, bread. You could easily eat nothing but empty carbohydrates all day if you didn’t think about it: oatmeal for breakfast, a bagel for lunch, and pasta for dinner.

“Adults are fat because they are ignorant, and children are fat because their parents are ignorant. Just educate people, the story goes, and they’ll stop overeating. But this gets it backward. People today are no more ignorant than they were 50 years ago. What’s changed is our food culture, which makes it cheap, easy, appealing, and socially acceptable to consume ever more empty calories.”

This taps into my previous article about the judgment people have for fat people. If they would just show some control, make better choices, and quit breeding greedy, lazy children, we wouldn’t have a problem. Just educate the stupid people. Ugh. I wonder how many people lob this complaint while being overweight and unhappy themselves. It’s always someone else’s problem, isn’t it? Such are the depths to which human self-deception goes and we’re all vulnerable.

They're fat free, so they must be healthy.

This is why I believe that the solution is two-fold: cut the Industrial Food Complex off from their government subsidies and launch a long-term public campaign about what is food and what isn’t. The government can’t just tell people to make better choices and keep reissuing ridiculous food pyramids, they have to stop being hypocrites by aiding and abetting the food criminals in the first place. Until then, the fact that the American public is getting bigger and sicker is government-mandated.

“The travesty here isn’t just that posting calories counts is so ineffectual. It’s that it lulls us into thinking we’ve done something meaningful about the problem. We haven’t.”

Bingo. This is the most heart-breaking truth. Politicians win because they can go back to their constituency with another notch in their belt for a healthier America. The chain restaurants win because they appear to be championing healthier food choices, even though behind closed doors they’re throwing millions of dollars trying to prevent regulations like this. The Industrial Food Complex wins because they will still continue to churn out the edible food-like substances. Who loses? The rest of us.

And I haven’t even gotten into the fact that calories-in/calories-out is a broken hypothesis when carbs are on board. So of course posting the calorie content of fast food isn’t going to put a dent in the obesity epidemic. But short of an extreme governmental decision, what will stop it? The best we can do in the meantime is to keep spreading the word and hoping that more and more people will make positive decisions for themselves and their families by voting against the whole mess with their dollars.


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