If anything is certain in the tangled debate over the causes and effects of obesity, it is that there is no simple answer, no quick fix. In fact, much like changing a flat tire alongside a bustling highway, the solution is many times more complicated than the problem itself. So when, on the first of this month, George W. Bush held a conference to highlight his administrations focus on the issue of obesity surrounded by such experts as representatives from Coke, Pepsi, Kraft, Kellog's and McDonalds, it's no wonder that the solution posed gave an all but singular emphasis on playing outside. Mention of a healthy, balanced diet, a vague concept that allows plenty of room for hamburgers, candy and soft drinks, was a mere footnote.
The conference served more to highlight the arrogant kowtowing to industry that has underlined the Bush presidency than to highlight the increasingly dire obesity epidemic in this country and the world. We've been producing a documentary about the American obesity epidemic for the last six months and so we've been following the issues closely as a matter of daily ritual. We've spoken to experts ranging from nutritionists, health advocates, government officials and medical professionals, and the answer is always the same, "the problem is far too complex to pigeon-hole into a single cause, let alone to say that merely encouraging physical activity will fix the problem." It's going to take a lot more than encouraging words to stand up to the marketing behemoths (such as those advising the President on his policy decisions) that spend millions and millions of dollars each day encouraging parents and children to do exactly the opposite of what's good for them. Eat now, ask questions later.
In addition to the various food and beverage manufacturers advising the President on his plan, Dreamworks Animation SKG has thrown their hat into the ring, offering up Shrek, the bloated green ogre that has been prominently featured on innumerable junk food products ranging from fruit snacks to happy meals, to encourage kids to eat whatever they want, so long as they don't skip play time. The very idea is barely less laughable (or sickening) than Ronald McDonald filling our children with greasy burgers and sugary beverages, then vainly offering up an ineffectual spin on a stationary bike in one of his brand new R-gyms. This penitent duo sets a confusing and dangerous precedent for what a healthy role model and lifestyle includes, which begs the questions; Is the semblance of a plan better than no plan at all? Should the food and beverage industry's right to make an unimpeded buck supplant the public's right to live in a healthy and honest food marketplace? Will the government or food and beverage industry ever share blame for the public health crisis that self-serving policies and practices have undoubtedly fostered? The very fact that this so called policy inspires such questions is as frightening as it is infuriating.
This is only the most recent maneuvering for the food, beverage and agricultural industries the Bush Administration has been responsible for. When the World Health Organization announced plans to release a report in 2003 that advised limiting the amount of sugar in a healthy diet to less than 10 percent of total caloric intake, the sugar industry went into overdrive, convincing the Bush Administration to threaten cutting off funding for the WHO if the report included the limit on sugar intake. According to the USDA, the average American eats 20 teaspoons of added sugar a day (this added sugar doesn't include the naturally occurring sugars in milk and fruit); that's equivalent to 16 percent of total calorie intake. The sugar industry was lobbying to have the WHO advise a limit of no less than 25 percent.
In the obesigenic environment that we live in, in which more than 60 percent of all Americans are overweight or obese, it would be nice to know that we had politicians in power that would look out for our interests more than the interests of the companies that peddle us the garbage that significantly contributes to our rapidly expanding waistlines. But from the Bush Administration, maybe that's a little too much to ask.