A decade ago, America was desperately aware that we were in the grip of an obesity epidemic -- two-thirds of us were overweight. What have we done since then? We've eaten 50% more fast food meals and five more pounds of sugar a year. We've added more vending machines in our schools and decreased physical education. US obesity-related health costs have risen to $117 billion.
We all know individuals with a weight problem who are in denial or looking for an easy fix. But really our whole society and government are in denial about what it will take to reverse the obesity epidemic, just as we were with smoking a few decades ago. There are a few promising initiatives toward limiting junk foods advertising to children and eliminating transfats. However, as I've outlined in more detail in Waistland: The R/evolutionary Science Behind Our Weight and Fitness Crisis, there are many other steps we should take right now.
First of all, the US Department of Agriculture should not oversee so much of our dietary advice. The USDA's core mission is selling agricultural products -- and too often that translates into maintaining entrenched interests in unhealthy products. As former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald noted, putting the USDA in charge of our nutritional guidelines is "like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse."
USDA subsidies to farmers for growing specific crops total $19 billion annually. The vast majority goes toward producing such unhealthy foods as white flour, white rice, butter, oils for hydrogenated margarine, and corn for corn syrup. Not a dime goes toward growing broccoli, spinach, farmed salmon -- or most foods proven healthy by medical research. No one wants to hurt the American farmer, but we needn't subsidize them at the cost of the public's health. A common excuse for eating processed foods packed with carbohydrates and fat is that fresh vegetables cost more. Subsidizing vegetables would help the farmers who grow them -- and all of us.
Another example of the questionable agenda of the USDA is its grading of commodities with categories that lead in exactly the wrong direction. Grades of meat are determined by fat content with "Prime" as the most fatty and "Regular" as the least. Again, entrenched interests are dictating the opposite of proper health guidance.
The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Services generate slogans for products. Its "Everybody needs milk" was ruled by the Federal Trade Commission to be illegally misleading. Since then, they have helped Wendy's develop its Cheddar Lovers' Bacon Cheeseburger as a "cheese-friendly sandwich." Pizza Hut's "Summer of Cheese" featured two recipes developed with help from the board. Why not encourage foods that use more tomatoes, more spinach? Let's put the board to work on slogans for fish, recipes for soy.
Small Business Administration (SBA) loans are another example of perverse government incentives. The loans were established to help entrepreneurs start small businesses, but SBA loans can also be used to open a franchise of a national corporation -- including fast food chains. Most of the loan start-up money goes to the corporation for the franchise rights and their mandated equipment.
Many critics of this program want simply to redirect this money to genuinely independent businesses, but why not also require the new businesses to serve a beneficial purpose -- or at least to do no harm? Only a restaurant or store selling primarily healthy whole foods would be eligible for a loan. A restaurant to sell cheeseburgers or ice-cream wouldn't--nor someone proposing yet another "convenience store" selling donuts, potato chips and cigarettes.
Health warnings on risky foods are another technique short of an outright ban that we can borrow directly from the anti-smoking campaign. People were not getting the information for the first time in 1964 when their cigarette packs began to state that the Surgeon General had determined smoking caused cancer and birth defects. But over the years, these warnings gradually discouraged smokers.
Similarly, most are aware of the links between sugar and overeating with diabetes, but it might improve eating habits to label some foods: "Eating refined sugar and flour increases your chances of diabetes which can result in kidney failure, blindness and amputations." On others: "Saturated fats increase the risk of cancer and heart attack," or "Eating more than the recommended daily calories raises your chances of early death and Alzheimer's disease."
There are similar initiatives which would structure cities to encourage exercise and school systems to upgrade physical education. These suggestions may sound extreme, but I can remember the days when cigarette companies had people convinced that similar statements about cigarettes were radical and were still describing well-established adverse health effects of tobacco as "unproven." The U.S., which once led the world in rates of smoking and lung-cancer deaths, now leads the world in smoking cessation, anti-tobacco legislation, and declines in lung cancer. We can do the same with the obesity epidemic. It's time to get started.