September 14, 2004
An Obesity Crisis?
Media darlings come and go, but the supposed threat from an “epidemic of obesity” in Western countries seems to have legs. As with most popular pseudo-scientific indictments of our society’s habits – global warming and the ozone hole come to mind – the people who cooked this one up have more of a problem with fat thinking than with fat bodies. Can’t you hear the starving inhabitants of Sudan’s Darfur cheering, should their region be labelled too plump? The fact that we’re having a problem with obesity is very good news.
Compare that happy circumstance with our major nutritional problems in the 19th century, pellagra, scurvy, goitre and rickets, all from the lack of a proper diet, or with what preceded them, malnutrition and starvation, from no diet at all. Today, the poorest people in the United States and Canada have a dietary level superior to the upper crust just a few generations ago. According to the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, a welfare specialist, “The average consumption of protein, minerals and vitamins is virtually the same for poor and middle income children, and in most cases is well above recommended norms. . . . Most poor children today are in fact overnourished.”
By any rational standard of value, that a society can feed itself to excess should be considered a badge of honour, as a sign of success in meeting one of its fundamental purposes. Around 1900, average persons spent about 50% of their incomes on food; in the 1990s, that number reached 10%. On average, we need work for only 20 minutes to buy a chicken, 5 minutes for a dozen eggs and only 2 minutes for a candy bar or a soda pop. If you combine those last two items with a sharp drop in the proportion of our work that requires physical labour, expanding waistlines seem at least understandable.
Some discern deep implications in all this, with junk science creeping in to confirm their worst fears. A study published in March by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) attributed 400,000 American deaths a year to “poor diet and physical inactivity.” The ubiquitous news digests splayed the phrase “obesity epidemic” with that estimate attached. That statistic’s distance from the truth is implied by the tortuous method the CDC used to arrive at it, from “risk increases inferred from associations found in epidemiological studies.” Inference is a risky business.
Other, more reliable studies confirm that overweight people live fewer years on average. The order of the risk resembles that of a cigarette smoker and also depends on age and degree. But “the health effects of extra pounds can be difficult to isolate, especially since overweight people tend to be sedentary and to eat poor diets,” Jacob Sullum writes in August’s Reason magazine. “Although thin people who exercise seem to be the healthiest group, overweight people who are physically active are healthier than thin people who are not.”
Sullum’s concern is the plethora of threatened government interventions to reduce the risk of obesity. He skewers Yale University psychologist Kelly Brownell – the author of a heavily titled book, Food Fight: The Inside Story of the Food Industry, America’s Obesity Crisis, and What We Can Do About It, the new bible of the anti-fat fanatics – for hypocrisy. The picture of Brownell on the book’s dust jacket is a slim former self, the man now being quite obese, a fact he blames on overeating and sloth while writing the book.
Brownell and others want a new “Twinkie tax,” based on the fat and sugar content of food, and subsidies for healthy foods like fruit and vegetables. In June, the British Medical Journal called for “internationally binding instruments” like new taxes, regulations on the marketing and advertising of certain foods and restrictions on their availability in schools. Other have threatened to use municipal zoning protocols to stop fast food outlets from opening in certain neighbourhoods.
Anti-fat crusaders cite the increased costs of healthcare spending on the obese as justification for such measures. But, as with smokers, the argument falls apart. Because the fat people die younger than the slim, the issue is a wash. A more sensible response for public policymakers might be to repeal existing laws that encourage unhealthy eating. Think of huge price supports for the regulated dairy industry, which make soda pop cheaper than milk in aboriginal communities where diabetes is a real epidemic.
As the Economist magazine’s food survey explained last December, the price of food is falling continuously, the decline now driven more by retailing and transportation efficiencies than the miraculous productivity of our mechanized farms and the science-driven Green Revolution. That means that over time people will eat more. If they choose to forego the pleasure and head for the gym, all the better. And they are. The percentage of people who work out every day has risen from 24 to 60 percent since 1965.
We should keep the “obesity crisis” in context before we opt for deliberately making food more expensive. Not that long ago, the great potato famine killed a million Irish. When you’re gorfing that last French fry, thank your lucky stars.
The Frontier Centre for Public Policy
is an independent public policy think tank whose mission is "to broaden the debate on our future through public policy research and education and to explore positive changes within our public institutions that support economic growth and opportunity."