Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Elephant in the Room is One-Third of All Americans

Before I begin, let me first refer you to Ken at Wonkette for this hilariously scathing post on obese Americans. 

Now then...

Lost in all the hullabaloo over health care in Washington these past few weeks has been any sort of substantive dialogue or policy proposals addressing the strain placed on the health care system by the systemic outbreak of American obesity. 

This past decade has seen an across-the-board spike in heart disease and an alarming surge in the number of young children being diagnosed with type-2 adult-onset diabetes. 

And the costs associated with these ailments and others associated with obesity - hypertension, cancer, and even stroke - are staggering. So it stands to reason that finding ways to get Americans healthier will contribute greatly to tamping down the stratospheric costs of an already flawed and overburdened health care system. Right?

Not so fast.

That our esteemed lawmakers do their late-night horse trading while pounding chocolate-covered potato chips, eskimo pies, and french fries says a little something about this country’s prevailing attitude toward the food we consume.  

See, most Americans can talk a good game when it comes to extolling the virtues of sound nutrition and physical wellness. 

And we know all the talking points by now: Eat more fruits and veggies, get more exercise, drink only in moderation, don’t smoke, cut down on sugar and saturated fats, see your doctor once a year, blah, blah, blah, blah, bloo. 

But when it comes right down to it, we’re largely a nation of country fried fat-asses. It’s the truth, and it hurts.

And, no, you don’t need one of these to shuttle you around Ralph’s, unless you’re over 95 or under 3.  And stop calling it a mobility scooter. It’s a lard cart and you know it.

We’re physically sedentary, we supersize everything, and we’ve fallen victim to opium 2.0: high fructose corn syrup. And it is nearly impossible to locate a can of anything at Ralph’s that’s devoid of HFCS. You think I’m joking? Then follow these simple instructions:

  1. Drive to Ralph’s (or Von’s, Price Chopper, Albertson’s, etc.). 
  2. Head to the - hey! Don’t you dare even think about getting into one of those carts! 
  3. Head to the salad dressing aisle and procure a jar of Newman’s Own dressing - you know, the wholesome, healthy stuff.
  4. Check the nutrition label. 
  5. Now tell me what you see. That’s right: High fructose corn syrup - IN YOUR PAUL NEWMAN’S BALSAMIC VINAIGERETTE!

I understand: You feel dirty now. But I had to make my point.

From renowned author Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, his exceptional follow up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

Since 1980, American farmers have produced an average of 600 more calories per person per day, the price of food has fallen, portion sizes have ballooned, and, predictably, we’re eating a whole lot more, at least 300 more calories a day than we consumed in 1985. What kind of calories? Nearly a quarter of these additional calories come from added sugars (and most of that in the form of high fructose corn syrup); roughly another quarter from added fat (most of it in the form of soybean oil); 46 percent of them from grains (mostly refined); and the few calories left (8 percent) from fruits and vegetables.

And by the way, if you haven’t already read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, do so yesterday. It belongs in the pantheon of elite investigative journalism written over the past decade, right alongside Eric Schlosser’s Fastfood Nation, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, Hajiv Chandraskaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, and Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul.

One more note on The Omnivore’s Dilemma: It is a book to be annotated, dog-eared, highlighted, and absorbed at a snail’s pace. If you have any desire to fully comprehend how we’ve reached such a dark point in our culinary history, take your time and drink in every word. If you do this, I assure you that by book’s end, you’ll want to kiss Michael Pollan squarely on the mouth. Open mouth. With tongue.

So who’s to blame for our nation’s obesity epidemic? Corporate farms, who, at the behest of the U.S. government, are responsible for the gross overproduction of corn that has fattened an entire generation of Americans? Fast food and restaurant chains, who infuse their offerings with saturated fats, refined sugars, and piles of salt? Or, are we primarily to blame for our own physical well being? 

I could discuss the concept of personal accountability that The Right incessantly slobbers over. But then I’d be forced to acknowledge that three of the fattest states in the Union - West Virginia, Alabama, and Louisiana - have voted Republican in the last three presidential elections. 

So, by using this logic, one would conclude that many Americans - especially the red-staters - are lacking in the bootstraps-worthy self-discipline necessary to maintain good health through sound nutrition and vigorous physical activity. And this doesn’t count.

Better health begins with education, which leads to knowledge, which generally enables us to make more informed choices. But substantive health education is virtually absent from public school curricula, where it is most needed. And in urban public school districts, the average student-to-teacher ratio in high school gym classes can easily exceed 50 to 1, all but eliminating the possibility of putting together an organized game of anything, except maybe this.

Additionally, the disturbing trend of talented medical students moving away from primary care and pediatrics (the gatekeepers in the field of medicine) - opting instead for more lucrative careers in specialty fields like plastic surgery and dermatology - has severely undermined any significant advances in preventive care.     

Unfortunately - but unsurprisingly - it’s naive to think Americans can rely on the government alone to save our already prodigious asses from our toxic love affairs with Bloomin’ Onions and Cake ‘n Shakes. There will be no legislation that addresses the root causes of obesity and that ultimately stops this slow-motion car wreck plaguing health care (Note that these are the same types of politicians who have, since the Nixon administration, thrown gobs of federal dollars at the corn growers and beef producers, who continue to churn out more and more products to further plump-up the American public.) 

So waiting around for Congress to propose realistic, sensible legislation that will incentivize a generation of gloopy Americans into getting up off their asses and into a pair of cross-trainers is pretty naive.

I haven’t even mentioned the prospect of employing punitive measures on grossly obese individuals whose health continues to worsen due to gluttony and/or inactivity. Not only would ACLU attorneys lick their chops to litigate this one, but do we really want to live in a country where half the population is hungry, angry, and over 300 pounds? 

Also, that Americans are already deeply skeptical of any sort of government enterprises would not bode especially well for any politician responsible for additionally restricting their chile fries and butter sauce. It would be political suicide.

So here’s my proposal to Congress:

Voluntary preventive maintenance. 

The feds would disburse a series of tax rebates to individuals doing their diligence to improve their health. Join and attend a gym at least three times a week? Tax break. Improve your BMI ? Tax break. Sustain a healthy BMI for a year? Tax break. Lower your blood pressure or bad cholesterol? Tax break. Etcetera. And each of these actions would be eminently measurable when linked to a main database.

And before you say, “I don’t want no effin’ federal government peepin’ into my medical records,” remember that this particular aspect of the reform package would be strictly voluntary. So calm down, you crazy Libertarians and Natural Law Party-goers. You can have your survivalist hideout and your twice larded chile rellenos drizzled in warm butter topping  - I’ll take the tax breaks and the four fewer chins.

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Stop the Inanity. by Brock Cohen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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