How The Government Fattens Us Up

January 01, 1997  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Investor's Business Daily  ·  Overweight and obesity

With 300,000 Americans dying each year from obesity and the nation growing fatter by the minute, you might think the government would be taking emergency action.

You’d be wrong. Instead, the government’s response to this epidemic has consisted primarily of either doing the wrong things or doing nothing at all.

Last year, then-Food and Drug Administration head David Kessler and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala held yet another press conference attacking Big Tobacco. Next to them stood a large bar graph labeled "Annual Deaths From Smoking and Other Preventable Causes." There was a huge bar for smoking (400,000 deaths) and tiny bars for the other seven causes listed. But there was no obesity bar.

Why? That would have destroyed the nice imagery of one huge preventable cause of death against seven tiny ones, and hence would have been a distraction from the tobacco wars.

No, the heads of the FDA and HHS have done nothing against obesity. How about the surgeon general? Our last one, Jocelyn Elders, was overweight and perhaps even obese. Not a good example.

Obesity kills about 10 times the number of Americans as AIDS, but Elders’ concern was safe (and solo) sex, not safe nutrition and exercise. Our next likely surgeon general is David Satcher, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He says he’s very concerned with the obesity epidemic. We’ll see if that translates into action.

The few flimsy efforts the government has made against obesity have done far more harm than good.

The worst is the campaign to get Americans to reduce fat intake to 30% of total calories. This is based on the mistaken belief that there’s something especially bad about fat calories. But "the studies are clear," says Walter Willett, M.D., chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "It doesn’t make any difference where your calories come from."

A comparison of the U.S. and 13 other nations shows that, in all but three, residents got more of their calories from fat than we do. Yet the U.S. is the fattest industrialized nation on earth. That’s because, while we’re obsessing over fat calories, our total caloric intake keeps soaring.

Not only is the "30%" pronouncement often repeated, but it also shows up on the food labels that Kessler’s FDA required on virtually every packaged food product.

The message: You can wolf down 5,000 calories a day (eventually rivaling the Goodyear blimp in the process), so long as no more than 1,500 come from fat.

The government has also failed in public schools. Just as those schools have steadily abandoned the basics in learning, they have also done so in health.

In the ’60s, physical education was required, and it was real. It was wind sprints, circuit training, long runs, push-ups, pull-ups. But more and more, PE is becoming elective or is replaced by classes in which students learn how to stretch a condom over a banana. By 1990, only 42% of high school students had mandatory PE; in 1995 that had fallen to 25%.

If the government insists on taxing us to put our children in a building for seven hours a day, five days a week, for the ostensible purpose of instructing them, we should insist that it actually does so and also helps keep them in shape. Children should not only be taught proper nutrition, but be given facts to counter worthless weight-loss fads.

What else can Uncle Sam do to help hold back the growing tide of obesity, short of replacing the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill with the Agricultural Department’s Food Guide Pyramid?

Some have proposed taxing certain high-fat or high-calorie foods, but when we were a much thinner nation we needed no such taxes, and our comparatively svelte European cousins don’t need them now. Taxing specific products labels them as sinful. What’s actually sinful is not the food itself but our growing tendency to overindulge in it.

The best the government can do is to use its health officials to educate us. Ultimately, our growth in girth is a social problem, just as unwed pregnancies are. That means society needs to take responsibility for defending its interests. This doesn’t entail persecuting the obese, but rather discouraging the practices of gluttony and sloth that lead to obesity. The government can play a powerful role as a cheerleader.

It has not done so. Worse yet, it has ignored the famous line in the Hippocratic Oath: "First do no harm."

Calculate your BMI to see if you are obese. What the scores mean:

  • 24 or under: Minimal health risk
  • 25-29: Low to moderate risk
  • 30 or over: High risk