Friday, October 10, 2008

Obesity as the American Dream

A health topic that is featured in the news at least weekly, and this week more frequently, is the obesity epidemic. However, unlike the flu pandemic which was caused by germs, what causes obesity is simply American values and American culture.

Whenever an epidemic emerges, or any problem in our society, people want someone to blame (read: sue). The initial target was McDonald’s. I don’t blame McDonald’s for the obesity epidemic. To eat or not to eat McDonald’s is a choice. As Americans we have the freedom to choose what we want to eat, just as we have the choice to choose who our elected officials are. If I were to sue someone for gross negligence in terms of causing the obesity epidemic it would be our politicians. They are to blame for the rising cost of health care due to complications from obesity leading to the decreasing age expectancy rates.

If I were to put politicians on trial, with the charge of making Americans fat, the witnesses for the prosecution would include educators, fruit growers, doctors, and environmentalists.

As funding for education declines from the Federal and State levels, programs are cut. Although most schools do have some sort of physical education program, much of it is underfunded and undersupported. Many schools do not have after school programs beyond basic varsity sport that would encourage active behavior. Instead at 3 p.m. (or earlier) students are let loose and typically go home, eat, and play video games or do homework which are sedentary activities. Increased funding for after school programs would allow intramural sports or other non-television related programming that would get students moving and help them value an active lifestyle. The well funded suburban schools have hiking, biking and running clubs. We need these clubs for all students, not just the rich ones.

The United States grossly under subsidizes fruit growers. The subsidies are appropriated to the makers of corn and soybeans. Typically this food is not used in grocery stores - we’re not talking corn on the cob or tofu - it is used as feed for animals. The very fatty animals that when eaten lead to obesity (although admittedly the cows need the food for milk, which allows the production of the healthy, but cholesterol filled dairy). It’s amazing that while the food pyramid is filled with fruit, growers can’t afford to provide it. Produce is a huge expense at the grocery store and why buy apples when Stuffed Pockets are cheaper.

When I would call a physician to the stand I would ask her about U.S. support of preventative medicine. While the FDA is busy putting on drugs that cause heart attacks and then taking them off the market, there is no funding or agency for increasing measures that would help people prevent obesity. For example, allowing gym memberships and yoga classes to be tax free would be a first step. Or even to allow the cost of the membership to be covered by flex plans would be a great benefit to workers who spend their days sedentary at the office. In addition, for the first time in human history the fattest people are the nation’s poorest, the ones without health insurance. If children do not receive regular health care, then how are parents supposed to be aware if their child is receiving good nutrition or is on track in terms of weight and height.

And lastly the environmentalists. The Associated Press printed last year that "The Bush administration, in one of its biggest decisions on environmental issues, moved Thursday to open up nearly a third of all remote national forest lands to road building, logging and other commercial ventures." What does this say about our nation’s values if we are planning to cut away at places where people hike and camp? It says we are not serious about promoting an active culture. The forests help maintain the air quality. I can’t tell you the number of times I became sick after exercising outside on an Ozone Action Day. But why shouldn’t I be able to utilize the beautiful Chicago lake path? Pollution as an answer is unacceptable.

It is up to us to elect politicians who will not be beholden to the agricultural and loggers lobby. We need to change our focus from Bextra to exercise. We need to stop complaining and start advocating for our children before insulin shots are sold in coffee shops and oxygen bars are not novelties but necessities.

1 comment:

Rachel Karp said...

Don't forget the disappearance of sidewalks in the suburbs.