Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Dying Off the Fat of the Land

May 5, 2010, 5:00 a.m.

Obesity: Causes, Cures, and National Defense
(brought to you by*)

In Monday's blog entry, "P&L: Public Loss From Private Profit; Capitalism Pours More Than Oil on Troubled Waters," May 3, 2010, I wrote,
Two generals who were former chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are now telling us that Americans' obesity has reached not only epidemic proportions, it has become a threat to our national security. John M. Shalikashvili and Hugh Shelton, "The Latest National Security Threat: Obesity," Washington Post, April 30, 2010 ("Are we becoming a nation too fat to defend ourselves? It seems incredible, but these are the facts: As of 2005, at least 9 million young adults -- 27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 24 -- were too overweight to serve in the military, according to the Army's analysis of national data. And since then, these high numbers have remained largely unchanged").
Our local papers cut a wide swath when it comes to picking topics for editorials.

And so it was yesterday when The Gazette flexed its opinion muscles over the topic of obesity. Editorial, "Obesity: No One-Size Fits All," The Gazette, May 4, 2010.

There is no question that childhood obesity is a serious problem in Iowa and across the country.

So it’s easy to see why . . . [the] push for tougher nutritional standards for schools as a way to fight that collective weight gain.

But it’s going to take more than a tighter federal grip on school menus to eradicate this complex problem.

We also must educate young people about diet, exercise and the costs of neglecting their health.

It will take local solutions and local attention to reduce obesity and help raise healthier kids. . . .

[A] state-by-state study performed by Military: Readiness, an organization of retired military officers . . . found nearly 40 percent of Iowa’s 18- to 24-year-olds are too fat to fight in the armed forces. Nationwide, 27 percent of young adults . . . were too fat . . ..

Those numbers led Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman Seip to recently tell reporters that obesity is becoming a threat to our national security.

“Too Fat to Fight” targets school cafeterias and vending machines — . . . as much as 40 percent of children’s’ daily calorie intake occurs at school. . . .

Healthier, more nutritious food at school may well be one part of that solution.

But so are a host of physical activity and lifestyle choices. States and school districts would do well to take a more holistic view . . ..
It's hard to disagree with any of that.

Indeed, I've often been impressed with how much in the way of public projects and social programs can make their way through a Congress as "national defense" efforts when that same Congress might otherwise have talked them into a slow and irreversible death.

How did the multi-billion-dollar network of wide, multi-lane, divided highways of uniform design come to be built? It was the result of the Defense Highway Act of 1956 (sometimes called the Federal-Aid Highway Act, or National Interstate and Defense Highways Act).

And what was one of our government's greatest boosts to education? It was the National Defense Education Act of 1958, passed in part because of its name. Larry Abramson, "Sputnik Left Legacy for U.S. Science Education," NPR, September 30, 2007 ("When [the USSR's] Sputnik's 'beep' first reached Earth on Oct. 4, 1957 . . . [it] created both paranoia and concern that sparked a much-needed revolution in scientific education in the U.S.").

It works for post-war programs as well: "The G.I. Bill . . . provided college or vocational education for returning World War II veterans . . . as well as one year of unemployment compensation. It also provided many different types of loans for returning veterans to buy homes and start businesses." "G.I. Bill,"

Given the ability of "defense" to mesmerize the American people, and their representatives, into supporting the damnedest things (up to and including wars of choice that are endless, cost trillions, and result in weakening rather than strengthening our national security), I've often, only half-jokingly, suggested Congress use the rationale more often. It should enact such things as a Defense Dental Care Act, Defense Daycare Act, Defense Passenger Rail Act, Defense Universal Single-Payer Healthcare Act, or Defense Full Employment Act. So why not a Defense Obesity Reduction Act? The reason it's only half-joking is because each of those programs would, in fact, contribute to our national defense as well as Americans' "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

But while it's hard to disagree with the thrust of the Gazette's editorial, it's not hard to note its omissions and then expand upon them. There are three I will touch on: adults, the food industry, and community support.

Adults Children may get 40% of their nutrition from school, but that just means they are getting 60% of it somewhere else. Children eat what's served them (unless they're refusing to eat anything at all). Children value foods used as bribes or rewards. They get their idea of what people should and do eat from the example adults set. If you've seen the movie "Super Size Me," you have some idea of what happens to people (adults as well as children) who eat too much at McDonalds, other sweet-grease-salty-grease, high-calorie fast food outlets, or bring equivalent industrially produced "foods" home from the supermarket. Believe it or not, there are children who've never been fed anything but healthy diets, including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and seem to do just fine. (I find it also works for my cats: pick a good cat foot, never give them anything else, and they're fine with it -- and live long, healthy lives.)

The Food Industry Which are the most popular pharmaceutical products, cigarettes, and sugared soft drinks? The ones most heavily advertised. How much does Coca Cola spend to get us to drop something between 50 cents and $1.25 into a vending machine? It's $2.5 billion!

As a frustrated mother once told me, referring to the advertising directed at her children, "I try to get my kids to want more healthy foods, but I just can't make my fruits and vegetables sing and dance."

Those who advertise industrialized foods to children get a double return on their money. They implant the brand name in the child's mind for the day when the kid has some money of her own to buy stuff. Meanwhile, they benefit from unpaid child labor, as children go to work for the company, nagging their parents to buy the advertised foods, both at home and when they throw tantrums in the supermarkets.

Beer companies advertise to get teens and college students to lock on to their brand early in life and stick with it until they die. Ditto for the cigarette companies' advertising directed at their younger brothers and sisters, the "replacement smokers" who must be addicted each year to take the place of the 400,000 the industry kills off. (Youngsters' favorite brand of cigarettes is the one most heavily advertised.)

Our children (and adults) are surrounded with fast food outlets wherever they go in the real world, and advertising for those outlets (plus candy, sugared cereals and soda) during the increasingly longer time they spend in the virtual worlds of television and the Internet.

This is not the time, place or sufficient space to launch into an itemization of all they ways we might be able to modify this obesity-inducing industry's practices -- for example, when sales lag the sure fire solution is to just add cheese and bacon. See the description of David Kessler, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (New York: Rodale, 2009), in "Fat People, Fat Profits; Need to Shed a Few Pounds? Target the Right Enemy," September 28, 2009.

The thesis of this former FDA Administrator, backed by data, is that the sweet-grease-salty-grease formula of the fast food obesity industry is actually deliberately modifying the human brain in ways that increase caloric consumption -- and corporate profits. Since I'm always up for participation as a human guinea pig in a little scientific experiment -- not necessarily because I needed or wanted to lose weight -- I tried radically reducing-to-eliminating the sweet-grease-salty grease in my own diet, while otherwise eating all I wanted. The result: I lost 30 pounds in a couple months, my appetite declined and then stabilized at that reduced level, and I haven't (at least not yet) regained the weight.

We ignore at our peril this very, very fat elephant of the food industry that is stomping around the kitchen.

Community Support Assume for the moment that America's epidemic of obesity is, at least in large part, the result of the deliberately constructed real and virtual environments that manipulate, or at least encourage and reinforce, the eating behavior that creates both an epidemic of obesity and the multi-billion-dollar profits of the food industry.

Whether or not that is the case, but especially if it is true, any successful effort to reduce obesity will have to involve a variety of forms of community support as some kind of counter force, a resistance, to that powerful industry pressure. The rates of increase in the percentages of obese individuals (of all ages) indicate how difficult it is for individuals to change eating and exercise behavior patterns when surrounded by vending machines, supermarket aisles, fast food establishments -- and their multi-billion-dollar investment in virtually all forms of advertising -- all pushing them, psychologically and physiologically, to consume more and more of the sweet-grease-salty-grease diet.

Very early in the day of "New Age" notions of "wellness," and preventive medicine, Wendell Johnson posed the question, if we can have the towers of illness and disease we call hospitals, why could we not also have "towers of health?" Wendell Johnson, "Rehabilitation As It Seems To Be And As It Might Be," ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 20, pp. 203, 211-212 (July 1963), discussed in Nicholas Johnson, "General Semantics: The Next Generation," General Semantics Bulletin, 1996, No. 63, pp. 22, 39, n. 45 (the 1995 Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture).

If Iowa City can aspire to be a "City of Literature," and the University to become "The Writing University," how might we go about becoming a city, and university, of health? We have a nationally recognized College of Medicine and UIHC, a College of Public Health, a variety of recreational and sports facilities and organizations (City, K-12, University, volunteer and for-profit).

I haven't even begun to flesh this out. But it wouldn't take much group brainstorming to come up with a wide ranging collection of ideas that could be conceived, implemented and promoted as a coordinated program. There's not much a local outlet of a sweet-grease-salty-grease national chain can do; its menu is pretty tightly controlled from headquarters. But there may be a little more willingness and ability to collaborate with some local supermarkets and restaurants. We could do more to promote the local "farmers' markets." There could be a public effort to supplement the for-profit exercise facilities with free or very inexpensive options -- certainly more walking, jogging and bicycling paths. We could have a cumulative community lost weight project -- so long as it emphasized eating the right foods, rather than the yo-yo fad diets that ultimately produce an overall weight gain. We could encourage more personal vegetable gardens and fruit trees, similar to the V-shaped "Victory Gardens" during World War II. The local papers could feature healthy recipes as a regular feature. We could even do some urban planning with an eye to, over time, increasing the integration of housing and work places sufficiently to encourage more people walking and biking to work.

Some of these things are already being done, of course. What I'm suggesting is that we add to them, and integrate them into an interrelated, unified, identifiable single program supported by the City, University and other community institutions.

Obesity's Health Effects The reduction in the number of Americans fit for military duty is not the only impact of obesity. The range of its adverse effect on our health is truly frightening:

Obesity can contribute to the creation of the following conditions:
* Blood (fat) lipid abnormalities
* Cancer, including cancer of the uterus, cervix, ovaries, breast, colon, rectum and prostate
* Depression
* Gallbladder disease
* Gynecological problems, such as infertility and irregular periods
* Heart disease
* High blood pressure
* Metabolic syndrome
* Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
* Osteoarthritis
* Skin problems, such as intertrigo and impaired wound healing
* Sleep apnea
* Stroke
* Type 2 diabetes
Mayo Clinic Staff, "Obesity: Complications,"

From recruits for wars of choice, to fighting the battle of the bulge, our war on obesity has many fronts, flanks and rears.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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1 comment:

Nick said...

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-- Nick