Everybody's Weighing In On 'The Weight Of The Nation'

There seems to be a general consensus that Americans eat too much and don’t get enough exercise. Most people agree that obesity among children and adults has reached crises proportions.

That’s where the agreement ends. What to do about the situation -- if anything -- has become as controversial as those other three topics that mother told you not to discuss -- sex, politics and religion, of course -- if you just want to get along with your neighbors.

The Weight of the Nation, an HBO documentary that launched last night with Parts 1 and 2 and will continue tonight with Parts 3 and 4, has drawn a lot of commentary even in the weeks before it hit the air. A lot of the discussion revolves around a projection released last week that 42% of Americans could be obese by 2030 (up from 36% in 2010 and 11% could be severely obese -- more than 100 pounds over a healthy weight, up 5% from 2010.

The findings, reported May 6 at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Second Weight of the Nation conference and published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine, warn of “dramatic jump in health care costs if nothing is done,” reports Nanci Hellmich in USA Today, because obesity “increases the risks of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, many types of cancer, sleep apnea and other debilitating and chronic illnesses.”



The finding led the Institute of Medicine to reject the idea that obesity is mostly due to an individual’s lack of will power. “Instead, it embraces policy proposals that have met with stiff resistance from the food industry and lawmakers,” reports Reuters’ Sharon Begley, “arguing that multiple strategies will be needed to make the U.S. environment less ‘obesogenic.’"

The Los Angeles Times’ columnist David Lazarus weighs in on the report and documentary this morning with a call to regulate food and drink at the same level of oversight as tobacco and alcohol.

“I know, I know: People should be able to eat whatever they want, and government officials have no business passing nanny-state rules that meddle in basic notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, blah, blah, blah,” writes Lazarus preemptively. “If only it were that simple. The harsh reality is that millions of Americans can't be trusted to look after their own well-being, and the rest of society gets stuck with the tab for soaring rates of diabetes, heart disease, strokes, cancer and other serious ailments.”

“Nanny state” is exactly the preemptive charge that Jeff Steir, who heads the Risk Analysis Division at the National Center for Public Policy Research, made last week in a press release and Newsday op-ed piece co-authored by David Almasi.

"I am concerned as anyone about obesity's effects on public health," Stier says in the release carrying the hed “Junk Science Behind Latest Federal Obesity Studies.” But he maintains that “governmental, taxpayer-funded studies addressing it, and approaches to fight it, must be evidence-based, cost-effective and non-authoritarian."

The 42% projection, he and Almasi write, is an assertion “as reliable a predictor as a Magic Eight Ball. It’s based on projections like the number of fast-food restaurants likely to be built over the next two decades. Wall Street analysts can’t predict such things five years out. Yet the researchers claim to guess not only the number, but what people will eat in those establishments and how those choices will fit into their overall lifestyles.”

Gary Taubes, the author of Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It, doesn’t think much of the Weight of the Nation report either, but from a different vantage point.

“At the moment, the government efforts to curb obesity and diabetes avoid the all-too-apparent fact, as Hilde Bruch pointed out more than half a century ago, that exhorting obese people to eat less and exercise more doesn’t work, and that this shouldn’t be an indictment of their character but of the value of the advice,” he writes in Newsweek and on The Daily Beast. “By institutionalizing this advice as public-health policy, we waste enormous amounts of money and effort on programs that might make communities nicer places to live -- building parks and making green markets available --but that we have little reason to believe will make anyone thinner.”

Taubes maintains that all calories are not created equal. Excess sucrose and fructose -- sugar -- and the way the body metabolizes them, are the primary villains.

“The latest clinical trials suggest that all of us would benefit from fewer (if any) sugars and fewer refined grains (bread, pasta) and starchy vegetables (potatoes)…. experimental trials, the gold standard of medical evidence, suggest that diets that are severely restricted in fattening carbohydrates and rich in animal products -- meat, eggs, cheese -- and green leafy vegetables are arguably the best approach, if not the healthiest diet to eat.”

The food industry is on top of efforts to regulate food marketing, of course, like white on processed rice.

Ad Age’s E.J. Schultz reported last week that “the effort by the federal government to severely limit the marketing of certain foods to children appears to be pretty much dead” based on a letter Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz wrote to the Wall Street Journal that "the commission does not support legislation restricting food advertising to children" an supports “"voluntary guidelines."

The Association of National Advertisers applauded the “definitive” statement while Susan Linn, director at the Center for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said: "Unless we regulate food marketing to children, then we are never going to solve the obesity crisis."

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