The Institute of Medicine has just released its 478-page report on obesity:
It advances the notion that obesity is not an individual shortcoming requiring voluntary personal reformation, but a societal problem requiring compulsory systemic change. So in addition to exposing what it calls “obesogenic environmental forces,” the IOM proposes a wide range of government policies to combat them, from the sensible (provide healthy food in the public schools) to the seriously alarming (let government dictate the recipes for commercial foods).
Conspicuously absent from the recommendations? Any significant redress for those government policies that have contributed to the problem in the first place. Take dietary advice. According to the Harvard Gazette, “Our ancient ancestors’ diet was heavy on tubers, fruits, and vegetables, and lean meat from game animals. In fact, Lieberman said, if you look at what our ancient ancestors likely ate, you’d wind up with something like the dietary advice coming out of [the Harvard School for Public Health].” You certainly would not wind up with a recommendation that you carbo-load by eating, oh, six to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta every day. Yet that is precisely what the federal government’s food pyramid advised from 1992 to 2005. By remarkable coincidence, that time frame happens to overlap the period of the greatest growth in obesity rates.
The IOM report does mention building more sidewalks and scrutinizing federal agricultural policy. But Dan Glickman — a former agriculture secretary who chaired the panel producing the IOM report — rejects the idea of ending government subsidies for the makers of high-fructose corn syrup. “There is no evidence subsidies contribute to obesity,” he says. Yet the IOM evidently thinks more subsidies could help reduce obesity, because it recommends subsidizing fruit and vegetable crops. In the event of a government failure, apply more government directly to the wound.
All this sturm und drang seems odd, or at least oddly timed — because the obesity epidemic has actually leveled off. Rates of obesity in men have remained largely stable for the past eight years. Among white women, obesity has not risen for the past 12 years. And among black and Latino women, obesity has risen only slightly — and “that increase mostly occurred early in that 12-year period,” reports The Washington Post.
So if obesity rates have not changed significantly, what has? Government’s share of total spending on health care — which was 41 percent in 2007 — is expected to exceed 52 percent by 2019, whether the Supreme Court upholds the Affordable Care Act or not. And the government says obesity costs a lot of money: more than $150 billion a year, by some estimates.