Obesogenic Environmental Forces

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

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.


  1. Wobbly says:

    Love that coercion idea. The dude promoting that idea is an evolutionary biologist, so he sees things from that point of view. But what an arse! I am happy Reason pointed out the wonderful effect of past government policy in this space. Whenever I read folk rant on about how to fix things I hear Yes, Prime Minister: “We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do this.”

    The bit you quote that sticks out is that the obesity “epidemic” has levelled off, as though the US population has adjusted to an environmental change. I bet this levelling off has not happened here in France yet.

    Assuming it has leveled off, we now have a scenario like this:

    Something started affecting the USA in the late 70s, hit Britain and Australia in the late 80s and the rest of the western world a few years later. Whatever it is has had its complete effect on the US population, which has now stabilized at a new equilibrium.

    There are candidates that might have that sort of worldwide rollout: modern food oils, cheap fast food (but what is it in that fast food?), change in home cooking styles and so on. I won’t list HFCS since that isn’t used much in Europe and we’re getting fat too. Lattes? Hip-hop? Gosh, you could come up with a huge list of things.

    My hunch is Borlaug’s dwarf wheat, which followed that rough pattern of being grown throughout the world starting in Mexico and the USA. It’s all dwarf wheat in Aus and the UK and France. Dwarf wheat’s yields just conquer in a commodity market. Nearly all wheat in the world is Borlaug’s dwarf wheat. It saved India from starvation.

    Dwarf wheat gives you cheap packaged wheat-based food since wheat yields are so good the price has dropped. If the modern dwarf wheat does have a dietary problem for a percentage of folks then when you combine convenient, easily storable wheat foods with dwarf wheat dietary issues you might get something near the obesity curve over time.

    Now, of course, we have obesity as a major health problem in India instead of starving kids. That is still an improvement.

  2. Isegoria says:

    New York City, by the way, is considering banning large sweetened beverages.

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