In a country with a proud tradition of personal responsibility, becoming obese or overweight is viewed as a failure of individual willpower. But a report on the obesity epidemic from the Institute of Medicine says that the overall environment in the U.S. has become so unhealthy that healthy options are severely limited. Instead of simply telling people to cut calories and exercise more, the IOM said changes must take place throughout all aspects of society to keep the obesity epidemic in check.
At the current pace, more than 110 million Americans will suffer from obesity by 2030, putting a half-trillion dollar burden on the health care system. For years, public institutions have been advising Americans to eat less and move more, to no avail. According to the IOM, this is empty advice, given in an “obesogenic” environment that promotes obesity at every turn.
The obesogenic environment
Fat and sugar is added to virtually every product on supermarket shelves. Fast food is available everywhere and society is saturated with promotions for unhealthy choices. Price-support programs for wheat, corn and other commodity crops ban growers from planting fruits and vegetables on land enrolled in those programs.
Suburban sprawl has made it unsafe to walk to work, school or the grocery store in most major population centers. Technology has turned both work and play into sedentary activities pursued in front of a screen.
Food industry cries “big government”
A panel of experts from academia, government, and the private sector compiled the IOM report, which was presented at the Weight of the Nation conference, a three-day meeting hosted in New York by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The panel evaluated about 800 programs and interventions in an attempt to find a solution for reducing the obesity rate by 2020.
The IOM concluded that slowing or reversing the obesity rate will require many strategies to change an obesogenic environment that includes government, schools, the workplace and health care providers. Political resistance to such efforts has been strong in the past and is expected to intensify. In fact, the IOM report said blaming obesity as a personal failure “has been used as the basis for resisting government efforts – legislative and regulatory – to address the problem,”
New U.S. obesity strategies
Potential actions suggested in the report include a tax on soda, which studies have identified as a major contributor to obesity. But intense lobbying by the soda industry has wiped out efforts to impose a soda tax in several states. Other recommendations that will provoke cries of big government include:
- Local, state and federal policies that set mandatory nutritional standards for marketing to children.
- Policies to reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, such as making clean water available in public places, work sites and recreation areas.
- Policies for obesity prevention in school, including more nutrition education, more physical education and healthier school lunch choices.
Despite concerted lobbying against change, experience has shown that when businesses offer consumers healthy option, they will choose them. Walt Disney Co. found more than 50 percent of customers accepted a healthier choice of foods introduced at its theme parks. UnitedHealth Group offers a health insurance plan in which a $5,000 yearly deductible can be reduced to $1,000 if a person is not obese and does not smoke.