Most guys my age worry that they aren’t the man they used to be. My problem is that, a few months ago, I was at least 120 percent of the man I ought to be, probably more like 130 percent. Thanks to my treadmill desk and a little more attention to my diet, I’ve whittled myself down some, but I still have a ways to go.
So I’ve been paying a little more attention to all this obesity business. Here are a few interesting things I’ve heard of late.
One is the insidious nature of labor saving devices and how they contribute to our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Twenty years ago, self-propelled lawn mowers counted for less than 10 percent of the lawnmower sales, now they are account for more than 70 percent. Lawn tractors used to be unusual for yards less than a quarter acre, now they are fairly ubiquitous. In 1970, snow blowers were luxury items, now they are a fixture in most suburban homes. And there are numerous little things, like how we used to crank our car windows up and down, used to have to get out of the car and open and close our garage doors, used to have to cross the room to change the channel on the TV, used to get up and walk a couple doors down at the office to check with a colleague instead of sending an e-mail. Food processors versus knives, even power toothbrushes versus the manual variety. One researcher I heard on the radio said that his research indicates that cumulative effect of labor saving devices means that the average American burns about 1.7 fewer pounds worth of calories than they did in 1970.
Back in the 1970s, the “change back from your dollar” meal that McDonald’s used to advertise – a cheeseburger, regular fries (which was smaller than their small fries are now) and a Coke – was 710 calories. Now, if you get a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, large fries and a large Coke, you’re looking at 1,463 calories.
Government subsidies on corn and sugar, which are substantial, help to make sugared foods or those made with high-fructose corn syrup cheaper, which, relatively speaking, makes healthier fruits and vegetables more expensive. And food deserts exacerbate food issues for the poor. Food deserts occur because large grocery stores tend not to locate in low income urban areas. So residents there have to rely on small convenience stores for food purchases, which stores generally stock no or few fresh fruits and vegetables, and only at significantly higher costs than at the closest grocery stores. In one test, less than half of urban poor eight graders could identify pictures of broccoli or cauliflower, and less than one in ten had ever tasted either.
So what do to? Some public health advocates propose taxing unhealthy foods and using the revenue generated to subsidize healthy foods. The best target for such a tax? Sugar-sweetened drinks. They are among the biggest contributors to weight gain, especially among the young. One leading obesity researcher proposes a penny an ounce tax on any sugar-sweetened drink, with all revenue generated going to subsidize domestic production of healthier foods and their equitable distribution into all neighborhoods. He points out that research shows the decreases in cigarette smoking are most closely linked to cost – as federal, state and local taxes on tobacco have ramped up the price of cigarettes, consumption has declined.
My initial reaction to ideas like this is no. The whole nanny state thing. I don’t need the government telling me what to eat, or how much of it. If it get fat (and I did) that’s my business and my problem. Except, of course, it isn’t just my problem.
Obesity is a key contributor to several of our most common and most expensive chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and many cancers. And it causes a host of other health problems, like the rapidly increasing number of joint replacements, many of which stem from the damage to knees and hips from hauling around too much weight for too many years. Those are key factors in our national crisis of exploding health care costs.
In 2010, total spending on health care by federal, state and local governments topped $1 trillion dollars. In 2000, it was only a little over $500 billion. If you are a taxpayer, my fat ass is your problem.
And you can throw in lost productivity due to obesity. One recent study puts that number at more than $73 billion dollars annually. If you are an employer, my fat ass is your problem, too.
OK, I’m all for personal responsibility. That’s why I’m writing this blog post at my treadmill desk going 2.3 MPH. Too many people, though, treat personal liberty more like a fetish than a political philosophy. Liberty has always had limits. Being a society has always meant that government plays a role in your life. To say otherwise isn’t to be a patriot, it is to be an anarchist.
So I’m all for liberty. But I’m also all for facing facts. In 1970, about 5 percent of American children were obese. Now, more than 20 percent cross that threshold. We are at risk of seeing the first generation of Americans with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. We, not just individually, but as a nation, have a problem. We can go broke paying for it and whining about our precious liberty or we can try to address it.
I’m for the latter.