The Ethics of Obesity Part III: Please, Something Good to Eat

Third in a three-part series about the ethics of obesity

Since 1980 U.S. obesity rates have doubled for adults and tripled for children; this epidemic cannot be dismissed as a failure of willpower or exercise. Obesity can be linked to many factors including feeding practices in infancy, imprinted genes, metabolic issues, fructose, anxiety disorders, depression, “behavioral sympathy,” race, trauma, eating certain restaurant and other food regularly, and lifestyle choices.

According to author and food activist Michael Pollan, the cheapest calories at the grocery store make you the fattest: “The correlation between poverty and obesity can be traced to agricultural policies and subsidies.”  In his book Omnivore’s Dilemma, he follows the food chain (industrial, organic, and hunter-gatherer) from the earth to the table to help uncover what we are really eating.

My previous columns on obesity have looked at issues related to chain restaurants and fast food, raising questions about corporate responsibility and the ethical leadership called for, but insufficiently evident, in a crisis that is adding $147 billion annually to health care costs.  The food industry hasn’t demonstrated yet whether or how it will lead the charge for a healthy change in what goes in our mouths. This doesn’t mean there isn’t progress. There is. It is coming from leaders in other arenas – foundations, local and federal government, think tanks, and communities.

The Robert Wood Foundation, for example, announced in 2007 that it planned to spend $500 million to fight childhood obesity

The Los Angeles (LA) City Council is using research data in an effort to create effective regulations and good public policy to reduce the nearly 26 percent obesity rate in South LA. RAND researchers did a study that looked at the residents’ whole food environment comparing it to more affluent LA communities. The data did not support city council’s assumptions that there were too many fast food restaurants in South LA or that sit-down restaurants offer healthier food less likely to lead to obesity.

RAND researchers found that South LA residents consumed significantly more discretionary calories from sugary and salty snacks and soft drinks typically found in small corner grocery/convenience stores; the prevalence of these stores was double and triple other LA neighborhoods. City Council is now weighing what actions to take. RAND’s study suggested that focusing on the food cues in the environment – the inexhaustible availability of candy, cookies, and sodas sold in food and non-food stores – that can stimulate hunger even if one isn’t hungry may better address obesity prevention.

British super chef Jamie Oliver took his Food Revolution to Huntington, West Virginia last fall to help schools and families see how easy it is to cook healthy meals themselves. Last year, Huntington – Ashland Metropolitan area had been designated the unhealthiest in America. His six part series in Huntington, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, will be broadcast on ABC in 2010.

In France a community-based program called EPODE, which stands for Together Let’s Prevent Childhood Obesity addresses environmental and policy changes bringing together government, community leaders, schools, and parents; it has had great success reducing the percentage of obese and overweight children.  Begun in two towns in 1992, EPODE has been asked to help administer its program in 220 towns in France, and dozens of towns in other European countries. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the U.S. has begun making community-based grants as well. Too soon, experts caution to know how effective community programs will be, but EPODE serves as an example they can work.

Progress? Certainly. To name a few, advocates and leaders like Pollan and Oliver are educating people about the food we eat. There are important symbolic gestures for school children like First Lady Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden in the Rose Garden. Research by RAND and others help inform public policy.  The work of CDC and EPODE show that it takes a village to fight obesity.

These programs create partners in changing the food environment to help children develop healthy habits and resist as they are bombarded with harmful food options in restaurants, stores, TV ads and elsewhere.

But at the end of the day, we are still left with the reality that much of what is available to us to eat these days isn’t good for us. Mr. Pollan contends much of it isn’t even technically “food”, but rather man-made collections of chemicals. How crazy is that?  What will it take for that to change? When will we be able to get something good to eat?

Gael O’Brien, December 23, 2009

The Week in Ethics

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