Name a liberal policy cause, and chances are someone has found a way to sell it based on America’s rising obesity rate. Liberal pundits and public-health experts serve up a rich buffet of scapegoats for obesity. Our foods are chemically addictive, they claim, so governments must step in to regulate them. Suburban Americans tend to be more obese, so we need fewer cars and more costly transit options, urbanists insist. Corporate ads, cheap fast food, the lack of Canadian-style health insurance - the list stretches on. Here, though, is the reality. Yes, Americans are getting fatter, but so is everyone else in the industrialized world, and that understanding challenges current wisdom on obesity, suggesting the issue may be more cut and dry than liberals make it out to be.
The Economist recently noted that in Mexico, seven out of 10 people are overweight or obese. Mexico is struggling to keep its children from drowning in an endless supply of cakes and sugary sodas.
Measured in raw numbers, China has more fat people than any other country save the United States, with more than 100 million weighing in over medically recommended levels. Economists, social scientists and even doctors blame growing Chinese waistlines on a generation of spoiled children, arguing that China’s one-child-per-family policy encouraged the country’s new middle class to dote on - and overfeed - lonely sons and daughters.
Wealthier countries aren’t escaping the trend, either. Canadians greeted the arrival of KFC’s Double Down sandwich this fall with enthusiasm despite media reports that one provincial government sought to regulate the product. Canadians lined up to buy more than a million of the fatty, salty sandwiches in a one-month market trial. While they digested the results, an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report this fall found that two out of three Canadian men are medically overweight and one in four Canadians is medically obese.
In England, binge drinking is the No. 1 national scourge when it comes to preventable disease, but obesity isn’t far behind; 63 percent of the English population is overweight.
France is often held up as the healthy diner’s dream: a paradise of fresh ingredients, slow dining, red wine and supposedly witty conversation. Yet, according to OECD projections, 44 percent of France will be medically overweight by 2019 - up from 39 percent in 2009. (Apparently, unhealthy food is still unhealthy, even if you happen to eat it in Paris.)
All this makes for awful news on three counts.
Speaking as a physician, I find it frustrating because obesity and other preventable conditions are squandering the achievements of modern medicine. A paper by Dr. Steven Schroeder in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that more than 40 percent of American premature deaths can be blamed on behavioral choices - well exceeding deaths caused by genetic predisposition or insufficient health care. So everything we’ve learned about how to treat or cure naturally occurring diseases will soon be rendered meaningless as millions of people simply eat, drink or smoke themselves to death instead.
Speaking as a health care policy analyst, I see that obesity is also a gigantic fiscal problem. Preventable diseases build consumer demand for complex medications and treatments, in the process spiking health insurance costs in both public and private insurance systems. Already 10 cents of every health dollar is spent on obesity and resulting illnesses.
Most important, it’s a human tragedy. Real people are suffering or even dying prematurely. And in the vast majority of cases, the causes were entirely preventable.
But pause and consider the unlikely lesson buried in the global trend. A global obesity problem is harder to solve - but perversely, it also might be easier to understand, and that is a bit of good news.
While liberal pundits and public-health experts have “found” a variety of liberal programs needed for help, the sight of a multinational obesity trend should force American policymakers to be more honest about the epidemic’s causes and consequences. A cross-cultural, cross-border spike in obesity suggests the real problem transcends one country, one economic system or one model of health care delivery.
Wealthier societies - even marginally wealthier societies - have the purchasing power to gorge on food without restraint for the first time in history. America’s real problem is that it got there first. But given the universal biological appeal of more sugar and more fat, it can’t be a surprise that the residents of Beijing are now as eager to eat to excess as the residents of Baltimore. As more of Beijing’s diners acquire the means to do so, more eat accordingly - regardless of cultural differences, dietary traditions, transportation options or urban planning.
The solution for our policymakers is a return to common sense. Some of this will require more government action (reintroducing physical education into our schools and offering better food in school cafeterias) while some of it will require less (an end to some agribusiness subsidies). Some of it requires smarter policies (like incentivizing wellness in employer health plans). But the best solutions are the simplest. We need to eat more dinners with our families, prepared in our own kitchens.
As the world struggles with ever-expanding waistlines, this much is clear: Americans don’t need to look to a raft of new regulations, taxes and public-works projects.
Dr. David Gratzer is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.