- - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There’s an elephant in the middle of the emergency room, but we’re too busy arguing about Obamacare to see him.

He’s dangerously overweight, his legs and feet are swollen, his eyesight is dimming, and his trunk, when it’s not funneling funnel cake into his mouth, is lodged in our wallets, vacuuming up any hope of affordable quality health care.

He’s at the center of our national debate, but you’d never know it.

So far, that debate has been about defending or defunding the Affordable Care Act: about insurance exchanges, individual mandates and pre-existing conditions, rising premiums and health savings accounts, interstate insurance competition and tort reform.

What the debate needs to include, but never does, is an honest discussion of the one aspect of American exceptionalism that will doom any affordable health care construct: our exceptional unhealthiness, beginning with our exceptional eating habits.

Let’s face it, we’re not the French, the Swedes, or the Japanese. Our favorite foods aren’t slices of uncooked fish with vegetables, or medallions of veal on a bed of arugula with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds.

We’re a country of carbohydrate addicts, fat gorgers and chemical additive guinea pigs — a nation that has gone from the occasional treat of a cheeseburger, fries and soda in the 1950s, to today’s 1,230-calorie “triple bacon burger,” with a 610-calorie side of extra large fries and a 150-calorie “power drink” that has a list of unpronounceable ingredients two inches deep and a sodium content that brings the total salt intake to nearly 2,000 milligrams.

And that’s just lunch.

Is it any wonder why, according to a study published in the medical journal Lancet, 70.9 percent of American men and 61.9 percent of American women are overweight, obese or morbidly obese, compared with 37 percent worldwide?

No more surprising than the fact that 28.8 percent of American boys and 29.7 percent of girls are now overweight or obese — more than double the global average.

We even hold the odd distinction of having the only population of poor people in history who are not only malnourished, but also obese. That’s because, unlike the emaciated waifs in Dickens novels or fourth-world countries today, our poor have easy access to fattening low-nutrient carbs that are as addictive as they are cheap.

The only encouraging trend is in public perception. Just as alcoholism and drug use have been withdrawn as comedy staples in entertainment, obesity is finally being seen as no laughing matter.

It can have deadly serious consequences, including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, congestive heart failure, atherosclerosis, stroke, blindness, kidney disease, immune system damage, and multiple forms of cancer — all of which will gravely impact the fiscal solvency of any health care delivery system we devise, public or private.

Diabetes alone costs Americans $176 billion each year, and the nation’s businesses an additional $69 billion in lost productivity, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Despite our spending $3.2 trillion annually on health care — far more per capita than any other country — American males rank 17th in life expectancy among the 17 nations with comparable standards of living. They also rank second in heart disease deaths, second in dying from noncommunicable diseases and fourth in dying from infectious diseases, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

And those numbers are not being skewed by America’s high percentage of ethnic minorities or families living in poverty. The numbers are comparable for middle-class, non-Hispanic whites, who generally have more education, higher incomes and greater access to health care.

What these groups do have in common are obesity and the harmful effects of our massive ingestion of chemical additives in processed foods.

Had Dante been a contemporary of ours, I’m sure he would have written into “Inferno” a 10th circle of Hell for food chemists, those evil geniuses who invented crave-inducing substances like monosodium glutamate, time capsule preservatives like sodium nitrite, and ingenious hydrogenated oils that can raise “bad” cholesterol and lower “good” cholesterol simultaneously.

So what do we need to do to turn this around?

What we don’t need is a Big Brother Bloomberg rationing our soft drinks, or another 21-hour “Ted Talk” by Sen. Ted Cruz about the dangers of Obamacare.

And we certainly don’t need more nutrition “education” from the left. We’ve understood the four food groups of the U.S. Department of Agriculture “pyramid” since fourth grade. Our problem is that we eat two pyramids a day instead of one. And to make matters worse, 60 percent of those two pyramids are now “burial chambers” of manufactured foods, according to a study published in Time magazine.

The sad fact is without serious individual and family commitments to repealing and replacing our destructive eating habits with healthy foods and limited portions, it doesn’t matter who the health care waiter gives the check to — American business, the taxpayer or millennials with the munchies — we won’t be able to afford the meal.

Tell that to the elephant in the emergency room, and the jackass sitting next to him.

Timothy Philen is the author of “You CAN Run Away From It!” (Harper & Row/Lippincott).

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