Friday, May 11, 2012

We Have Ways to Make You Eat Healthy

Every day the media dumps more stories on  us complaining about the obesity epidemic. This is not simply an American issue. The problem spans the globe. It's easy to look around and see fat people. Actually, for a lot of us it's easy to look in the mirror and see fat people.

We are also exposed every day to ever more prescriptions for how to address obesity. This article asserts that the key to controlling the problem lies in our schools. But this article tells us that even a school based "intensive obesity-prevention program" was ineffective.

This article covers a report claiming that the rate of American obesity will increase from the current 34% to 42% by 2030. It's not the obese people's fault, the report insists. Rather, it's that the "average person cannot maintain a healthy weight in this obesity-promoting environment."

The authors of this op-ed give the report a fisking, suggesting that the "science" used in the report is extremely dubious and was designed to draw premeditated conclusions.

Why would 'scientists' skew studies and results? The op-ed writers explain, "The real purpose of the report is to ease the public into an acceptance of authoritarian interventions.The proposed solutions -- which include high soda taxes, minimum pricing on alcohol (already being considered in Europe) and restrictions on where fast-food restaurants can open (already law in Los Angeles) are very unpopular."

We have no shortage of activists that would willingly force others to choose right—or at least their version of right. (Sort of reminds me of a plan that was presented in the pre-earth life.) Many of these activists gain enough political power to get their pet interventions codified as public policy. Why does so much activism come down to limiting liberty and accountability?

For the record, I have trouble with the whole "It's not your fault" approach. I say this because I used to weigh 60 lbs more than I weigh today. Once I got serious about fitness and healthy eating, it took me a year to lose the weight. It has required constant effort and vigilance to keep the weight off for the past 23 years. Quite frankly, it hasn't always been pleasant.

I understand that we live in an environment that makes it easy to get fat. There are more food choices today than ever. The real cost of a calorie edible food (how much labor time it takes to earn enough to pay for it) is at its all-time low. Getting prepared foods is easier than ever. We are increasingly transferring the labor involved in preparing foods to others and these convenient foods tend to be higher in calories. I know—boy, do I know—that the foods that are the most physically and psychologically pleasing tend to be high in calories, and even addictive.

But I fail to see why I should transfer accountability for my dietary choices to society or to some nebulous food industry. In fact, by responding to consumer demand over the past 23 years the supposedly evil food industry has made it much easier to eat healthy than was the case when I started my weight loss program.

The blunt truth is that responsibility for my dietary choices is mine and mine alone. I am the final arbiter of what goes into my mouth. Absolving people of personal responsibility isn't going to solve the obesity problem. When has that approach ever worked for anything?

It has long been known that those that actually lose weight only manage to keep it off if they have undergone a psychological change where they develop a different self image in their mind. Then they almost automatically do what must be done to keep their physique in line with this image. How is this mental shift to occur if people feel no responsibility for the matter?

I am also doubtful about the effectiveness of coercive methods when it comes to obesity. Consider the current state of illegal drug abuse. The illegal drug trade doesn't even have media marketing like the food industry, but that does not stop drug abuse from proliferating. Despite the massive levels of public funds used for coercive anti-drug efforts, drug abuse is common and widespread.

When the food police crack down on comfort foods, you can be fully assured that people will still find ways to get the foods they want. Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that coercive food policies will work any better than coercive drug policies. They will, however, transfer more power to the state and further reduce liberty.

Some have drawn parallels between the food and tobacco industries. Smoking tobacco used to be far more pervasive than it is today. Cigarettes were available everywhere. It was easy to start smoking and to get addicted. The culture promoted it.

Then something changed. It wasn't the warnings on the tobacco packages or the fact that tobacco was sequestered in locked display cases at stores. It wasn't the sanctions on tobacco advertising or bans on indoor smoking. If anything, those were symptoms of the main factor—things that only became publicly acceptable due to the main factor.

A cultural sea change occurred over a period of time as people became informed about smoking and decided that it never smelled that great anyway. It didn't happen as rapidly as some might suggest. Over a generation, smoking went from being sophisticated, vogue, and grown-up to being akin to having BO. What was once cool became supremely uncool, especially among the middle and upper classes.

Some would like to fool themselves into believing that this was all by design—that it is evidence that the activists' coercive methods worked. Actually, as with almost every other major cultural shift, so many factors played into the transition that it is not possible effectively pin down or even allocate all of the significant components involved. As with the advent of rock-and-roll, no one can stop an idea whose time has come.

So how do we make the desire to avoid and reduce obesity turn into one of those ideas whose time has come? I'm afraid it's not that easy. Media haranguing and public shaming obviously hasn't worked. I have expressed my doubts that coercion will work. True cultural change bubbles from the bottom up through countless choices made by countless people.

A major element that nobody really talks about is the fact that most people just don't place as much importance on obesity as do activists and parts of the health care industry. People know that obesity causes health problems and earlier death. They simply don't believe that the cost of getting and staying slender is worth avoiding those outcomes. To many, an existence of dietary austerity doesn't seem worth living.

People are bombarded with so many different assertions of what constitutes a healthy diet that they despair of discovering what actually works. If we had a silver bullet diet that really worked on a broad basis, there wouldn't be so many different weight loss programs out there. Many overweight people have tried and failed at dieting. Trying yet another approach just isn't worth it to them.

The anti-obesity crowd is free to try to entice the public to join in the worship of the god of slenderness. But they should take a cue from the global warming activists and avoid exaggerating their claims or overplaying their hand, lest their credibility go the way of climate doomology.

Unfortunately, anti-obesity activists often come across as know-it-all scolds that want to throw cold water on the party. Activists seem not to understand that all their talk in terms of costs to public health feels dehumanizing to individuals. It might buy some power among the political class, but it won't win many friends among the broader public.

I obviously decided at some point in my life that getting rid of a bunch of excess weight was worth making serious life changes. But who am I to say that what was good for me is good for everyone else? That's why we have this thing called individual liberty, which can't exist without personal accountability.

Go ahead and encourage people to choose healthy diet and activity. But don't force them, as if they were incapable babies. Let them reap the natural consequences of their choices. It may shock some to find that many prefer this approach to living longer and healthier but as thralls to intrusive do-gooders.

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