Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Last week, under a mandate from Congress, the Institute of Medicine initiated a report to battle childhood obesity in America. The report was sweeping in scope, calling on government at all levels to muster resources, and to take decisive action. It called for massive federal intervention in public education, federal nutrition requirements in school lunches, heavy regulation of soda and snack machines, and for Federal Trade Commission authority over the marketing of food to children. The report also called on local governments to change zoning laws to favor pedestrians and bicyclists over automobiles. "We're talking about something that's nothing less than a revolution," Dr. Thomas Robinson, one of the authors, told the Boston Globe. "It has to involve so many elements in our society. ... It's really going to require a major sea change in how we look at this problem."

This childhood obesity scare, however, is just part of an alleged obesity epidemic among the adult population. But, just how severe is America's obesity problem? Do we really have a developing public health disaster on our hands? The data suggest not. According to Rockefeller University professor Jeffrey Friedman, as quoted in The New York Times, Americans have been getting modestly chubbier since the early 1980s. Friedman also told the Times that most of us are carrying an extra 4-6 pounds - not much to worry about - while the very obese among us have gotten very much more obese. The result is a significant increase in the population's average weight, but an increase that's mostly caused by those very heavy people, not by the vast majority of the population, as media reports and nutrition activists would have you believe.

Indeed, if the whole of America has, over the past two decades, been getting as fat as alarmist headlines have suggested, we should be starting to see the early signals of this coming public health crisis. That's just not the case. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, Americans are living longer than ever before. A child born today into almost any demographic group can expect to live more years than at any other time in American history....

An increase in Type II diabetes cases among children is the principal battle cry among those advocating heavy government intervention. The CDC reports that about 7.2 children per 100,000 are now diagnosed with the disease. However, the number of children with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia is estimated by the National Mental Health Association to be around 2,500 per 100,000. When kids are 347 times more likely to have an illness associated with poor body image than they are an illness associated with obesity, asking our public schools to have growing kids step on the scale - as the Institute of Medicine report recommends - doesn't seem like such a great idea.

Even if the tenuous connections between obesity and illness were as firm as the anti-fat warriors would have us believe, there's still reason for caution when calling for government intervention. Any far-reaching government program is likely to be costly, and just as likely to restrict personal choice and undermine personal responsibility. Most government programs also come with the hidden costs of unintended consequences, such as incubating eating disorders among young girls by asking them to weigh themselves in front of their peers. There's also no guarantee that any of these programs will be effective.

The best thing Congress can do in the fight against obesity is understand that there are some spheres of life that simply aren't within the purview of government. How and when and how much we eat - and how we raise our kids with respect to diet, food and exercise - ought to be one of those spheres.

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