Responsibility and the obesity crisis

Washington partisanship is leaving our obese children behind. The United States needs direction from its political leaders.

Darren Bernard

If you think back a little more than a year and a half ago, you will remember a guy by the name of Morgan Spurlock – the subject and director of the documentary “Super Size Me.”

In the film, Spurlock spends 30 straight days eating every item on the McDonald’s menu, super-sizing only when cashiers asked and periodically visiting his doctor to check on his health.

Of course, his cholesterol soars as his organs begin to deteriorate weeks into the project, and the film ends with him as another tragic (still living) victim of dangerous foods that are causing thousands of preventable deaths every year.

At least, that was the message.

The real story behind the film is that Spurlock ended up consuming somewhere around 5,000 calories per day – approximately double the recommend consumption for the average adult male. In fact, his 30-pound weight gain was pretty standard for an adult male eating as much and exercising as little as he did.

Enter Merab Morgan – a mother of two and the follow-up story nobody ever heard about. Unconvinced of Spurlock’s gimmick and angry at his demonizing of fast food chains, Morgan went on her own McDonald’s diet. For 90 days, Morgan got her proper exercise and ate the recommended calorie load for a woman her age without the cameras or publicity or editorials to preach her cause.

And she lost – yes, lost – almost 40 pounds in the process.

Now I bring this up not to prove eating 2 pounds of French fries is good for you, but to make a simple point about America’s obesity crisis. Increasingly, there are two polarized sides in this debate, with the division line drawn right over personal responsibility. There are those on the far-left who believe the government can regulate adults into adopting healthy lifestyles and there are those on the right who don’t. Alas, hard-liners on neither side are ready to compromise.

The disagreement is more marked and far more significant than you might think. Obesity, especially among children, is predicted to be the health care crisis of the 21st century. Already, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost $10 out of every $100 of all health care expenditures “are directly related to obesity and physical inactivity.” The yearly cost of treating overweight U.S. adults is twice as large as the fast food industry’s aggregate revenue.

So do not be fooled: There really is an unavoidable and growing problem here. Yet, no one – not the CDC, not the Department of Health and Human Services, not the Surgeon General’s Office, not Congress, not the White House – has come close to a serious proposal to combat obesity among adults, or, far more importantly, among children.

In fact, so far, the best the Bush administration has done to combat our girth is to launch a useless television ad campaign that encourages Americans to eat right and get more exercise. “One 30-second ad shows a man who turns in two ‘love handles’ he has found to the lost-and-found at a mall,” CBS News explains. “When he asks what they are, the attendant explains that they are ‘love handles,’ and adds, ‘lots of people lose them by taking the stairs.’ The ad ends with a graphic saying, ‘Take a small step to get healthy.’ “

Democrats have been equally childish. The U.S. House took a small step in the right, pro-personal responsibility direction last week, approving, for the second time in less than two years, legislation that would limit obesity lawsuits filed against fast-food corporations and restaurants. But for whatever reason, it does not look like the Senate will take up the bill. And most Democrats (including our local House Rep. Martin Sabo), favoring trial lawyers over sanity, are vehemently and inexplicably opposed to the measure.

In the meantime, legislatures in states such as California are getting serious about the childhood obesity problem by ensuring kids have healthy lunches, get proper exercise and are drinking things other than sugar-loaded cans of Mountain Dew at school. The town of Norwood, Mass., has even launched a small, focused campaign to survey locals to gather ideas about how to effectively, apolitically fight obesity by, for example, organizing new walking clubs and nutrition classes.

The point is that on a national level, Congress has failed to provide any direction to the states to encourage healthy eating and physical exercise. Once again, even commonsense solutions, which have become all the rage in both red and blue states, have managed to become bogged down in Washington.

In the mean time, lawmakers are leaving the nation’s obese children behind.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected]