NYT mag on obesity: Don’t punish, politicize

Who paves the road for the responsibility bandwagon?: Were it up to him, Cleveland Clinic heart surgeon Delos Cosgrove would amend the clinic’s wellness policy–which already bans the hiring of smokers–to include a ban on the hiring of obese people. His is a hard-line approach linking obesity to personal behavior and responsibility; if the punishment is being shut out of a job, people will change their eating and exercise habits. But is it fair to pin the blame solely on the individual? Nope, opines David Leonhardt in this week’s NYT Magazine. “It’s hard to argue that Americans have become collectively more irresponsible over the last 30 years,” he states, citing falling crime and divorce rates as two examples of progress in the anti-heathen department. “What has changed is our environment.” That includes our built environment (less exercise-friendly communities) and our economic environment (the price of fast food has fallen, that of fruit and veggies risen).

In other words, policy matters. Used correctly, policy tools can create healthy incentives that individuals have no power to create themselves. As Leonhardt puts it, “The solutions to these problems are beyond the control of any individual. They involve a different sort of responsibility: civic — even political — responsibility…. [A]ny effort to attack obesity will inevitably involve making value judgments and even limiting people’s choices. Most of the time, the government has no business doing such things. But there is really no other way to cure an epidemic.” (New York Times Magazine)

Something to chew on: Leonhardt notes that the price of fruits and vegetables has risen more than 40 percent in the last three decades. But before reading the Times magazine, this Ethicurean spent Sunday morning at the market buying organic, local peaches for $2 a pound, or bruised ones for $1/lb.

When it’s bountiful and in season, produce can be pretty inexpensive. So here’s a question for the economists in the room: how much of the produce price rise could be attributed to the fact that we no longer eat seasonally? That over the last three decades, our consumption of imported, out-of-season produce has skyrocketed? Discuss.

6 Responsesto “NYT mag on obesity: Don’t punish, politicize”

  1. Ed Bruske says:

    First we have to solve the intellectual disconnect when it comes to the cause of obesity. It’s not an absence of or the cost of “produce” in the typical diet. Humans need calories to fuel their everyday activities. Green vegetables and fruits won’t cut it. For calories, you must look to either protein, fats or more calorie-dense carbohydrates, such as grains or starchy vegetables (e.g. potatoes). Only protein and fat are essential to human health. But Americans are fat because they’ve opted for the cheap, calorie-dense carbohydrates served up in such abundance by our industrial food system. Throw in an enormous consumption of sugary (carb-heavy) sodas, and you have the perfect recipe for an insulin bomb that leads to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis and all the rest. Our food system has been engineered–with government help and taxpayer subsidies–to make people fat.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Awhile back (3 months?) after retrieving my son from first grade, I stopped by Kinko’s. Usually after school he’s famished, so I feed him first thing; but on that day I had to stop by Kinko’s first. Of course I forgot to bring a snack with me… So there we are, in Kinko’s, and? Right by the front door is a vending machine selling pop. And right by the cash register — in Kinko’s! — there was an array of candy. M&Ms, all that. Imagine my dismay. Because I wouldn’t buy any my 6-year-old had a meltdown.

    The moral of the story is: one of the single most important skills I can teach my child in this society is how to resist the candy & pop one finds ev-er-y-<i>where</i>. Moral #2 of course is: always carry healthy snacks in your purse.

  3. Abe says:

    I don’t agree with this premise.  All of us who choose to eat well do so while surrounded by the same sea of crap as those who do not.  This smacks of the new-American idea that “Nothing is my fault”.  Bull.  Pay some attention to what you cram into your face, and you’ll be fine.  Ignorance and apathy are the new American ethos – “I don’t know, and I don’t care”.  If people took real responsibility for themselves, and ate thoughtfully, they would force change on the marketplace by refusing to purchase junk, and encouraging and supporting the production of quality food.

    Unfortunately, they won’t.

  4. Natasha says:

    Local, in-season fruit is definitely MORE expensive in my area than imported, out-of-season fruit. I would spend far less on fruit if I were buying imported bananas, oranges, grapes and apples at Safeway than I am buying local cherries, peaches and blackberries at the farmer’s market. Vegetables are different, usually costing the same or slightly less at the market than at the grocery store.

  5. They also need to be careful of how they define obesity. I have a high body mass index way into the obese range, but I’m not obese at all. I have little body fat and am very healthy. Like many people who are very physically active I weigh a lot for my height. Muscle and dense bones are heavy. My work and lifestyle need those. I’m very healthy. They need to differentiate between body mass and fat. I mention this because I ran into this on insurance long ago. They initially listed me as obese. Fortunately the doctor was able to correct the error.

  6. James Foster says:

    Junk food, especially corn based  products, are subsidized by the government to the tune of $ 5 billion  a year. Take that money away and put it back in the taxpayers  pocket and  fruits and veggies will be less expensive than junk food. We also spend approximately $147 billion for obesity related health care. That cheap food looks pretty expense to me. Then let’s throw in the environmental cost of the industrial food industry and see where we stand. We the people need to lobby OUR government and maybe we can get more sway than the lobbyist.