Call it the McVictim syndrome. Too many pundits, public health experts and politicians are working overtime to find scapegoats for America's obesity epidemic.
In his latest book, former FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler argues that modern food is addictive. In it, he recounts how he was once helpless to stop himself from eating a cookie. In a paper in this month's Journal of Health Economics, University of Illinois researchers join a long list of analysts who blame urban sprawl for obesity. In November, former Carter administration advisor Amitai Etzioni argued that it's so hard for Americans to keep weight off that adults should simply give up and focus attention on the young instead.
The peak of the trend: A recently released Ohio study, using mice, suggests "fine-particulate air pollution" could be causing a rise in obesity rates.
How long before we're told that the devil made us eat it?
The McVictim syndrome spins a convenient — and unhealthy — narrative on America's emerging preventable disease crisis. McVictimization teaches Americans to think that obesity is someone else's fault — and therefore, someone else's problem to solve.
The truth: In the vast majority of cases, obesity is a preventable condition. So those of us in the medical community must be candid with overweight patients about the risks they face and the rewards of better health choices. But it's also time for American policymakers to show the same level of candor.
All things being equal, the simplest explanation is often the right one. And the simplest explanation for the dramatic rise in obesity rates — roughly doubling as a percentage of the total population in just a quarter-century — is the surge in our daily caloric intake. Excess food now, excess weight later. And Americans won't make better choices if the McVictim syndrome provides a convenient excuse to carry on as before.
Obesity is preventable, but its consequences seem difficult to avoid. Consider that the cost of treating resulting conditions such as diabetes is about 7% of all U.S. healthcare spending — and a significant drain on federal and state budgets. Obesity is a national security threat because it severely limits the pool of military recruits; in 2009, the Pentagon indicated that since 2005, 48,000 potential troops had flunked their basic physical exams because they weighed too much. Most important, obesity is a human threat, destroying otherwise healthy lives and increasing personal health costs, all for the sake of a few daily moments of instant gratification.
For these reasons, there is a role for government to play in attacking obesity. Public policy can help. School lunch programs shouldn't push our children toward obesity at taxpayers' expense. We should stop subsidizing agribusinesses; many are using taxpayer dollars to produce and market unhealthful foods. We should promote insurance reforms that support preventive medicine.
But we must also launch a direct attack on the philosophy behind the McVictim syndrome. Policymakers must accept the fact that a poor diet is almost always a poor personal choice.
Yes, it's fair to say that many Americans try to choose better — and fail because they've chosen quack drugs or crash diets as the solution. Yes, it's fair to say that losing weight solely for appearance's sake isn't a healthful choice. Yes, it's fair to say we shouldn't crush the self-esteem of those who've tried, and failed, to keep off excess weight. In other words, our society makes healthful choices tougher.
But even so, encouraging Americans to cut their dietary health risks is a responsible act of citizenship. And it's absurd to pretend that Americans are helpless to make that choice — or that it's too late for them to reap the benefits. Contrary to claims like Etzioni's, even a modest, voluntary improvement in the average American diet could pay huge dividends.
Just as a little more weight causes more damage over time (to joints, to cardiovascular systems, to organs), a little less weight can produce dramatic health benefits. To take one example, a study cited in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that obese patients on a program of mild weight loss and modest exercise cut their odds of getting diabetes by as much as 60%. Imagine the benefits that would flow from keeping millions of future Medicare recipients from ever needing an insulin prescription.
The McVictim syndrome is far too prevalent, which promotes the notion that regulations and laws are the primary solution to the problem. But governments can't micromanage your waistline for you. Even if governments could magically walk you to work, ban food advertising, regulate sugar out of food and suck those fat particles out of the air, in a free society you would still have the power to drive to the nearest restaurant, shake your salt shaker and order a second piece of pie.
That's why understanding — and rejecting — the McVictim culture is crucial to obesity reduction policy. And the first step in that process is to reject the temptation to find an easy scapegoat.
David Gratzer is a physician and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.