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Blame Nixon for the obesity epidemic

June 27, 2012|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • Doughnuts rank high on the glycemic index, which measures foods' effects on blood sugar.
Doughnuts rank high on the glycemic index, which measures foods'… (Los Angeles Times )

As obesity rates increase, so too do obesity-related health problems and associated costs. Still, a federal health advisory panel has formally recommended additional care in the form of intensive counseling.

Commenting on the panel’s decision, my colleague Paul Whitefield argues that we can't afford it. "The solution?" he writes. "It's not government-approved and insurance-paid-for counseling. It’s a fat tax." He continues:

You want to be obese? Fine. Keep chowing down, big guy or gal. Just don’t expect those who pursue sensible, healthful choices to pay for you.

Instead, you’re gonna pay a tax on all that extra weight, which will help offset the healthcare costs you’re sure to incur.

Don’t like it? OK. Don’t get fat. Problem solved.

It’s as American as apple pie (not a la mode, though)! It’s a personal responsibility thing, with a financial incentive thrown in. 

I’m not sure I agree. I think for a lot of people, food is like a drug. If we’re going to treat drug addiction like a disease, per the recommendation of Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama’s top drug policy advisor, we should take a similar approach toward caring for food addicts.

Laugh all you want, but the food that’s expanding our collective waistline has been designed to make us keep coming back for more, more, more. And I’m not just talking about the McDonald’s fries.

In an examination of the food we eat, Jacques Peretti says it’s not just the sugar we’re eating, it’s also the sugar we don’t know we’re eating. In a fascinating article in the Guardian, he traces the origin of our dilemma to Richard Nixon.

The story begins in 1971. Richard Nixon was facing re-election. The Vietnam war was threatening his popularity at home, but just as big an issue with voters was the soaring cost of food. If Nixon was to survive, he needed food prices to go down, and that required getting a very powerful lobby on board -- the farmers. Nixon appointed Earl Butz, an academic from the farming heartland of Indiana, to broker a compromise. Butz, an agriculture expert, had a radical plan that would transform the food we eat, and in doing so, the shape of the human race.

Butz pushed farmers into a new, industrial scale of production, and into farming one crop in particular: corn. U.S. cattle were fattened by the immense increases in corn production. Burgers became bigger. Fries, fried in corn oil, became fattier. Corn became the engine for the massive surge in the quantities of cheaper food being supplied to American supermarkets: everything from cereals, to biscuits and flour found new uses for corn. […]

By the mid-70s, there was a surplus of corn. Butz flew to Japan to look into a scientific innovation that would change everything: the mass development of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or glucose-fructose syrup as it's often referred to in the UK, a highly sweet, gloppy syrup, produced from surplus corn, that was also incredibly cheap. HFCS had been discovered in the 50s, but it was only in the 70s that a process had been found to harness it for mass production. HFCS was soon pumped into every conceivable food: pizzas, coleslaw, meat. It provided that "just baked" sheen on bread and cakes, made everything sweeter, and extended shelf life from days to years.

In addition to corn, Peretti blames the low-fat movement.

By the mid-80s, health experts such as Professor Philip James, a world-renowned British scientist who was one of the first to identify obesity as an issue, were noticing that people were getting fatter and no one could explain why. The food industry was keen to point out that individuals must be responsible for their own calorie consumption, but even those who exercised and ate low-fat products were gaining weight. In 1966 the proportion of people with a BMI of over 30 (classified as obese) was just 1.2% for men and 1.8% for women. By 1989 the figures had risen to 10.6% for men and 14.0% for women. And no one was joining the dots between [High Fructose Corn Syrup] and fat.

Moreover, there was something else going on. The more sugar we ate, the more we wanted, and the hungrier we became. At New York University, Professor Anthony Sclafani, a nutritionist studying appetite and weight gain, noticed something strange about his lab rats. When they ate rat food, they put on weight normally. But when they ate processed food from a supermarket, they ballooned in a matter of days. Their appetite for sugary foods was insatiable: they just carried on eating.

Makes you think twice before choosing Snackwell’s “sensible snacks.”

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