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It's time to serve up some big incentives to curb obesity

To combat the alarming obesity rate, the Institute of Medicine says the U.S. needs to overhaul everything from farm policies to zoning laws. Clearly, doing nothing isn't an option.

May 14, 2012|David Lazarus
  • Being overweight and physically inactive may account for 25% to 30% cases of major cancers such as breast and colon cancer, according to estimates.
Being overweight and physically inactive may account for 25% to 30% cases… (Joe Raedle / Getty Images )

Americans eat too damn much. And we all pay a rising cost for this gluttony in the form of higher insurance premiums and lost productivity.

A study last year by the Society of Actuaries calculated the total economic cost of an overweight and obese population in the United States and Canada at about $300 billion a year (with 90% of that figure attributable to America's dietary issues).

Now comes word from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that, if current trends continue, about 42% of the U.S. population will be obese by 2030.

In other words, an additional 30 million Americans will count themselves among the way-fat within 18 years, and about 11% of the population will be severely obese — that is, at least 100 pounds overweight.

These levels of pudginess will translate to nearly $550 billion in annual medical expenses, researchers estimate.

And as if all this wasn't grim enough, the above numbers don't even factor in kids. As it stands, about a third of U.S. kids are either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Something has to be done.

I know, I know: People should be able to eat whatever they want, and government officials have no business passing nanny-state rules that meddle in basic notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, blah, blah, blah.

If only it were that simple. The harsh reality is that millions of Americans can't be trusted to look after their own well-being, and the rest of society gets stuck with the tab for soaring rates of diabetes, heart disease, strokes, cancer and other serious ailments.

HBO is serving up a four-part documentary this week on the obesity crisis. "The Weight of the Nation" explores why we're so addicted to food and what can be done to slim the nation's waistband before we eat ourselves to death.

Dr. Tony Iton, senior vice president of the health-focused California Endowment, appears in the documentary. He told me that government policies have created an "obesogenic society" by encouraging use of cars to commute to and from suburbs, and not putting enough resources into public transportation and recreation.

"We already have a nanny state, but it's moving society in the wrong direction," Iton said. "We are in the business of encouraging obesity with our public policies. We should get out of that business."

Along those lines, the Institute of Medicine issued a report last week saying that for the U.S. to reverse current obesity trends, it needs to overhaul everything from farm policies to zoning laws.

Clearly, doing nothing isn't an option. At the risk of being criticized (and I know I will be) for advocating draconian measures, I think it's time that food and drink received the same level of regulatory oversight as tobacco and alcohol.

We need to acknowledge that much of what we put in our mouths is very bad for us and accept new rules intended to foster healthful behavior and discourage the endless noshing that's turning us into a herd of porkers.

First, we should limit the marketing of fast food and junk food to kids. Young people are just not in a position to make wise choices when it comes to sweets and treats. It's foolish to believe otherwise.

Just as parents were outraged by the idea of a Joe Camel trying to make cigarettes look cool to youngsters, they should be equally upset with all manner of colorful characters hawking everything from sugary breakfast cereals to corn-syrup-sweetened sodas.

How about a cigarette-style tax on such foods and beverages, with the proceeds going toward obesity research and wellness programs?

How about higher insurance rates for the overweight, just as smokers typically pay more for health coverage?

Meanwhile, there needs to be more attention paid to giving people healthful choices. This means incentives to encourage supermarkets and produce stores to open in lower-income neighborhoods, and perhaps subsidies to lower the price of organic fruits and vegetables.

"The No. 1 way to manage obesity is to prevent it," said Dr. Kerri Boutelle, an obesity expert at UC San Diego. "Once kids and adults gain weight, it's very hard to lose it."

She pointed out the large servings at many restaurants — often containing two or three times the number of calories recommended for a healthful lifestyle. "It's easy to get 1,500 calories at a single meal," Boutelle said.

How about official limits on portions?

"That's a little Big Brotherish," Boutelle replied, observing that food isn't exactly like tobacco. "You can stop smoking," she said. "You can't stop eating."

True. But restaurants and stores don't need to be enablers, making it easy and tempting for people to overindulge.

Leaving us to our own devices isn't working — all available evidence makes that plain. We eat too much, and we frequently make bad food choices.

The idea that almost half of American adults will be obese in coming years should be a wake-up call for everyone. And it should spur all of us to lead healthier lives.

But it won't. Because Americans don't like being told what to do, even when their behavior is killing them.

That's why we need to do more.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to

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