Moral Dimensions of America’s Obesity Epidemic

A half year ago, I didn’t think that I had a weight problem. At 6′ tall, I tipped the scales at 193 pounds. I exercised fairly regularly, ate balanced meals and indulged little in desserts, snacks or fast food. I had a little flab around the waste but didn’t feel overweight, much less obese. Then, in a routine physical, my doctor told me my blood sugar was running high. I was pre-diabetic, he said. If I didn’t control my nutrition, I could wind up a full-fledged diabetic.

Boy, was that a wake-up call! There was no way I would let myself become a diabetic. I would take control of my diet. Out went the soft drinks; in came the flavored water. Out went the starch at dinner time; in came the vegetable salads. Out went the breakfast cereals; in came yogurt, granola and fresh fruit. Out went the processed bread; in came whole-grain bread. My intent was to restore my blood sugar to healthy levels. I wasn’t looking to lose weight. But as a side effect of adopting a better diet, I did lose 10 pounds.

Through the lens of that experience I now report the latest findings of a new study by the Trust for America’s Health, “F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2011.” Twelve states now have obesity rates above 30%. Four years ago, only one state was above 30%. The obesity epidemic is the worst in the South, lowest in the Northeast and West. But viewed over a 20-year timeline, obesity is increasing across the board.

Virginians can take some small consolation that we are less fat than the national average. We rank 30th nationally. But considering that higher-income people are less likely to be fat and we Virginians rank among the 10 highest income-per-capita states in the country, we have no grounds to get smug. Obesity is a major contributing factor to heart disease and diabetes, which runs up health care costs, which we all pay. So, one person’s obesity is not just his or her problem, it’s everyone’s problem.

(See the detailed statistics for Virginia here. Fifteen years ago, Virginia had a combined obesity and overweight rate of 48.9 percent. Today, the combined rate is 61.2 percent.)

There are many explanations of America’s rising obesity rate. The population is getting older, for one, and people who put on one or two pounds a year can find themselves overweight by middle age. Our lifestyles are more sedentary, and we get less exercise. (Our auto-centric human settlement patterns play a role here.) And we eat way too much processed food, and not nearly enough fresh fruit and vegetables. But none of these contributing factors is destiny. Every one of us has free will. We all know what we need to do — it is impossible to escape the mantra that we need to eat right and exercise more. We just need to do it.

I know that it can be done because I have done it. It’s not easy changing food-eating habits but it is possible. It’s not easy finding the time and energy to exercise but it is possible. Here’s the question: Will other Americans do the right thing? Or do they have such an entitlement mentality — “I’m entitled to health care, and I’m entitled to have someone fix my medical problems, even if they are of my own making”– that most of them are too complacent and lazy to change? My fear is that preaching and moral suasion will not work. The morality of personal responsibility is dying in this country. And the logic of the social engineer — we’ll tax soda pop so people will drink less of it — is all that is left to save us from ourselves.

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4 responses to “Moral Dimensions of America’s Obesity Epidemic”

  1. propercharlie Avatar

    Jim, congratulations on taking charge of your diet and exercise. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but you and your readers of a certain age ought to watch “Fathead” an entertaining and thought-provoking documentary by Tom Naughton. In his mid-50s, he debunks prevailing “Super Size Me” (government) thinking on why there is so much obesity and stage-two diabetes these days. His project in the film is to eat at McDonalds (and bacon and eggs, etc., at home) for a month. He maintains 2000 calories per day but only 100 grams of carbohydrates. He loses weight, bad cholesterol, and blood sugar. There’s a lot of technical stuff presented in an engaging way. He posits that what the experts, grant-addicted academics and lobbyists have been telling the American public for about 40 years is wrong. You don’t have to be a body nazi to be healthy either. I’ve just started myself but it looks promising.

    He also points out as you do the moral aspect of weaning oneself away from government mismanagement of our lives. Bon appetit.

    1. Wow, I can eat fast food, lose weight, reduce my cholesterol and blood sugar? I’m heading to Burger King for breakfast!

      Seriously, I’ll check out the documentary.

  2. If you are going to accuse me of being a liar, you ought to at least quote me accurately.

    Actually, I routinely work 16 hour days, although not very day. Sleeping, for me usually consists of several two hour naps, and eating consists of several light meals, snacks really. I said seldom, not never.

    As I have said before, anyone who wants to save our small farms can come over any Saturday and try a sixteen hour day on for size. They are not only possible, but common.

    It should be obvious to anyone with half a brain that my comments were not meant to be taken 100% literally, but if you want to apply that standard, do so equally: don't be one of those shallow bloggers who misquotes people and then accuses them of lying. And does so anonymously.

    The unspoken point of my post was/is that lifestyle is important to health, but it isn't everything. Some cards you just get dealt.

    As for recommending censorship, based on some notion of quality, I think such an idea is reprehensible, and counterproductive. Your misquote and subsequent false statement shows why.

    Anyone can now read You statements and decide for themselves which is closer to the truth.

  3. Not only did I spend a month working outside at hard labor, I gained five pounds.

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