Obesity has grown into an alarming public health crisis, and there is no telling when or even whether we will be able to get this epidemic under control. Over two-thirds of Americans now struggle with weight problems, and there is no consensus among the experts over the precise causes. Recommendations for countermeasures range from calls for more government involvement to greater responses from food manufacturers and restaurant operators to better health education of the public.
Recent legislation for the improvement of nutrition standards of school lunches and initiatives like "Let's Move" to reduce childhood obesity have gotten some traction, but progress remains slow and uncertain, according to the latest report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, there is no significant change in the current trends, and so the battle for America's health continues unabated. There is general agreement that more, much more needs to be done.
Demands for tougher regulation of industry and policies to influence the behavior of consumers have become louder in recent years, but we have not seen the results we had hoped for. In a recent op-ed article, New York Times columnist >Mark Bittman has faulted the current Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, for being "missing in action" in the fight against obesity, especially childhood obesity. On this issue, he writes, "Benjamin, like most of her predecessors, is virtually invisible." Even with regards to seemingly straightforward measures like curbing children's exposure to junk food via advertisements on TV or banning soda sales from school campuses, the government remains inexplicably passive. Instead, it still lays most of the blame at the feet of the victims by overemphasizing personal accountability.
Voluntary commitments by food manufacturers and restaurant operators have not produced much success either, despite of ample promises to show more cooperation by making food labels less confusing, offering healthier alternatives on fast food menus, or limiting exposure of kids to food advertisements.
But there is another aspect to this discussion that is often neglected. It is people's real life experience that is not taken enough into account. By this I don't mean to lend credence to oversimplifying statements that people are responsible for their own actions and should not blame others for their demise. Those who read my columns and blog posts know very well that I am a strong supporter of many of the measures Mr. Bittman and others are proposing.
Asking folks to make better nutritional choices makes no sense if they live miles and miles away from food outlets that carry fresh produce, or in neighborhoods where getting physical exercise is difficult because of safety concerns and lack of public facilities like bike paths and parks. It is also futile to make dietary recommendations that completely ignore financial limits or access to health education.
But still, no matter what we will try from here on in terms of legislation and policy making, changing individual behavior will always play a predominant role. Eating habits are rarely just about food. They are also about stress, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, addiction, past traumatic experiences and more. By exclusively focusing on the quality and quantity of our food supply, we will not be able to really understand these concerns and make them part of the equation, as they need to be. As they say, all politics are local. And all health issues are personal.