Neil Macdonald: The sacred American right to overeat

If American obesity was just some jolly extra poundage hanging over belts, a harmless sign of prosperity, it wouldn't be an issue, writes Neil Macdonald. But it's much more than that.

I'm sure I'll probably hear from some lobby or other for saying this — I imagine that someone has already dreamed up "fat-ism" as one of those ugly prejudices we need to be aware of and avoid — but Americans are really, really fat.

Walk down any street here in any state, but most particularly in any southern state, and you'll see what I mean.

Bellies hanging down over belts, rolls of neck fat, faces so bloated they’re losing their original appearance, huge rear ends and breasts (on men as well as women), curtains of fat hanging off the undersides of arms, and thick, heavily veined legs muscular from years of hauling around all that extra tonnage.

Sometimes the cause is beyond the control of the individual, as with a thyroid condition.

But in the vast majority of cases, the cause is over-consumption of over-processed, high-sugar, ultimately toxic food.

According to the latest data from the federal Centers for Disease Control, 35.7 per cent of American adults — more than 78 million — are obese; about 41 million women and 37 million men. Among adolescent boys, 18.6 per cent are obese. The figure for young girls is 15 per cent.

About two-thirds of American adults are just plain overweight. (Obesity is defined as a body mass index, a mixture of height and weight, over 30. Anyone with a BMI over 25 is overweight.)

And yet efforts by U.S. President Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, to fight childhood obesity by encouraging healthier eating have been widely ridiculed by conservatives here, many of whom are plenty fat themselves. Step right up, Rush Limbaugh.

What's wrong with deep-fried cheese?

This is statism, they cry. Worse, it's nanny-statism. How dare these snobby elected elites presume to tell us how we should eat? Who is Michelle Obama to suggest we eat more vegetables? Whose business is it but our own if we want to gorge ourselves on sugary cakes and sugary drinks and deep-fried cheese and tubs of ice cream?

Michelle Obama wants children to get moving to fight obesity. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Star Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann said Michelle Obama's views were typical of "the hard left."

Channelling millions of his listeners, Limbaugh blasted the president’s wife for suggesting Americans eat "cardboard and tofu … roots, and berries and tree bark," and howled with glee when she and her family were spotted dining on ribs in a restaurant.

"It doesn't look like Michelle Obama follows her own nutritionary, dietary advice," he declared, insinuating that she could stand to lose a few pounds, too.

"I'm trying to say that our first lady does not project the image of women that you might see on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit Issue."

Yes. Well. Michelle Obama is a swan, compared to Limbaugh and millions of other obese Americans.

That’s not the point, though. If obesity was just some jolly extra poundage, a harmless sign of prosperity, it wouldn’t be an issue.

But it's not.

High cost of obesity

Again, according to the Centres for Disease Control, obesity is directly related to heart disease, stroke, certain types of cancer, and, of course, Type 2 diabetes, which is becoming an epidemic here. Those conditions kill.

In 2008 (and things have worsened somewhat since then), medical costs related to obesity were about $147 billion. The medical costs to third-party payers (mostly health insurance companies or government programs such as Medicare or Medicaid) for people who are obese are $1,429 higher than for people of normal weight.

What Limbaugh and the get-your-government-hands-off-my-jelly-doughnuts crowd are really saying is that they not only have the right to get fat, but the cost of their over-indulgence should also be disproportionately borne by everybody else — hardly a conservative position.

Big, sugary drinks won't be on restaurant and deli menus in New York City if Mayor Michael Bloomberg gets his way. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

The costs aren't just at the doctor's office. A study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine concluded that obesity has a direct bearing on the productivity of a business, not just because of increased sick days, but due to "presenteeism," the lower performance of obese employees.

Toilets in the United States are being made stronger to cope with a much higher average weight than decades ago. Obesity is now the most common disqualifier for military service, to the point where military officials have called obesity a threat to national security.

Advocates for the obese are increasingly demanding that airlines give them two seats for the price of one because to charge for both is unfair. In other words, the other passengers should subsidize the obese passengers.

But Michelle Obama hasn't come under anywhere near the sorts of attacks levelled recently at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who wants to ban sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces from restaurants, movie theatres and various other venues in his city.

A threat to public health

In doing so, Bloomberg has provoked some powerful forces, the ones that make enormous profits marketing unhealthy food to adults and children and fight hard to keep school food vending machines stocked with sugary garbage.

They make a fortune by combining syrup with carbonated water and charging markups of several hundred per cent. (Such drinks account for more than 10 per cent of the added sugar in Americans’ diets).

The Centre for Consumer Freedom, a lobby run by the fast-food, meat, alcohol and tobacco industries, has run full-page colour attack ads captioned THE NANNY, with Bloomberg's head Photoshopped onto a church-lady dress, tut-tutting the nation.

"You only thought you lived in the land of the free," screamed the ad, citing Bloomberg’s "latest diktat banning sweet drinks."

Actually, no, not sweet drinks. Sugary drinks. Bloomberg has no problem with vendors dispensing gallon-size tankards of diet drinks, or juice.

But doggone it, lots of Americans like the real thing: concentrated sugar. Try to buy a diet soda at a service station south of the Mason-Dixon line and you’ll have to search through the wall cooler.

And concentrated sugar, in huge, regular doses, can reasonably be considered a toxic product. At the very least, it’s a threat to public health. Like cigarettes. Or, yes, hard drugs.

Governments have not just the right, but also the duty to regulate such products, if for no other reason than to protect the rest of society from the costly excesses of a (growing) minority.

Put more simply, were I an American, I'd rather not help pay for Rush Limbaugh's bypass surgery, once he qualifies for Medicare.