Celeste Headlee, The Takeaway
Celeste Headlee, is a former co-host of The Takeaway.
America is fat. Skinny people are now the minority and even those of us who are not obese could stand to lose a few pounds. Here are the statistics that are scaring public health officials: More than one-third of American adults and about 12.5 million kids younger than 19 are obese. Obesity can lead to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and even some forms of cancer. And fat is very expensive: In 2008, medical costs related to obesity were about $147 billion; and medical costs paid by insurers were about $1,429 higher for the obese than for normal weight people.
This is not a new problem; Americans have been gaining weight for years. There's been great reporting on the issue and there are endless warnings from doctors, so why aren't we scared skinny? For some, this is a micro-sociological problem. Food deserts, especially in urban areas, mean low-income people can't get fresh vegetables and fruit and are reduced to picking up hot dogs and chips from the closest 7-Eleven. And there's plenty of blame for the food industry as well. They pump fat, salt, and sugar into our burgers and even our grilled chicken hoping to entice us to eat even when we're not hungry. They even process the meat, pounding out the tough fibers, making it easier to chew so we'll eat it quickly and buy more before we realize that we're full. All of this is true, by the way, there's no disputing the excellent research that's been done in recent years.
But this is not the tobacco scandal — no one is going to win a multimillion dollar settlement against the Cheesecake Factory claiming they didn't know the 2,500 calorie Pasta Carbonara was unhealthy. When you eat a supersize burger and fries, you know you're not eating well, and you know that making that choice on a regular basis will have detrimental effects on your health. And yet, we still make the choices that our children make — dessert before dinner, dessert as dinner. Some people will go for days on end without consuming a single serving of fresh vegetables, though not because the veggies weren't available.
So here is the dilemma: We know the food is bad and we know bad food can eventually kill us — but we still choose the bad food over good. That's what makes the obesity epidemic so much harder to solve than polio. There's no vaccine against obesity. And there is no final cure; a patient who loses a hundred pounds after lap band surgery could gain it all back years later. The prescription for treatment isn't a pill but a nutrition plan. And you don't take it once a day with food, you have to make the right decision 20 times a day about food.
I realize this is an odd thing for a journalist to say, but the solution is not more information. We have all the information we need. We know french fries make us fat, we know the serving size for Oreos is two cookies, not 12. We also know that sitting at our desks all day, then going home and sitting in front of the television all evening isn't healthy. We do it anyway. We eat the Big Mac in spite of what we know, or suspect, about its ingredients.
The problem, dear neighbor, is not in the stars, but in ourselves. And that means we also have the solution.