“A plentiful food supply with abundant choices of relatively cheap, calorie-dense food products that are convenient and taste good.” If this phrase conjures up images of fresh fruit, fish, and coconuts, think again.
It refers to an American diet that includes many calorie-packed convenience foods, soft drinks and snacks, but in the clean language of the New Plan for Obesity Research from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). This plentiful supply, it tells us, is “attributable to the current ‘obesogenic’ environment that promotes increased caloric intake”.
Such vernacular language fits a consistent trend in the Bush administration’s so-called anti-obesity policies: to tiptoe a hamburger to call it a hamburger, and explicitly say that many foods marketed to the public Substances are the single biggest cause of the obesity epidemic.
If the government or the NIH tells people to eat less, what should they say less, and there will be trouble with the mighty food industry. The administration’s new anti-obesity strategy (see page 244) is a series of half-hearted measures, with lessons on how to prepare, eat better and exercise more as individual freedom and choice. It clearly shy away from committing the government to regulate the food industry.
Personal preference is not working (see page 252). Obesity is spiraling out of control with 130 million Americans, or 64%, overweight or obese. They are desperate for help, spending $37.1 billion a year on diet books and offers of immediate treatment. Strict government intervention is needed on mandatory calorie labels and junk-food marketing.
“We’re too fat, ladies and gentlemen, and we’re going to do something about it,” Tommy Thompson, head of the US Department of Health and Human Services, told a press conference last week to launch the new strategy. “We need to tackle America’s weight issues as aggressively as we are addressing smoking and tobacco.”
Fighting Talk contrasts with its department’s efforts to undermine the World Health Organization’s Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, which highlights the food industry’s role in reducing obesity.
Americans deserve better. The medical and other costs of obesity in the United States exceed $117 billion annually. Obesity overtaking tobacco as the main preventable cause of death is an issue of national importance.
Scientists and others need to make their voices heard now, and to stop tiptoeing around the elephant in the obesity debate to explicitly tell candidates in the upcoming US presidential election.