Paul Ryan: Obesity Savior?

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The congressman's budget plan might not be a good way to tackle the federal deficit, but his approach could help solve one of our biggest public health problems

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With historical deficits averaging 2.5 percent of GDP, the United States is now wrestling with budget shortfalls approaching four times that rate. To address this burden, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan proposed his Path to Prosperity, a polarizing program of budget cuts considered by Democrats and Republicans alike to be a draconian antidote to the nation's budgetary ills. 

Ryan's tough-love recommendations include:

  • Cap spending
  • Keep taxes low so the economy can grow; and
  • Reducing government spending to historical levels, below 20 percent of GDP.

Though geared to fiscal matters, Ryan's prescription could just as easily be applied to address America's obesity crisis.

In contrast to the attention paid by politicians to exploding federal deficit levels, there is no "Ryan Plan" to reverse excess calorie proliferation and stratospheric obesity rates. This is surprising given that the signals have been apparent for years.

The overabundance of calories in our food supply becomes evident when one considers that the number of calories available for Americans to consume is up 30 percent since 1970. Meaning that today there are over 600 more calories available per person per day than 40 years ago, as shown in the graph below.


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More importantly, we missed the "tipping point" on rising obesity rates. As the next graph demonstrates, the 1980s provided plenty of hints that something was amiss. And unlike the reaction to stimulus spending over the past three years, we still ache for an all-encompassing strategy to win the War on Obesity.


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Like the national budget deficit, excessive calorie consumption and exorbitant obesity rates are unsustainable. Obesity now costs over $200 billion annually in the United States alone and takes a heavy toll on health in the form of diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and cancer.

Ryan's approach might not work in the political sphere, but taking a lesson from Ryan, what went up must now come down. Just as rising deficits must be brought under control, so must superabundant calories be contained. We are 69 trillion calories "over budget" since 1970. This is too big a "deficit" to tackle all at once, but a Ryan-type approach could be deployed to purge the excess calories from the system.

Using the congressman's template, the path to prosperity on obesity can be outlined in three simple steps:

1. Cap the calories. It's time to lower the number of calories sold to each consumer. Companies are already starting to shift their product portfolios to lower-calorie versions and several, like the soft drink marketers, have already demonstrated that this can be accomplished without impairing profits.

2. Keep taxes low to promote product R&D. Proposals such as soda or "fat" taxes only serve to raise revenues for government treasuries and have not been proven to lower obesity rates. Higher taxes reduce revenues and steal dollars earmarked for developing lower-calorie, better-for-you products that meet emerging consumer demands.

3. Reduce per capita calorie levels to historical levels. This goal is the most difficult to achieve and requires the toughest love. While companies involved with the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation have made a positive pledge to reduce calories by 1.5 trillion in five years, there's a long way to go to revert back to "pre-obesity" 1970 levels. Pulling out 69 trillion calories will take a Herculean effort. It's imperative that we consider incentives to entice food marketers to accelerate their reduction in calories sold.

Congressman Ryan may or may not win the Budget War, but his ideas applied to obesity might serve as his real legacy.

Image: Jason Reed/Reuters

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Hank Cardello is the author of Stuffed. He is a former executive with Coca-Cola, General Mills, Nabisco, and Cadbury-Schweppes, and now serves as senior fellow and director of the Obesity Solutions Initiative at the Hudson Institute. More

Hank Cardello is the author of Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's (Really) Making America Fat. He is a former food industry executive with Coca-Cola, General Mills, Nabisco, and Cadbury-Schweppes, and now serves as senior fellow and director of the Obesity Solutions Initiative at the Hudson Institute.

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