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Holly Lindem; Shawn Thew/EPA/Corbis; Jeremy Traum

Understanding Obesity

I read Marc Ambinder’s “Beating Obesity” (May Atlantic) with interest and empathy, as I lost 50 pounds in the early 1970s and have struggled mightily (but successfully) to keep the weight off ever since. The article framed the issue of obesity as a public-health matter and also pointed out that obesity affects low-income Americans significantly more than others, which led me to wonder why the author did not at least mention the possibility of restricting what foods can be obtained with food stamps.

James R. Brown
Omaha, Neb.

I believe that if we decided to tax food that causes our citizens to become obese—and therefore unhealthy and costly to our health-care system—and instead subsidize locally grown organic fruits and vegetables, we could very well see an amazing about-face in our collective health. How about a fast-food tax? Considering that “billions and billions” are served, the revenue could potentially pay off the national debt—even as the measure saved billions more on reduced health-care costs, since fewer and fewer people would be attracted to fast food if it was not so cheap anymore.

Scott Durkee
Vashon Island, Wash.

Marc Ambinder’s exploration of obesity in America is wide-sweeping and intelligent. But parents are nowhere to be seen. The earlier that parental intervention occurs, the more successful it is in changing problematic eating in children or teens. While not everyone who is obese has a diagnosable eating disorder (only about 20 percent report binge eating), we shouldn’t overlook the possibility that parents can indeed help.

Parents of alcoholic and drug-addicted teenagers were left in the lurch until one too many teens died in a substance-related car crash. Now, thanks to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, parents can turn the page of a newspaper and be told what to say to their teen if they think there’s a problem with drugs or alcohol.

We now need organizations that train parents in both healthy eating and healthy parenting—parenting that involves that ever-nuanced balance between limit-setting and independence, particularly when it comes to eating.

Judith Brisman, Ph.D.
Director and Founder, Eating Disorder Resource Center
New York, N.Y.

Today marks the one-month anniversary of my own weight-loss surgery. Like Marc Ambinder, I finally found severe diabetes and the limited life of a morbidly obese person too much to bear. Although for too long I saw weight-loss surgery as “the easy way out,” I finally came to realize that the factors that led to my own lifelong struggle with obesity were more than I could wrestle down on my own.

What I would ask my fellow humans to think about is that the most painful aspect of obesity is not the life-risking diseases like diabetes, or the limits on life. For me, it is (I still have a lot of weight to lose) the judgment and scorn of other people. People who ridicule, or even try to harm, those of us who are overweight. People who see us as “less than” simply because of our size.

I hope this excellent article opens a few minds to the underlying issues. Obesity is not just a matter of indulgence, or even willpower. The genetic and environmental factors that lay the foundation are very strong. Consider the addictive nature of foods in our society, along with the stresses and strains of daily life that lead to emotional eating; these are powerful forces to reckon with.

Sandy Lurins
Santa Rosa, Calif.

Marc Ambinder replies:

It is heartening to read the stories of those who’ve beaten their obesity, and it is terribly sobering to realize that these stories are bound to be the exceptions unless policy stasis gives way to entrepreneurship and serious action.

Limiting what food people can buy with stamps would be paternalistic, shifting responsibility away from those who need to take more of it. It would penalize the food industry, certainly. The sad fact is that some de facto limitations restrict what food stamps can buy: many farmers’ markets won’t take them.

I’m skeptical of a food tax, which would disproportionately target the poor and vulnerable. Of course, even a slightly queasy solution is better than none at all, but the insidious nature of food addiction suggests that only politically unpalatable and excessively punitive taxes would make a dent. People accustomed to eating 3,000 calories a day are going to find 3,000 calories a day; even if they have access to nutritionists and exercise rooms, long-term weight reduction is just not a reality. That’s why the focus ought to be—has to be—on preventing people from reaching this stage.

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