Beating Obesity: Responding to Readers

Here's a representative selection of e-mails and comments I've seen about Beating Obesity, my May feature for the Atlantic. I've attached some of my own thoughts to each.

Prior to joining the campaign I ate healthy and exercised regularly. I consistently turned down cheap, easy and unhealthy food options, and went to the gym despite the long hours I worked at my law firm. When I joined the campaign, I stopped exercising, and stopped eating healthy for a year. Didnt lift a weight. Didnt run. Almost went out of my way to indulge in bad food and behavior. Now this seems easy enough to explain: the Obama campaign required me to work even longer hours and my access to unhealthy foods was even higher. I had no money. Moreover, all my fellow staffers, ate all the free food they could and we got quite a bit of exercise knocking doors or just traveling all over our communities. I do find it interesting that the same person (me) who people considered so disciplined in eating and exercise was so undisciplined when given the chance. Was I rebelling against my prior restraint?

Even more interesting, from a day to day standpoint, individuals deal with choosing between eating healthy or poorly, exercising or not. When I'm tired or hungover I'll eat poorly and not exercise. The next day, well-rested, and disappointed in my eating habits the day before, I'll be in the gym, eating healthy, and turning down free bad food or a chance to do something fun over go to the gym. Psychologically, the chemicals in my brain are pushing me towards certain behavior one day and the opposite the next. This isn't surprising to me, as I acknowledge chemical addictions and behavior affect us all, but I think it's the secret to uncovering how to really attack the obesity problem. 

There are several types of variation within individuals, right? First, our genes help determine our metabolism, how we process sugars, how our brains respond to environmental cues and triggers. Overlay that how we're nurtured and the social environment within which we're raised. Then there's the source of variation that arises from our life choices, and is much more closely linked to the notion of "willpower."  Obviously, there's also the variation that arises from external events. All of these layers interact with each other and play off each other in incredibly complex ways. It's important, from my point of view, to distinguish between a rational reaction to circumstances -- working on a presidential campaign -- and the deep structural forces that we can't control and aren't usually even aware of.  Obviously, individuals differ, and for people who aren't overweight, it easy to assume that the same "willpower" that allows you to consciously lose ten pounds to fit into a wedding dress can be cross-applied to people who are fat or obese. But that's not the case.

I would like to see something done with the amount of healthy and usable food that is wasted in this country. I have seen both in the agricultural, and retail side of food waste and its horrible. Every day our country literally throws away perfectly usable food simply because it doesn't "sell" or it doesn't "sell enough." (I'm not talking about out of date food either.) Instead of claiming a total loss, it would be nice if a way was found to get this to the poorer areas of our country for use in food banks and charity organizations. Take for example the strawberry tragedy in Florida. There is absolutely no reason why those crops couldn't have been picked up by our government and distributed. Just a thought.
It's true and sad: we've got plenty of food, plenty of people who are hungry, and plenty of people who need better food -- and we have no real structure in place to efficiently distribute good food to where it needs to go. I fear there's a limit to what government can and should do  here: consumer choice and preference will always dictate the logic of the food distribution system unless we put the government in the food-making business, which we shouldn't do. Still, there ought to be a way to encourage, through incentives, such transfers.

Yes, the abundance of cheap fatty foods is a root cause. But another, and possibly equally important cause of the obesity epidemic is how our society functions. We are a CAR based society through and through. Unless you live in the few largely walkable cities such as New York and San Fransicso, a car is an absolute necessity for daily life. 

Because of this car reliance the average daily life of an American goes something like this: Wake up, SIT DOWN and eat breakfast, walk 5 steps to your car, SIT DOWN in it and drive to work, walk 15-30 paces to your office, SIT DOWN for 8 hours, walk 15-30 paces to your car, SIT DOWN and drive home, walk 5 steps, SIT DOWN to eat dinner and watch television for the next 5-6 hours. 

That was pretty much what my life was like as a teenager in the suburbs. Now that I live in NYC, I walk everywhere. I probably walk several miles a day. And because I live in a small Manhattan apartment, I tend to stay active by going out frequently thus again walking and being generally active.

Now I have always been thin, but I think if our society was more clustered and based more on mass transit/walking our Obesity levels would be more in line with that of Europe's. This side of the argument really I think explains why Europe, despite similar access to cheap fatty foods is less Obese. Their societies are based much more on mass transit and rail which requires more walking and thus a more active lifestyle.

Europe isn't doing too well in regards to obesity, either. I think you're right (and I address it, briefly, in the piece) that mass transit and changes in the way we work and live have contributed to the epidemic, but the people most vulnerable to becoming obese don't really have the social capital to do what you recommend -- their neighborhood might be unsafe; they might be working two jobs; they might be kids who don't have parents to supervise them.

"The solution is not about replacing corn subsidies, it's about adding tomato subsidies. But they'd rather demonize."

Gee, the food market is distorted. Let's distort it more.

Well, if you're going to distort it, try to distort it in a way that benefits the most vulnerable. Ideally, we wouldn't subsidies corn or tomatoes.

The only issue I have with bariatric surgery is that the few friends I have who have undergone the procedure have lost weight, but their diets continue to be disgusting. In other words, they eat a very small amount of food, but the kind of food that they eat is 3 jalapeno poppers or 5 pizza rolls or half a cup of nacho cheese (I'm not kidding). It's like because they can't eat a ton, they feel empowered to eat literally whatever they want. And because they keep shedding pounds, they don't care what the actual nutritional value of the food is that goes into their body. I shudder to think what their blood work looks like as they move forward.
If you don't change the type of foods you eat, you'll gain back some of the weight, and you'll increase the risk of developing (or re-developing) diabetes. This is something that my doctor drills into my head. In general, my tastes HAVE changed since the surgery. I don't crave sugary, fatty foods. I just don't. I don't really know why.  

The food marketers should be ashamed? Psychological deception? Please-when you say things like that, you lose all credibility. You make these people sound like villains with superpowers or war mongers that prey upon helpless victims. How about the parents who buy junk food for their kids? Parents need to take responsibility and do their job of keeping their kids healthy. Market to kids all you want, but they are not the ones doing the buying. Further, I bet many grocers would be happy to carry healthy foods over junk food but can't because the consumers want junk. I am ashamed that our country has become one of finger pointers and blame shifters instead of do-ers who take responsibility.

This is a restatement of the problem. I don't really care who gets blamed; I am concerned about the people who don't have any say in the matter. it DOES matter to me, and I think it should matter to you, that young kids make no choices and don't choose their parents and become obese. There's no question that parents play a vital role here, but we (the government, industry) haven't done nearly enough to help parents make those choices.