Monday, February 19, 2007

Time to replace "E Plurubus Unum" with "Oink Oink"

Most Americans are overweight. Whenever I venture out of the house and walk the streets or the malls of Sacramento (or teach at my school), I see fat people all over the place. When I was in the Army, I was stationed in Germany and Macedonia for two years back in 1990s. In both those countries, I never saw anywhere near the abundance of obesity that I see in this country, and that includes beer-swilling, schnitzel-loving Germany. This observation was further confirmed when my wife and I took a weeks-long vacation to France and Italy in 2003. In Europe, you just don't see as many lumbering, gasping, overweight people that are so ubiquitous in the States. Why?

I read an article this weekend in the Scene section of the Saturday (2/17/07) Sacramento Bee. The article was written by a Doctor Michael Wilkes from U.C. Davis, who was giving his opinions about what to do about our obesity problem. Some of his recommendations were rather silly and, dare I say, totalitarian; others I partially or wholly agreed with. Before I get to his recommendations about how to limit obesity in the United States, here is his partial explanation of why the problem exists here and not so much elsewhere:
Experts point out that the French and Japanese are far slimmer than their American counterparts, despite nearly identical levels of physical activity. When the Japanese or French move to the United States, they gain weight. The smoking gun is clearly the American diet, based on high-calorie, high-fat, low-fiber foods.
He is partially right; the American diet is indeed high-calorie and high-fat, but so is the French diet. Have you ever checked the fat content of escargot slathered in butter? How about the chocolate croissant and the quiche lorraine that I consumed in the boulangerie across the street from our Paris hotel? No, the big difference between American food and the rest of the world is not so much what is in our food, but how much of it we eat. At the French restaurants in which my wife and I dined, the size of the entree portions was just enough to leave me satisfied, but not full, and I still wanted more when I finished. When I ordered a Coke, the server would bring out a small bottle of Coke. Once I drank it, that was it; if I wanted another one, I would have to pay full price for another one. Then there are the restaurants in the U.S. Have you ever been to a Claim Jumper restaurant? The food is to die for, but your entree is enough to feed at least three people. The Cheescake Factory is in the same category. And when you order a soft drink in most American restaurants, they bring you out a large glass of it, and you can have unlimited refills. Have you ever seen how many empty calories there are in a soft drink? And don't even get me started on those 44-ounce Big Gulps in the mini-marts out there.

Please don't think I am on a high and mighty horse, here. Do I partake of these huge-portion restaurants and their unlimited refills on soft drinks? Not all the time, but you bet I do! Do I need to lose about 20 pounds? Notwithstanding the picture on my profile of me golfing and showing off my svelte physique, it wouldn't hurt for me to drop from my current 220ish to around 200. But if I ever choose to change my eating habits and my nutrition lifestyle (and my wife and I have already started), it will be on my terms because I wanted to make the change. Here is where I differ with Dr. Wilkes. Many of his recommendations begin with the premise that I am too much of a dummy to understand how to eat right, and it is up to the government to save me from myself. He says,
Unfortunately, the U.S. government is not very good at implementing aggressive, comprehensive interventions to address major social problems... it will require the government to admit it has a responsibility to help and create programs that do not require great effort by the public, with built-in incentives for businesses, schools, and individuals to do the right thing. It will require mandatory actions, because voluntary actions are not working.
Ahh! Spoken like a true totalitarian: If you can't persuade people to do what you would like them to do, then use the power of government to force them. Here are his recommendations that fall into the "goose-stepper" category:
  1. Ban advertising of junk food on TV and radio, and in movie theaters.
  2. Place a tax on junk food, and use the revenue to fund fitness programs for children and to reduce the cost of nutruitious foods such as fruits.
  3. Require health-insurance companies to provide weight-loss programs that have proved effective, and perhaps give people an incentive to participate.
  4. Require new housing units, particularly those in poorer areas, to have open space, fitness centers, and bike lanes.
  5. Require 50 percent of all food sold in vending machines to be high in fiber and nutritious.
  6. Provide tax incentives for businesses that offer meaningful, effective fitness and dietary programs for all employees.
Every one of those recommendations involves the choice of the individual being required to give way to the compulsion of government. Ban advertising? First Amendment anyone? Tax on junk food to fund fitness programs? Yeah, that worked well with cigarettes; when the taxes caused fewer people to buy cigarettes, the government started giving subsidies to failing tobacco farmers! Require health insurance companies to provide weight-loss programs? What if I am in perfectly good health and I don't want my premiums raised for a program I don't need? Housing units with open space and fitness centers? All that will do is raise the price of housing in "poorer areas" and keep more poor out of houses in the first place. Fifty percent of vending machine food must be nutritious? What if it doesn't turn a profit? Is the government going to reimburse the vendor for the lost profits he has to eat... so to speak? Tax incentives for businesses that offer fitness programs for employees? How much longer is the government going to further gum up the 30,000-pages-and-counting U.S. Tax Code in an effort to manipulate human behavior?

Bottom line? Dr. Wilkes is just another utopian busybody who - though he apparently doesn't realize it - wants the government to point guns at people and force them to help obese people to get in shape. It's a losing proposition from the get-go. Not to mention, the last time I checked, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution says nothing about Congress being given the power to make people eat right and exercise. I don't think those 55 men who met in Independence Hall during the summer of 1787 envisioned a Federal Government that would become a demonic Richard Simmons.

Good Day to You, Sir


George said...

Mandate anything of people and you receive, at best, mediocrity.

The problem is a lack of self-control, not portion control.

It does not help that we have fashioned our entire society around the automobile.

Back to teaching the non-volunteer student body.

t said...

Have you heard that soon you may see your food's calorie content listed on your restaurant’s menu? Personally, if I go out to eat I don't think it will make much of a difference if I know exactly how many calories I am taking in. If I want to have chicken fettuccini then that is what I will choose. Regardless of the calories listed.

I watched a program the other night on TLC about 4 morbidly obese people and how they became that way. And I am talking extremely overweight people. One man weighed over 800 pounds. Although he knew that the fried, fatty foods he enjoyed so much were literally killing him, he still chose to eat what he enjoyed. I believe his calorie intake for a DAY was somewhere around 18-20,000, maybe more. Granted, people this large are usually addicted to the food they love, but do you really think having a bike path or a treadmill in his apartment building in Harlem will entice him to eat better and get in shape? I don't even think a gun to the head could do that.

I think it all starts at home. If you are taught at a young age what to eat, and the proportionally correct size of that food, then you will carry that into your adulthood. In my opinion, size proportion, not actual ingredients, is what people should pay more attention to. When you’re full, put the fork down. Usually at a restaurant, where I can’t choose the amount of food given to me, I throw some sort of trash on my plate just to keep myself from “nibbling”. After all, who wants to eat around used Equal packets???

By the way, could you imagine being the weight you were in college? You were, what, about 180? Skiiiinny!

Chanman said...

Actually, I was around 165 (!!!). When I was doing track and cross country, practice was usually about about 4 or 5 hours long, and I burned so many calories, I couldn't eat enough food in the cafeteria. I literally had to eat all the time just to keep UP my weight. Genetics finally caught up with me, and developed the muscled bulk of my dad's side of the family, but of course, it isn't all muscle. I do need to lose that 20 lbs. I do have to say - and my wife agrees with me - that I look a lot better now at over 200 lbs. than I did in college when I was 165. I see pictures of me back then and I look gaunt and scrawny.

t said...

I think we all looked "gaunt and skinny" back then compared to now. I sure did.

You forgot to mention the fact that in between track meets, you were drinking just a tad. You so crazy!

Are you sure it was 165? Seemed a little more to me. :)