The Two Sides of Responsibility

The Two Sides of Responsibility
Listen to Glenn Beck ("Get away from my french fries, Mrs. Obama,” he’s reported to have said at an event in Illinois in September) or the lobbyists at the Center for Consumer Choice and you might come away thinking that the obesity epidemic in America is only a political issue: Nanny-state politicians vs. just plain folk.
 
But it’s not nearly that simple.
 
Certainly, individual freedom is a key and enduring American value, and I thank God for mine. But in this case, such declarations sidestep what is clearly the public health threat of our time, obesity. Two of every three American adults, and one out of every three American children, are overweight or obese. 
 
Wilson cites the recent ballyhooed experiment by Mark Haub, a Kansas State professor, who ate only junk food during a recent stretch and lost weight. He is reported to have achieved this by limiting his calories to 1,800, and exercising 40 to 60 minutes, daily. Haub’s point is that substances have no role in obesity, that it is simply a matter of calories in, calories out.
 
Again, it is not nearly that simple. Just because Haub says he was able to act thusly does not mean that everyone can. A mountain of scientific evidence shows that not all food substances affect all eaters the same way. (See the database of more than 2,700 research citations on the biochemistry of food dependence at foodaddiction.com.)
 
J. Justin Wilson of CCF wants us to believe that there are no “good” or “bad” foods, but that just strains common sense. What are you, or people you know, more likely to overeat, ice cream or iceberg lettuce?  Onion rings or onions? Apple pie or apples? Clearly, substance plays a role.
 
Why, then, would Wilson argue otherwise? Perhaps because his employer, the intentionally misnomered Center for Consumer Freedom, is actually a trade group for food manufacturers and restaurants. Such companies depend on selling more food to make more profit. We know, from Dr. David Kessler’s groundbreaking book, “The End of Overeating,” that food manufacturers stuff more fat, salt, and sugar into food products because they know that those substances drive overeating. 
 
This is precisely what tobacco manufacturers did to cigarettes, tarting them up with the most addictive substances so that consumers would buy more, while denying that cigarettes were harmful at all. Rightly, we think poorly of tobacco companies for this deceit, while food manufacturers do the same.
 
Wilson says that “personal responsibility is anathema to the cadre of public-health busybodies,” while working relentlessly to ensure that his industry avoids any responsibility at all for the obesity epidemic, even while its engineers formulate food products that people will eat in ever-increasing portions, regardless of how consumers — or our national health — are affected. 
 
I do agree, passionately, with the call to personal responsibility. Until 20 years ago, I was obese in the extreme, and no one but me put the food in my mouth that got me to be, at my worst, 365 pounds. I’d lost more than 130 pounds three times before reaching that high point on the scale — and low point in life — but had gained it all back, again. But now I’ve been in a normal-sized body for almost 20 years.
 
Why did I eat so much when others didn’t? The answers are complicated — more complicated than folks like Haub and Wilson would ever say, or perhaps even understand — but part of the reason was the ubiquity and relative inexpensiveness of highly processed, highly palatable foods, which I reacted to differently, biochemically, than “normal” eaters.  
 
When I stopped eating foods like that, my cravings receded, my mind cleared, and I was better able to address that emotional and spiritual deficits that led me to eat. I was never able to see the value of personal responsibility, or to exercise it, until I got lots of support — from professionals and from those who’d struggled similarly but were overcoming. 
 
What I didn’t need — what made it worse — was some guy spouting about how it was all my fault, even while he and his cronies were trying to make sure I just kept bellying up to their trough.
 
Michael Prager, the author of “Fat Boy Thin Man,” blogs about food politics at michaelprager.com.