Fat Chance

There’s more to the story of America’s obesity problem than lack of exercise.

I recently viewed a link on the Dead Pelican containing a letter from Congressman Rodney Alexander which deplored the selection of Louisiana’s Fifth Congressional District as the most obese in the nation. Congressman Alexander referred to Michelle Obama’s anti obesity campaign and implored the usual litany of arguments to motivate his constituents to get more exercise so they could enjoy healthy lives. All worthwhile points to be taken seriously, but I got to wondering if there might be more to the story of obesity than a mere lack of exercise.

Of course, common sense dictates that if you take in more calories than you consume, you will gain weight. Also, those who are obese face more health problems of greater severity. So, knowing all of this, why don’t we do a better job of staying healthy? Louisiana is noted for its excellent food, and one’s first thought may be that this goes a long way toward explaining its obesity problem. However, much of Louisiana cuisine consists of healthy Gulf seafood that’s naturally low in calories and is exactly the stuff we’re told we should be eating.

The answer to our obesity problem is much more complicated than the get-more-exercise sound bite we’re constantly bombarded with, and lies more in the realm of economics than nutrition. Stay with me here. First, we know that eating higher calorie foods require more exercise to burn off the extra calories. Second, we don’t seem to be willing to engage in the extra exercise necessary to burn the extra calories. So, why don’t we just eat foods than are lower in calories so we can avoid the extra exercise needed to burn the extra calories?

The answer lies in the fact that America has made the worst food the most affordable. Think about this. When you consider your lunch options each day, price becomes a determining factor and tends to limit your choices to the fast-food chains. These fast-food chains cater to consumer taste with some of the unhealthiest fare available in terms of calories, but they are also some of the least expensive choices.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not against fast-food and I’m not against their menus. I believe they have the right to exist and serve what they want, and that it is up to the individual to determine his own menu decisions for healthy living. This is America and freedom should trump just about everything. I don’t want anyone telling me what to eat or limiting my choices.

The point I’m trying to make is that our society has made the worst food the most affordable, and then frowned upon our decision to partake of this food. Economics posits that consumers will seek the best economic decisions for their particular circumstances, and in the case of affordable lunch, they have. It may not be the best long-term decision, but it is the best short-term economic decision. A consumer facing the choice of $3 or $4 for lunch off the dollar menu at McDonald’s or $10 to $15 for a healthier lunch is probably going to choose the former over the later. Especially considering he eats five lunches over the week, his paycheck has remained stagnant over the last few years, inflation is consuming more of his take-home pay despite what the government tells us, and the value of the dollar has continued to fall, again despite what the government has been telling us. Given these conditions, it’s hardly surprising that he chooses cheap, unhealthy food for lunch. Guess what? He’s also going to take the family out to the same place for their meal out because it’s more affordable and he has to stretch the paycheck even further.

Our consumer rationalizes his choice by promising himself that he will get more exercise in the future, but never seems to get around to it. He may even order a salad in an attempt to eat better without realizing that many of the prepared salads are worse than the burger and fries options when it comes to calories. One thing I learned working in a hospital was that healthy eating is much more expensive than unhealthy eating. It takes a commitment that is hard to make given our current economic conditions. It requires a level of financial and creative effort that many are not able or willing to make. You have to search out healthier recipes, buy healthier ingredients, and spend extra time cooking. The alternative is to spend extra time working out in the gym, but we’ve not shown an inclination for this course.

As with most things in life, there is rarely a simple answer that solves the problem. It’s usually a combination of factors that require careful adjustment to positively effect a solution. Perhaps our government scolds could pass legislation than favors a healthier economy by shoring up the value of the dollar. This would go a long way towards making healthier food more affordable at lunch. When we feel less wealthy, we seek out cheaper solutions. Getting our economy back in healthy shape would go a long way toward getting us back in healthier shape.

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