THE OBESITY CONUNDRUM
Imagine a wild ecology in which a quarter or a third of the deer were obese. If you spotted a whitetail buck, round as Orson Welles, gorging on chokecherries, you probably wouldn't blame him—lazy ungulate, no willpower, eats too much sugar—you would probably ask what disruption in the environment had produced such odd behavior.
That's the question to ask about a national food ecology in which a third of Americans have become dangerously fat. In 1985, no states reported obesity levels over 15%. By 2001, 49 had rates over 15%. By 2010, all states did, and 12 had rates over 30%. Recently, levels appear to have leveled off.
One thing that appears to be shifting is the blame—away from the individual, toward the ecology.
"The way we address the obesity issue as a country has changed drastically," says Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "In the '80s, the emphasis was on individuals changing their own behavior. There was a new diet every month, and that was covered [in the media]." Now the focus is on how the food supply shapes eating behavior, on supersize-me portions, fatty-salty-sugary snacks, drive-through lanes, and school lunch programs.
Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, agrees. "Everybody thought back then that what people ate was their personal responsibility. ... Now everyone agrees that the personal environment has something to do with the way people make food choices."
What drives food choice in a complex food culture is complex. CDC epidemiologist Cynthia Ogden, an expert on the obesity numbers, doesn't blame any single culprit. "In presentations, I'll show data that show the availability of calories has increased. I'll show the changes in consumption of beverages among children, increases in eating out, increases in portion sizes, in snacking."
Availability of calories may be the loudest signal in the blizzard of clues. After the Depression, industrial farming pumped food into the system in unprecedented quantities. Prices dropped, and prosperity spread. Refining and processing concentrated the calories. Distribution of food profoundly changed, until food was everywhere.
Modern culture expects 24/7 calorie availability. I wondered, though, if obesity itself had simply become more acceptable? No, I was told repeatedly. "We probably do more work than anyone on the issue of bias and stigma," says Brownell. "There may be a greater number of obese people, but if you ask them how they feel, they would do anything not to be overweight."
Why, if obesity is so stigmatized, this national drift toward fatness? It's all those calories, brightly packaged: As a species, Homo americanus "is not that good at looking long term," says Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State and author of The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet. "We go for that immediate gratification—salt, sugar, fat, and attractive packaging."
(None of which is to say that food is the only cause of obesity. One intriguing researcher, David Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, cites everything from the stresses of coping with poverty, lack of sleep among kids, the raising of ambient temperatures in buildings, and disruption of natural mealtimes by schools.)
Some food activists who want to rebalance the ecology believe that regulation of the producers is key, just as the EPA regulates pollution: Tax or curtail the calorie-dense treats, stop advertising to children, and promote the whole-food, slower-digesting staples. Such was the spirit of Mayor Bloomberg's successful move to get supersized sodas out of the New York City food ecology: welcomed by some, received by critics as a nanny-state imposition on basic consumer freedom.
Food producers, of course, abhor and reject regulation—and most Americans do, too, if they're like the 60% of New Yorkers who opposed the soda ban in an August New York Times poll. Twenty thousand products have already been reformulated to be lower in fat, sugar, and salt, says Sean McBride, a senior spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents 300 leading food and beverage companies in America, and more will come at an accelerating pace due to the market demand.
Of the fans of regulation, McBride says: "These individuals, lobbyists, and policy makers may be well-intentioned, but so many of these things are not scientifically sound. I don't expect this to be a trend because bans, restrictions, and taxes are not viable solutions to solving childhood obesity."
One who agrees at least in part with McBride is John Mackey, the co-CEO of Whole Foods. Mackey's marketing and food values lean left, but his politics lean right, and he sees regulations as "steps toward tyranny." His prescription? "Education and consciousness."
It's a naive myth, Mackey says, to think that food sellers can argue with the consumer (though Whole Foods stores are brilliant examples of retail storytelling). "Whole Foods is far from perfect. We sell foods that aren't good for people, either, and we sell them because customers vote for these products. They aren't what I would eat [Mackey is a vegan], but I'm outvoted."
But if the consumer is always right, and not much interested in regulation, what will make him or her less inclined to overeat? Science has turned up no magic pill and, given the behavioral complexity of the problem, is unlikely to do so. This is why the role of food culture is so important: If it got us into this mess, then maybe an evolving food culture can get us out of it.