Government Role in Obesity: Helpful or Hurtful?

Is the US government doing more harm than good when it comes to guiding the American people's nutrition practices, or is the government focusing on the wrong interventions and muddling the message?

img l3o4vqlc7aua0qvj5rj0

The government’s role in obesity should be straightforward. Agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report obesity statistics, the United States Department of Agriculture issues nutritional guidelines and offers practical guidance to consumers on how to put together a healthy plate and balance caloric intake. Even first lady Michelle Obama is involved in shaping how American school children eat.

With all the interventions, statistical analyses, recommendations, and regulations, you might assume that the obesity rates in America have fallen steadily over the years.

To the contrary, obesity rates have increased exponentially between 1970 and 2013. Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that more adults are obese, meaning they have a BMI of at least 30, than are simply overweight, with a BMI between 25.0 and 29.9. This increase is concerning because obesity is associated with numerous health problems from heart disease to some cancers.

Clearly the current government practices and recommendations are not positively impacting the war on obesity. However, even though there are more interventions and regulations now than in the past, I do not believe the government has caused our current obesity crisis. Instead, the government’s role is ill defined, the message is muddled, and the message of healthy eating is not being heard or supported on a local level.  

Does this mean that the government is doing more harm than good or is the government focusing on the wrong interventions and muddling the message?

In examining this topic, I discovered that when the government issues official recommendations, whole industries respond.

Food manufacturers change packaging to show consumers that their foods contain the latest recommended ingredient, marketing companies respond by featuring one food over another, and previously recommended foods such as bread, are suddenly shunned.

The government’s official nutrition guidelines, called the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, are revised every five years. Over the years the guidelines have become more detailed and foods rise and fall in popularity. For example, the 2015 guidelines will recommend Americans eat fewer meat products and more vegetables. Older guidelines recommended consuming a higher percentage of carbohydrates than the current guidelines recommend.

The shifting nutritional guidelines make it difficult for consumers to know for certain what foods to consume and what foods to avoid. If indeed, consumers read the guidelines at all. I asked a group of my friends if they knew the government issued nutritional guidelines every five years and of 12 people, not a single one did. And not one knew what agency issued them or what the guidelines were called.

From the mid-1950s to the early 1990s, the government simply broke down foods into four groups: Cereals and Breads, Meat, Vegetables and Fruits, and Milk. Oils, sauces, and jellies were classified as “other.”

The obesity rates were under 15 percent in all reporting states during the mid to late 1980s, according to information from the CDC.

In 1992, with the introduction of the food pyramid and later the food plate called MyPlate, the obesity rates began to climb and have not slowed down.

Some Americans are understandably confused as to what foods are actually good for health and what foods can help with weight control. In speaking at conventions, counseling clients on food choices, and responding to questions via email, I have spoken to hundreds of people struggling with their weight.

In many cases, there is a high level of confusion on what foods should be eaten and what foods should be avoided. I can see where the confusion comes from. The government currently recommends 8 ounces of grains each day but a popular diet, the Paleo diet, shuns grains completely.

Who is the consumer to believe?

A poll conducted by the The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Research in 2012 found that most Americans feel that more governmental intervention in the form of regulations and taxes is not necessary. The infamous attempt by Governor Michael Bloomberg to regulate drink sizes in New York backfired and obesity rates did not budge.

Although the government recommendations are clearly not impacting obesity rates, are they in fact hurting the fight against obesity? I would have to say no. Even though the shifting nutritional guidelines are confusing, the bottom line is that the government cannot regulate individual choice even if they so desire.  

Well, unless you believe that the total governmental control scenarios painted in George Orwell’s famous book “1984” could come to pass. In that book, the government controlled every aspect of a person’s life including their food choices. Since that is unlikely to ever happen, individuals are ultimately responsible for their food choices.

Where the government can help is in providing tax incentives to grocery stores that open in areas that are primarily populated by lower income people without access to transportation or healthy food options. The government calls these areas “food deserts,” and in places where access to healthy food is limited, obesity rates are higher. (USA.gov)

Education is another way the government can use its resources to reverse the tide of obesity. When people truly understand the impact their food choices have on their health and their weight, they have more of an incentive to make different choices.

For example, I was speaking at an event in Pennsylvania one afternoon and after I finished a woman stood up and told me that no one had ever really explained why fast food and frozen dinners were not good for her family. Later that day I ran into her at one of the booths and she again thanked me for my talk. She was a well-educated woman who honestly did not understand the impact food has on health. She just fed her family whatever was easy and tasted good to them without considering the nutritional value.

She is not alone.

Education programs in schools, through community centers, at farmer’s markets, and during community wide events could make a difference in obesity rates. Your tax dollars are much better spent educating people in small groups or one-on-one than spending millions of dollars on nutritional guidelines that are sometimes influenced by lobbyists and special interest groups. (FoodPolitics)

A third way the government can use its vast resources to help the obesity crisis is to offer incentives to farmers who make their produce available to local customers at farmer’s markets, roadside stands, or donate food to community outreach centers.  Local food growers can be paid to go into neighborhoods and establish community gardens and pass on their knowledge of gardening and healthy eating.

The government has not caused the obesity crisis and cannot fix it. However, governmental resources can be used in a smart, deliberate way to educate the public, encourage grocery stores to open shop in “food desert” areas, and give incentives to farmers who sell or donate their produce locally.

Those strategies, in combination with individual accountability, can finally put America on a path back to the time when the majority of Americans lived their lives at a healthy weight.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR