Fat: USA Obesity Page 2

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“If we can get even a small number of obese people to lose weight, it might have a ripple effect, and we could contribute to reversing the obesity epidemic,” Fowler says.

A Truly Frightening Halloween In Our Future?
10/30/2014
Fred Smith
For many of us, Halloween brings back many fond memories. We recall the joy of trekking door to door, lugging our candy-laden bags throughout our neighborhood with our parents, and then getting home to sort out our loot and dig in over the next week or so. But now “public health” activists seem determined to truly frighten our children by taking away that annual ritual. I call them the Food Police. Were they to achieve their goals, as described in a Washington Post Magazine article this week, Halloween candy may give way to carrots and celery. Poor kids!
Give kids more credit. Just because they eat a bag of M&Ms; on Halloween doesn’t mean they’ll grow up to eat a box of Godiva chocolates every night. But for Food Police groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “public health” campaigns are really about control.
Having vanquished tobacco, the Food Police have broadened their sights to target an array of foods they consider to have excessive calories, fats, salt, or sugar. They seem truly alarmed that some enjoyable foods—like fat-rimmed pork chops, richly buttered biscuits, double dip ice cream cones—have become too easily available to too many people. But shouldn’t we applaud the progress that availability signals?
It was that progress that allowed our long-ago ancestors to upgrade their subsistence hunter-gatherer diets with once rare sweet, salty, and fatty foods. And it was improvements in food production since the Industrial and Green Revolutions have made it possible for billions to eat more enjoyable foods at lower cost. As a result we’re living longer, happier lives.
But the model for making our lives a little less sweet is a powerful one. Public health activists have long advocated for their concept of a healthy lifestyle no matter how much it restricts our freedom to enjoy the pleasures prosperity has made possible. And now their tactics have become subtler and more sophisticated.
Their initial target was tobacco. Then at least, they had the plausible rationale that cigarette smoking entailed significant health risks. But as cigarette use declined, they weren’t content to declare success. Rather, they pushed for ever stricter restrictions on smoking in “public” places, based on far weaker scientific evidence about the risks of secondhand smoke. Some cities have even imposed smoking bans on sidewalks and parks—and some would extend such bans to the home. And when innovations like e-cigarettes and vaporizers eliminated the nuisance aspect of “smoking” and helped some longtime smokers to quit, those same advocates have moved to ban them also! From health arguments, it’s a short step to Puritanical suppression.
At first, candy might seem safe from such attacks, but the experience with sugary soft drinks suggests otherwise. Public health advocates, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg chief among them, worked long and hard to restrict the sizes in which restaurants could sell soda, with some success. Candy is clearly the anti-sugar advocates’ next target, and the battle plans are similar: First claim you are doing it for the children by banning candy sales in the schools, and expand those restrictions to encompass everybody else.
The arguments are simple: We’re eating more sugar and that’s bad. Thus, their efforts to “nudge,” “encourage,” and “educate”—in other words, hector—us into accepting their version of a healthy lifestyle. First Lady Michelle Obama’s fitness campaign against tasty school lunches is a case in point.
Unfortunately, like the tobacco and soft drink firms, candy manufacturers have seemed slow to buck up the moral courage to defend themselves. As the economist Joseph Schumpeter noted long ago, businessmen, when attacked, often hire others to talk for them but rarely defend themselves on moral and ethical grounds. Rather than educate their critics, he noted, they allow themselves to be “educated” by them, merely slowing their own destruction rather than really fighting back.
But we as consumers can fight back by exercising our free choice. So this Halloween, make sure your children fill up their goody bags—while warning them against overindulging, of course—and enjoy the holiday while they can. If the Food Police get their way in some future Halloween, kids engaged in trick-or-treating might be confronted with the command, “Put down the candy corn and step away from that Milky Way!”


The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease
Are butter, cheese and steak really bad for you? The dubious science behind the anti-fat crusade
May 6, 2014
By NINA TEICHOLZ
“Saturated fat does not cause heart disease”—or so concluded a big study published in March in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. How could this be? The very cornerstone of dietary advice for generations has been that the saturated fats in butter, cheese and red meat should be avoided because they clog our arteries. For many diet-conscious Americans, it is simply second nature to opt for chicken over sirloin, canola oil over butter.
The new study’s conclusion shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with modern nutritional science, however. The fact is, there has never been solid evidence for the idea that these fats cause disease. We only believe this to be the case because nutrition policy has been derailed over the past half-century by a mixture of personal ambition, bad science, politics and bias.
Our distrust of saturated fat can be traced back to the 1950s, to a man named Ancel Benjamin Keys, a scientist at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Keys was formidably persuasive and, through sheer force of will, rose to the top of the nutrition world—even gracing the cover of Time magazine—for relentlessly championing the idea that saturated fats raise cholesterol and, as a result, cause heart attacks.
This idea fell on receptive ears because, at the time, Americans faced a fast-growing epidemic. Heart disease, a rarity only three decades earlier, had quickly become the nation’s No. 1 killer. Even President Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in 1955. Researchers were desperate for answers.
As the director of the largest nutrition study to date, Dr. Keys was in an excellent position to promote his idea. The “Seven Countries” study that he conducted on nearly 13,000 men in the U.S., Japan and Europe ostensibly demonstrated that heart disease wasn’t the inevitable result of aging but could be linked to poor nutrition.
Critics have pointed out that Dr. Keys violated several basic scientific norms in his study. For one, he didn’t choose countries randomly but instead selected only those likely to prove his beliefs, including Yugoslavia, Finland and Italy. Excluded were France, land of the famously healthy omelet eater, as well as other countries where people consumed a lot of fat yet didn’t suffer from high rates of heart disease, such as Switzerland, Sweden and West Germany. The study’s star subjects—upon whom much of our current understanding of the Mediterranean diet is based—were peasants from Crete, islanders who tilled their fields well into old age and who appeared to eat very little meat or cheese.
As it turns out, Dr. Keys visited Crete during an unrepresentative period of extreme hardship after World War II. Furthermore, he made the mistake of measuring the islanders’ diet partly during Lent, when they were forgoing meat and cheese. Dr. Keys therefore undercounted their consumption of saturated fat. Also, due to problems with the surveys, he ended up relying on data from just a few dozen men—far from the representative sample of 655 that he had initially selected. These flaws weren’t revealed until much later, in a 2002 paper by scientists investigating the work on Crete—but by then, the misimpression left by his erroneous data had become international dogma.
In 1961, Dr. Keys sealed saturated fat’s fate by landing a position on the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association, whose dietary guidelines are considered the gold standard. Although the committee had originally been skeptical of his hypothesis, it issued, in that year, the country’s first-ever guidelines targeting saturated fats. The U.S. Department of Agriculture followed in 1980.
Other studies ensued. A half-dozen large, important trials pitted a diet high in vegetable oil—usually corn or soybean, but not olive oil—against one with more animal fats. But these trials, mainly from the 1970s, also had serious methodological problems. Some didn’t control for smoking, for instance, or allowed men to wander in and out of the research group over the course of the experiment. The results were unreliable at best.
But there was no turning back: Too much institutional energy and research money had already been spent trying to prove Dr. Keys’s hypothesis. A bias in its favor had grown so strong that the idea just started to seem like common sense. As Harvard nutrition professor Mark Hegsted said in 1977, after successfully persuading the U.S. Senate to recommend Dr. Keys’s diet for the entire nation, the question wasn’t whether Americans should change their diets, but why not? Important benefits could be expected, he argued. And the risks? “None can be identified,” he said.
In fact, even back then, other scientists were warning about the diet’s potential unintended consequences. Today, we are dealing with the reality that these have come to pass.
One consequence is that in cutting back on fats, we are now eating a lot more carbohydrates—at least 25% more since the early 1970s. Consumption of saturated fat, meanwhile, has dropped by 11%, according to the best available government data. Translation: Instead of meat, eggs and cheese, we’re eating more pasta, grains, fruit and starchy vegetables such as potatoes. Even seemingly healthy low-fat foods, such as yogurt, are stealth carb-delivery systems, since removing the fat often requires the addition of fillers to make up for lost texture—and these are usually carbohydrate-based.
The problem is that carbohydrates break down into glucose, which causes the body to release insulin—a hormone that is fantastically efficient at storing fat. Meanwhile, fructose, the main sugar in fruit, causes the liver to generate triglycerides and other lipids in the blood that are altogether bad news. Excessive carbohydrates lead not only to obesity but also, over time, to Type 2 diabetes and, very likely, heart disease.
The real surprise is that, according to the best science to date, people put themselves at higher risk for these conditions no matter what kind of carbohydrates they eat. Yes, even unrefined carbs. Too much whole-grain oatmeal for breakfast and whole-grain pasta for dinner, with fruit snacks in between, add up to a less healthy diet than one of eggs and bacon, followed by fish. The reality is that fat doesn’t make you fat or diabetic. Scientific investigations going back to the 1950s suggest that actually, carbs do.
The second big unintended consequence of our shift away from animal fats is that we’re now consuming more vegetable oils. Butter and lard had long been staples of the American pantry until Crisco, introduced in 1911, became the first vegetable-based fat to win wide acceptance in U.S. kitchens. Then came margarines made from vegetable oil and then just plain vegetable oil in bottles.
All of these got a boost from the American Heart Association—which Procter & Gamble, the maker of Crisco oil, coincidentally helped launch as a national organization. In 1948, P&G; made the AHA the beneficiary of the popular “Walking Man” radio contest, which the company sponsored. The show raised $1.7 million for the group and transformed it (according to the AHA’s official history) from a small, underfunded professional society into the powerhouse that it remains today.
After the AHA advised the public to eat less saturated fat and switch to vegetable oils for a “healthy heart” in 1961, Americans changed their diets. Now these oils represent 7% to 8% of all calories in our diet, up from nearly zero in 1900, the biggest increase in consumption of any type of food over the past century.
This shift seemed like a good idea at the time, but it brought many potential health problems in its wake. In those early clinical trials, people on diets high in vegetable oil were found to suffer higher rates not only of cancer but also of gallstones. And, strikingly, they were more likely to die from violent accidents and suicides. Alarmed by these findings, the National Institutes of Health convened researchers several times in the early 1980s to try to explain these “side effects,” but they couldn’t. (Experts now speculate that certain psychological problems might be related to changes in brain chemistry caused by diet, such as fatty-acid imbalances or the depletion of cholesterol.)
We’ve also known since the 1940s that when heated, vegetable oils create oxidation products that, in experiments on animals, lead to cirrhosis of the liver and early death. For these reasons, some midcentury chemists warned against the consumption of these oils, but their concerns were allayed by a chemical fix: Oils could be rendered more stable through a process called hydrogenation, which used a catalyst to turn them from oils into solids.
From the 1950s on, these hardened oils became the backbone of the entire food industry, used in cakes, cookies, chips, breads, frostings, fillings, and frozen and fried food. Unfortunately, hydrogenation also produced trans fats, which since the 1970s have been suspected of interfering with basic cellular functioning and were recently condemned by the Food and Drug Administration for their ability to raise our levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Yet paradoxically, the drive to get rid of trans fats has led some restaurants and food manufacturers to return to using regular liquid oils—with the same long-standing oxidation problems. These dangers are especially acute in restaurant fryers, where the oils are heated to high temperatures over long periods.
The past decade of research on these oxidation products has produced a sizable body of evidence showing their dramatic inflammatory and oxidative effects, which implicates them in heart disease and other illnesses such as Alzheimer’s. Other newly discovered potential toxins in vegetable oils, called monochloropropane diols and glycidol esters, are now causing concern among health authorities in Europe.
In short, the track record of vegetable oils is highly worrisome—and not remotely what Americans bargained for when they gave up butter and lard.
Cutting back on saturated fat has had especially harmful consequences for women, who, due to hormonal differences, contract heart disease later in life and in a way that is distinct from men. If anything, high total cholesterol levels in women over 50 were found early on to be associated with longer life. This counterintuitive result was first discovered by the famous Framingham study on heart-disease risk factors in 1971 and has since been confirmed by other research.
Since women under 50 rarely get heart disease, the implication is that women of all ages have been worrying about their cholesterol levels needlessly. Yet the Framingham study’s findings on women were omitted from the study’s conclusions. And less than a decade later, government health officials pushed their advice about fat and cholesterol on all Americans over age 2—based exclusively on data from middle-aged men.
Sticking to these guidelines has meant ignoring growing evidence that women on diets low in saturated fat actually increase their risk of having a heart attack. The “good” HDL cholesterol drops precipitously for women on this diet (it drops for men too, but less so). The sad irony is that women have been especially rigorous about ramping up on their fruits, vegetables and grains, but they now suffer from higher obesity rates than men, and their death rates from heart disease have reached parity.
Seeing the U.S. population grow sicker and fatter while adhering to official dietary guidelines has put nutrition authorities in an awkward position. Recently, the response of many researchers has been to blame “Big Food” for bombarding Americans with sugar-laden products. No doubt these are bad for us, but it is also fair to say that the food industry has simply been responding to the dietary guidelines issued by the AHA and USDA, which have encouraged high-carbohydrate diets and until quite recently said next to nothing about the need to limit sugar.
Indeed, up until 1999, the AHA was still advising Americans to reach for “soft drinks,” and in 2001, the group was still recommending snacks of “gum-drops” and “hard candies made primarily with sugar” to avoid fatty foods.
Our half-century effort to cut back on the consumption of meat, eggs and whole-fat dairy has a tragic quality. More than a billion dollars have been spent trying to prove Ancel Keys’s hypothesis, but evidence of its benefits has never been produced. It is time to put the saturated-fat hypothesis to bed and to move on to test other possible culprits for our nation’s health woes.


Public Agrees on Obesity’s Impact, Not Government’s Role
Yes to Calories on Menus, No to Soda Limits
NOVEMBER 12, 2013
Most Americans (69%) see obesity as a very serious public health problem, substantially more than the percentages viewing alcohol abuse, cigarette smoking and AIDS in the same terms. In addition, a broad majority believes that obesity is not just a problem that affects individuals: 63% say obesity has consequences for society beyond the personal impact on individuals. Just 31% say it impacts the individuals who are obese but not society more broadly.
Yet, the public has mixed opinions about what, if anything, the government should do about the issue. A 54% majority does not want the government to play a significant role in reducing obesity, while 42% say the government should play a significant role. And while some proposals for reducing obesity draw broad support, others are decidedly unpopular.
These Disturbing Fast Food Truths Will Make You Reconsider Your Lunch
11/20/2013
Renee Jacques
McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell — which one are you craving today? It’s pretty likely that you have a favorite fast food chain and that you love many of the tasty options offered at these restaurants. It’s hard to miss them. As of 2012, there were 263,944 fast food restaurants in America with a combined revenue of well over $100 billion.
With a Gallup poll revealing that 8 in 10 Americans eat fast food at least monthly and half saying they eat it weekly, these companies know they have a good thing going. And with all the savvy marketing they do, it’s no wonder you’re itching for that Big Mac. But before you scarf one down, you might want to truly evaluate what’s going on with your fast food. Here are some truths that may make you wonder if you still want to go to there for lunch.
Read more and see the photos.

6 Graphs That Show Why The “War” on Fat Was a Huge Mistake
November 4, 2013
by Kris Gunnars
The “war” on saturated fat is the biggest mistake in the history of nutrition.
As people have reduced their intake of animal fat and cholesterol, many serious diseases have gone up.
We are now in the midst of worldwide pandemics of obesity, metabolic syndrome and type II diabetes.
Studies conducted in the past few decades conclusively show that neither saturated fat nor dietary cholesterol cause harm in humans.
Scientists are now beginning to realize that the entire low-fat dogma was based on flawed studies that have since been thoroughly debunked.
Here are 6 graphs that clearly show how incredibly damaging it has been to advise people to reduce their consumption of animal fat.
Read more and see the graphics.

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If Obesity is a Disease, Then I’m Harry Freaking Potter
Aug 22, 2013
In case you haven’t heard, get out from under your rock and pay attention now, obesity was recently labeled as a disease by the American Medical Association. That’s right, obesity has joined the ranks of cancer, heart disease, and everything House ever diagnosed. I, for one, think it’s bullshit. Let’s discuss, shall we?
If obesity is going to be a disease, I have some questions for the A.M.A.:? Why isn’t smoking a disease?
Read More.


A Label Calls Attention to Obesity
July 1, 2013
By Jane E. Brody
Most people know that obesity can result in serious health problems, yet many of us continue to focus on its cosmetic consequences rather than its risks to health.
This distorted view may change now that the American Medical Association has finally labeled obesity a disease, not just a risk factor for other disorders. Last month, the organization recognized that obesity is a verifiable illness that warrants far more attention than physicians, patients and insurers currently give it.
The designation may change how aggressively doctors treat obesity, foster the development of new therapies, and lead to better coverage byinsurers. After all, the price of not treating obesity is now in the stratosphere. Obesity-related health conditions cost the nation more than $150 billion and result in an estimated 300,000 premature deaths each year.
If the population’s weight gain is not soon capped (or better yet, reversed), experts predict that half of adults in America will be obese by 2040. The A.M.A. has said in effect that it is medicine’s responsibility to provide the knowledge and tools needed to curb this runaway epidemic.

Stigmatizing obesity will harm, bioethicists claim
1 Jun 2013
by Xavier Symons
Daniel Callahan has again been chastised for his view that obesity should be stigmatized. Whilst most attacks have been from mainstream journalists, the latest critiques come from respected ethicists. In the most recent edition of the Hastings Centre Report two bioethicists argue that Callahan’s approach is “a failed and ethically dubious strategy”.
The authors, Daniel S. Goldberg, of East Carolina University, and Rebecca M. Puhl, of Yale University, cite studies demonstrating the ineffectiveness of stigmatizing obesity. They state that: “there is consistent evidence that individuals exposed to weight stigmatization are vulnerable to numerous adverse health consequences, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, suicidal ideation, and avoidance of health care.” Research also indicates that public health campaigns containing messages that stigmatize and shame obese persons actually induce less motivation and lower intentions to improve.
The authors believe that stigmatization is morally wrong, regardless of its efficacy: “even if stigma produced extremely salubrious consequences, we think it should not be deployed as a public health intervention. The intense harms stigma can impose and the way it can literally spoil identity provide a powerful argument against its usage regardless of the consequences.”
Goldberg and Puhl’s article is just one of six commentaries published in this month’s Hastings Centre Report review, all of which question Callahan’s view.

Blaming the victim: the negative consequence of preventive medicine.
Am J Public Health. 1990 October; 80(10): 1186–1187.
Read the article here.?


Disney changes obesity exhibit after complaints
March 1, 2012
ORLANDO, Fla. — Walt Disney World is retooling an Epcot exhibit on childhood obesity after critics complained it was insensitive to obese kids and reinforced stereotypes.
The interactive exhibit, Habit Heroes, featured animated fitness superheros Will Power and Callie Stenics and super-sized villains Snacker and Lead Bottom, who eat junk food and watch too much television. Critics said the exhibit reinforces stereotypes that obese children are lazy and have poor eating habits.
Doctors say obesity can sometimes be attributed to genetics and certain medications, and food can be used as a coping mechanism.
Vote: Do you think the Disney obesity exhibit was insensitive?
“We’re appalled to learn that Disney, a traditional hallmark of childhood happiness and joy, has fallen under the shadow of negativity and discrimination,” the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance said in a statement.
“I was really disturbed to see the most negative habits were attached to really fat bodies,” Peggy Howell, a spokeswoman for the group, said after viewing a companion website. “These pictures further the stigma against people of higher body weight.”
The exhibit was closed shortly after its unofficial opening in February, the Orlando Sentinel reported Thursday. The official opening has been postponed indefinitely.
Blue Cross and Blue Shield partnered with Disney to create the exhibit. Blue Cross spokesman John W. Herbkersman said the exhibit was meant to be helpful.
“Our goal is to ensure that the attraction conveys a positive message about healthy lifestyles in a fun and empowering way,” Herbkersman said. “To work on further improving and refining the experience, the attraction is closed for the time being. We look forward to officially opening it soon.”
Added Disney spokeswoman Kathleen Prihoda: “That’s why we have a soft opening. So we can open it up to others and listen. We’ve heard the feedback.”

Property Rights for all include Smokers Rights!From Toxic T-Shirts To Twizzler TV!
January 1, 2011
By Michael J. McFadden
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Remember “product placement?”? That evil plot by Big Tobacco to sneak their brands of cigarettes into movies and TV?? Remember the outrage shrieked from the rooftops by Antismokers as they poured tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into studies exposing this evil practice years after the companies had actually stopped doing it?? Have you noticed that nowadays the Antis are even pushing for the United Nations to get into the act and make it a planetary directive that such heinous crimes can never be repeated?
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Yes, I’m sure you’ve noticed all that if you’ve been paying attention to the news.? But what you might NOT have noticed is how the airwaves are now being filled with product placement for such things as Twizzlers licorice sticks!? Now we’re not just talking about the long tolerated brainwashing of children on Saturday mornings, we’re talking about the blatant and often completely out-of-place scripting involving major characters in series like “Fringe” and “Warehouse 13” suddenly offering each other Twizzlers or having prominent bright red/orange Twizzler goodie boxes on office desks in scenes where almost everything else is sort of a bland beige.?
We’re talking about sexy female show starlets seductively using their lips and tongues to play with licorice sticks while solving mysterious murders.? Meanwhile even “Top Chef Just Desserts” gets in on the act, blacking out the brand name of Kashi Go Lean cereal (probably because they wouldn’t pay blood money even if the chefs wanted to use the product) but having contestants whip up “delicious” strawberry and cream desserts out of…. you guessed it….? Twizzlers!
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Will there be a similar hue and cry do you think?? Will the United Nations take time off from such piffling issues as North Korean Nukes, international terrorism, worldwide pollution, and the situation in Palestine in order to examine the Great Twizzler Candy Crisis?? What evil Communist Country is exporting these things?? What are the potential health implications? What is the environmental impact of the factory runoff? How much does Twizzler-Caused Obesity cost our Gross National Product?? Just how deadly IS Third Hand Twizzler Juice when it’s passed on from Evil Candy Chompers to innocent loved ones through fingertips or stains on clothing?
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And, of course,? What About The Children??? Clearly, something MUST be done!

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Food Industry Fight Mimics War Against Big Tobacco
October 21, 2011
By Crystal Phend, Senior Staff Writer, MedPage Today
Reviewed by Zalman S. Agus, MD; Emeritus Professor
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Review
The public health battle against obesity may be taking a cue from the states’ victory against the tobacco industry more than a decade ago.
“The more you look at the modern food industry, the more it looks like the tobacco industry,” Stanton Glantz, PhD, director of the University of California San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, explains in this exclusive video report.
Predatory marketing to children and products designed to maximize profits despite known adverse health impacts were what sparked legal action by 46 states against the major U.S. tobacco companies. It culminated in the Master Settlement Agreement in 1998, which requires the tobacco companies to pay $206 billion dollars to the states over 25 years.
Now public health agencies and advocacy groups are fighting similar tactics by food companies, Glantz told MedPage Today senior staff writer Crystal Phend.
Attempts to sue the food companies haven’t been successful so far, but “there are definitely people thinking about it,” noted Glantz, a key anti-tobacco advocate and researcher who helped publish tobacco industry insider documents in 1995.
Other strategies adapted from the anti-tobacco playbook have had greater success, such as menu labeling, he points out.
But if the tobacco fight is any guide, Glantz warned, working to improve the food landscape is going to take sustained and aggressive action.

Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables

July 23, 2011
Mark Bittman writes about food for the opinion section.

WHAT will it take to get Americans to change our eating habits? The need is indisputable, since heart disease, diabetes and cancer are all in large part caused by the Standard American Diet. (Yes, it’s SAD.)

Though experts increasingly recommend a diet high in plants and low in animal products and processed foods, ours is quite the opposite, and there’s little disagreement that changing it could improve our health and save tens of millions of lives.

And — not inconsequential during the current struggle over deficits and spending — a sane diet could save tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs.

Yet the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods. And whether its leaders are confused or just stalling doesn’t matter, because the fixes are not really their problem. Their mission is not public health but profit, so they’ll continue to sell the health-damaging food that’s most profitable, until the market or another force skews things otherwise. That “other force” should be the federal government, fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good and establishing a bold national fix.

Rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available.

The average American consumes 44.7 gallons of soft drinks annually. (Although that includes diet sodas, it does not include noncarbonated sweetened beverages, which add up to at least 17 gallons a person per year.) Sweetened drinks could be taxed at 2 cents per ounce, so a six-pack of Pepsi would cost $1.44 more than it does now. An equivalent tax on fries might be 50 cents per serving; a quarter extra for a doughnut. (We have experts who can figure out how “bad” a food should be to qualify, and what the rate should be; right now they’re busy calculating ethanol subsidies. Diet sodas would not be taxed.)

Simply put: taxes would reduce consumption of unhealthful foods and generate billions of dollars annually. That money could be used to subsidize the purchase of staple foods like seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit.

We could sell those staples cheap — let’s say for 50 cents a pound — and almost everywhere: drugstores, street corners, convenience stores, bodegas, supermarkets, liquor stores, even schools, libraries and other community centers.

This program would, of course, upset the processed food industry. Oh well. It would also bug those who might resent paying more for soda and chips and argue that their right to eat whatever they wanted was being breached. But public health is the role of the government, and our diet is right up there with any other public responsibility you can name, from water treatment to mass transit.

Some advocates for the poor say taxes like these are unfair because low-income people pay a higher percentage of their income for food and would find it more difficult to buy soda or junk. But since poor people suffer disproportionately from the cost of high-quality, fresh foods, subsidizing those foods would be particularly beneficial to them.

Right now it’s harder for many people to buy fruit than Froot Loops; chips and Coke are a common breakfast. And since the rate of diabetes continues to soar — one-third of all Americans either have diabetes or are pre-diabetic, most with Type 2 diabetes, the kind associated with bad eating habits — and because our health care bills are on the verge of becoming truly insurmountable, this is urgent for economic sanity as well as national health.

Justifying a Tax

At least 30 cities and states have considered taxes on soda or all sugar-sweetened beverages, and they’re a logical target: of the 278 additional calories Americans on average consumed per day between 1977 and 2001, more than 40 percent came from soda, “fruit” drinks, mixes like Kool-Aid and Crystal Light, and beverages like Red Bull, Gatorade and dubious offerings like Vitamin Water, which contains half as much sugar as Coke.

Some states already have taxes on soda — mostly low, ineffective sales taxes paid at the register. The current talk is of excise taxes, levied before purchase.

“Excise taxes have the benefit of being incorporated into the shelf price, and that’s where consumers make their purchasing decisions,” says Lisa Powell, a senior research scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “And, as per-unit taxes, they avoid volume discounts and are ultimately more effective in raising prices, so they have greater impact.”

Much of the research on beverage taxes comes from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. Its projections indicate that taxes become significant at the equivalent of about a penny an ounce, a level at which three very good things should begin to happen: the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages should decrease, as should the incidence of disease and therefore public health costs; and money could be raised for other uses.

Even in the current antitax climate, we’ll probably see new, significant soda taxes soon, somewhere; Philadelphia, New York (city and state) and San Francisco all considered them last year, and the scenario for such a tax spreading could be similar to that of legalized gambling: once the income stream becomes apparent, it will seem irresistible to cash-strapped governments.

Currently, instead of taxing sodas and other unhealthful food, we subsidize them (with, I might note, tax dollars!). Direct subsidies to farmers for crops like corn (used, for example, to make now-ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup) and soybeans (vegetable oil) keep the prices of many unhealthful foods and beverages artificially low. There are indirect subsidies as well, because prices of junk foods don’t reflect the costs of repairing our health and the environment.

Other countries are considering or have already started programs to tax foods with negative effects on health. Denmark’s saturated-fat tax is going into effect Oct. 1, and Romania passed (and then un-passed) something similar; earlier this month, a French minister raised the idea of tripling the value added tax on soda. Meanwhile, Hungary is proposing a new tax on foods with “too much” sugar, salt or fat, while increasing taxes on liquor and soft drinks, all to pay for state-financed health care; and Brazil’s Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) program features subsidized produce markets and state-sponsored low-cost restaurants.

Putting all of those elements together could create a national program that would make progress on a half-dozen problems at once — disease, budget, health care, environment, food access and more — while paying for itself. The benefits are staggering, and though it would take a level of political will that’s rarely seen, it’s hardly a moonshot.

The need is dire: efforts to shift the national diet have failed, because education alone is no match for marketing dollars that push the very foods that are the worst for us. (The fast-food industry alone spent more than $4 billion on marketing in 2009; the Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion is asking for about a third of a percent of that in 2012: $13 million.) As a result, the percentage of obese adults has more than doubled over the last 30 years; the percentage of obese children has tripled. We eat nearly 10 percent more animal products than we did a generation or two ago, and though there may be value in eating at least some animal products, we could perhaps live with reduced consumption of triple bacon cheeseburgers.

Government and Public Health

Health-related obesity costs are projected to reach $344 billion by 2018 — with roughly 60 percent of that cost borne by the federal government. For a precedent in attacking this problem, look at the action government took in the case of tobacco.

The historic 1998 tobacco settlement, in which the states settled health-related lawsuits against tobacco companies, and the companies agreed to curtail marketing and finance antismoking efforts, was far from perfect, but consider the results. More than half of all Americans who once smoked have quit and smoking rates are about half of what they were in the 1960s.

It’s true that you don’t need to smoke and you do need to eat. But you don’t need sugary beverages (or the associated fries), which have been linked not only to Type 2 diabetes and increased obesity but also to cardiovascular diseases and decreased intake of valuable nutrients like calcium. It also appears that liquid calories provide less feeling of fullness; in other words, when you drink a soda it’s probably in addition to your other calorie intake, not instead of it.

To counter arguments about their nutritional worthlessness, expect to see “fortified” sodas — ? la Red Bull, whose vitamins allegedly “support mental and physical performance” — and “improved” junk foods (Less Sugar! Higher Fiber!). Indeed, there may be reasons to make nutritionally worthless foods less so, but it’s better to decrease their consumption.

Forcing sales of junk food down through taxes isn’t ideal. First off, we’ll have to listen to nanny-state arguments, which can be countered by the acceptance of the anti-tobacco movement as well as a dozen other successful public health measures. Then there are the predictions of? job loss at soda distributorships, but the same predictions were made about the tobacco industry, and those were wrong. (For that matter, the same predictions were made around the nickel deposit on bottles, which most shoppers don’t even notice.) Ultimately, however, both consumers and government will be more than reimbursed in the form of cheaper healthy staples, lowered health care costs and better health. And that’s a big deal.

The Resulting Benefits

A study by Y. Claire Wang, an assistant professor at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, predicted that a penny tax per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages in New York State would save $3 billion in health care costs over the course of a decade, prevent something like 37,000 cases of diabetes and bring in $1 billion annually. Another study shows that a two-cent tax per ounce in Illinois would reduce obesity in youth by 18 percent, save nearly $350 million and bring in over $800 million taxes annually.

Scaled nationally, as it should be, the projected benefits are even more impressive; one study suggests that a national penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages would generate at least $13 billion a year in income while cutting consumption by 24 percent. And those numbers would swell dramatically if the tax were extended to more kinds of junk or doubled to two cents an ounce. (The Rudd Center has a nifty revenue calculator online that lets you play with the numbers yourself.)

A 20 percent increase in the price of sugary drinks nationally could result in about a 20 percent decrease in consumption, which in the next decade could prevent 1.5 million Americans from becoming obese and 400,000 cases of diabetes, saving about $30 billion.

It’s fun — inspiring, even — to think about implementing a program like this. First off, though the reduced costs of healthy foods obviously benefit the poor most, lower prices across the board keep things simpler and all of us, especially children whose habits are just developing, could use help in eating differently. The program would also bring much needed encouragement to farmers, including subsidies, if necessary, to grow staples instead of commodity crops.

Other ideas: We could convert refrigerated soda machines to vending machines that dispense grapes and carrots, as has already been done in Japan and Iowa. We could provide recipes, cooking lessons, even cookware for those who can’t afford it. Television public-service announcements could promote healthier eating. (Currently, 86 percent of food ads now seen by children are for foods high in sugar, fat or sodium.)

Money could be returned to communities for local spending on gyms, pools, jogging and bike trails; and for other activities at food distribution centers; for Meals on Wheels in those towns with a large elderly population, or for Head Start for those with more children; for supermarkets and farmers’ markets where needed. And more.

By profiting as a society from the foods that are making us sick and using those funds to make us healthy, the United States would gain the same kind of prestige that we did by attacking smoking. We could institute a national, comprehensive program that would make us a world leader in preventing chronic or “lifestyle” diseases, which for the first time in history kill more people than communicable ones. By doing so, we’d not only repair some of the damage we have caused by first inventing and then exporting the Standard American Diet, we’d also set a new standard for the rest of the world to follow.

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