Opinion: Obesity forecast is overblown
Take those grim claims about a fat future for America with a grain of salt.
Several grains of salt, in fact. Add flour, sugar, baking powder, shortening, milk, eggs and vanilla. Mix them all together and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees.
Enjoy the cupcake this will create with the realization that the predictions are only half-baked. But eat in moderation. That's the key to beating obesity.
In a media blitz that includes a taxpayer-funded conference, reports from the Institute of Medicine (the health policy arm of the National Academy of Sciences) and Duke University, and a four-part HBO "Weight of the Nation" documentary beginning next week, a study led by researchers at Duke predicts that 42 percent of Americans will be obese by 2030. That's a huge increase from about 36 percent in 2010 -- a figure that's held relatively steady for about a decade.
The assertion, however, is as reliable a predictor as a Magic Eight Ball. It's based on projections like the number of fast-food restaurants likely to be built over the next two decades. Wall Street analysts can't predict such things five years out. Yet the researchers claim to guess not only the number, but what people will eat in those establishments and how those choices will fit into their overall lifestyles.
That's about as nutty as predicting obesity based on Internet access, which the researchers also did, predicting technological advancement encourages laziness.
Another factor they threw into the mix was the price of alcohol. The thinking is that if alcohol prices are low, people will drink to excess and gain weight. That is a very speculative assumption for what is supposed to be a scientific report.
The real purpose of the report is to ease the public into an acceptance of authoritarian interventions. The proposed solutions -- which include high soda taxes, minimum pricing on alcohol (already being considered in Europe) and restrictions on where fast-food restaurants can open (already law in Los Angeles) are very unpopular. So activists feel the need to overstate the risk to make the case that we need emergency measures, no matter how drastic.
Institute of Medicine committee member Shiriki Kumanyika said as much in a Reuters interview, claiming: "The average person cannot maintain a healthy weight in this obesity-promoting environment."
Other remedies for America's junk-food junkies would likely include food restrictions that mimic today's tobacco regulations. Expect to see higher taxes on food that government bureaucrats don't want you to eat, as well as marketing restrictions, and more laws like the one passed this week in Massachusetts -- a ban on public school bake sales.
These activists underestimate the American people. Amid the calls for government control over the nation's cupboard, scant credit is given to the public's willingness to adopt healthy eating habits. The Walt Disney Co. found more than half of its theme park customers took to its healthier food offerings. The Chop't Creative Salad fast-casual restaurant chain in New York City, Westchester and Washington, D.C., had a 260 percent growth in revenue between 2006 and 2009.
Another missing element is skepticism. A true indicator of rigorous research is lingering doubt. There seems to be none here, as if the conclusion magically fit the hypothesis. One wonders if the reception would be the same if the report projected dramatically falling obesity rates.
To be sure, obesity is a public health problem that should be addressed with scientific discipline. Instead, as the current campaign illustrates, activists are politicizing obesity -- using it as a vehicle to try to remake the American way of life.
Just as too much candy and soda crowd out more nutrient-rich and lower-calorie food and drink, flawed approaches such as this taxpayer-funded nanny-state blueprint could crowd out better ideas.
Jeff Stier is the director of the National Center for Public Policy Research's risk analysis division and David W. Almasi is the group's executive director.