The collective reaction to Paula Deen's diabetes announcement tells us much about our attitude toward health and nutrition. Of course nobody is shocked at the news, but many commentators missed an opportunity to make a bigger point. Yes, anyone pushing "butter, salt and grits" as the three main food groups is obviously asking for trouble, and that is the thrust of most comments. But what the pundits seem to miss is that Deen's predicament says more about us than her.
Deen celebrates a type of willful ignorance that seems disturbingly popular in a society that increasingly eschews science fact for popular whim and instant gratification. She has plenty of company in promoting a lifestyle well known to be harmful. Down Home With the Neelys is not exactly a health food show. Every Day With Rachael Ray proudly promotes double-decker burgers with bacon, and similar concoctions. All of these popular hosts rely heavily on fried foods, fats, salt and sugar. They essentially celebrate obesity as they target young couples, and more ominously, young couples with children. The problem though, is not that these shows air or that bad advice is published in magazines. The problem is that we watch the shows and buy the magazines. Let us be clear: Anybody who thinks Deen, Ray, the Neelys or their ilk have something interesting to say about cooking is intentionally turning a blind eye to firmly established and troubling facts.
Let's start with the most disturbing tidbit: Nearly one in three American children under the age of 18 is now overweight. (All statistics cited here are all documented in Calorie Wars: Fat, Fact and Fiction.) Think about that: We have doomed a third of our children to a lifetime of health problems and a shortened lifespan. We know absolutely that obesity creates an increased risk of diabetes. In 1990, about 11 million Americans had Type 2 (adult onset) diabetes, a disease of insulin resistance (a condition that commonly coexists with obesity); just nine years later the number was 16 million, or about 6 percent of all Americans. Then from 1999 to 2003 we saw a 41 percent increase in diagnosed diabetes. Since then obesity has ballooned to an astounding 64 percent of all Americans and the number of diabetics continues to explode.
Nor is diabetes the only problem. No, I refer not to the unsightly nature of our growing girth, although that too is an issue. Sure, a jiggling gut rolling over a thong on the beach might be unpleasant to witness, but the real concern is not aesthetics but our increased risk in adulthood for joint problems, angina, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. It gets worse:
- About 300,000 deaths per year are attributed to obesity; individuals with a body mass index (BMI) over 30 have a 50 to 100 percent increased risk of premature death from all causes compared to lean people with lower BMIs.
- High blood pressure is twice as common in obese adults compared to those with a healthy weight; obesity is associated with elevated blood fat (triglycerides) and decreased good cholesterol (HDL).
- A weight gain of only 11 to 18 pounds increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes; over 80 percent of people with Type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese.
- Obesity is associated with an increased risk of cancer of the uterus, colon, gall bladder, prostate, kidney and postmenopausal breast cancer.
- Sleep apnea is more common in obese people. And some recent studies have indicated that a lack of sleep might impact hormone levels to a degree that could, indeed, cause weight gain.
- Obesity during pregnancy is associated with a greater risk of birth defects, including spina bifida.
- Every increase in weight of two pounds increases the risk of arthritis by 9 to 13 percent.
Deen might airily dismiss the health concerns associated with her fondness for fat and salt, but the troubles associated with obesity are deadly serious; all can result ultimately in a premature demise. Outside of the human costs, health experts estimate that treating adult obesity-related ailments will have cost the American economy nearly $150 billion in 2009 (the latest year for such estimates). We are awash in a sea of greasy fast food and sweet soft drinks. Junk foods oozing with processed sugars, trans-fats and excess salt are ubiquitous, available anywhere, everywhere, all the time. Deen helps us pretend this is all OK, that an unhealthy lifestyle is just fun and games.
But Deen and her colleagues are not the problem, in spite of their irresponsible promotions of bad eating. We are. We are eating ourselves to death. Why? Because we have not accepted the basic notion of personal responsibility. In a special op-ed piece in the June 23, 2011, Washington Post, the director of the Nutritional and Metabolic Research Center, Ken Fujioka, argues that obesity is caused in part by temptation. This widely-accepted idea is as dangerous as it is absurd. Nobody has any obligation to minimize temptation in our lives because we may have no self-control; instead we each have a personal responsibility to resist temptations that would result in harmful or illegal behavior. A woman has the right to dress as provocatively as she wishes, fast food restaurants can advertise their wares with the most effective promotions possible, and your local coffee shop can entice you to drink calorie-laden sugar-filled quaffs to the best of their ability. We can't indulge in inappropriate behavior just because someone tempts us. There is nothing about diet that carves out an exception to this reality.
Weight loss and maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle are our personal responsibility, no matter now others may tempt us from that course. With only rare exception, obesity is caused by our own actions, our own decisions about our own lives. We cannot pass that responsibility to others because they tempt us to behave badly. We eat too much, we eat too unhealthily and we don't exercise enough. That is reality, and that is why we are obese. We would be wise to be less smug in our reaction to Deen's diagnosis and a bit more introspective as we reach for our next double cheeseburger and fries.
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Dr. Jeff Schweitzer is a former White House senior policy analyst the author of five books, including A New Moral Code and his latest, Calorie Wars. Learn more about Jeff at his website.