06/30/2011 09:45 am ET Updated Aug 30, 2011

Chocolate Cake Doesn't Make You Fat -- But Eating It Does

While the epidemic of obesity is widely recognized in the United States, the underlying cause remains a source of controversy. 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.

To bolster the notion that temptation is an important contributory cause of obesity, he notes that, "We live in an environment that promotes weight gain: All around us are single-serving high-calorie drinks as large as wine bottles..." Furthermore, we are surrounded by "fast, inexpensive, unhealthful food." He acknowledges the role of diet and exercise in weight reduction, but then goes on to claim that "those tools alone are not a realistic solution" to the problem of obesity because of the great temptations we face daily. Dr. Fujioka's proposed answer is to develop "medical solutions" or in other words, diet pills.

This line of reasoning is at the heart of the problem, and itself contributes to the obesity epidemic by minimizing the critical role of personal responsibility. Looking for the easy solution, avoiding the hard work necessary to maintain a healthy diet, is what got us into this mess to begin with.

An appeal to temptation is an inadequate defense in any other aspect of our lives, and works equally poorly for obesity. If we go out for a quick walk with no money in our pockets we can't go in a rob an ice cream shop because that double-chocolate fudge brownie scoop is simply irresistible as we stroll by. We cannot hold up a bank because the large wad of cash the cashier is counting is too tempting. We cannot strip off our clothes and jump in a public fountain on a hot day no matter how appealing or tempting that might be. In the face of multiple daily temptations we all have to exercise restraint as a normal component of personal responsibility.

Temptation is no excuse for any behavior, here or elsewhere in our daily existence. Resistance is not easy; I have a terrible weakness for dark chocolate. But resisting is my responsibility and I can't appeal to Cote d'Or to stop marketing their delicacies because of my personal foibles.

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. 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. Obesity is caused by our own actions and 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.

A diet pill is not the answer, except perhaps in the cases of true metabolic pathology (usually hereditary and considered rare in the general population). Even if an effective pill were found, we are only masking the problem of an unhealthy diet, with consequences well beyond weight gain or loss. If we have bad habits of eating fat-laden, sugar-rich foods, a diet pill won't magically give us the fiber, minerals, and vitamins we should derive from eating an appropriate mix of fruit and vegetables. Waiting for a diet pill to solve the problem is just another attempt to avoid the consequences of our personal choices. Looking for the easy way is the very mentality that allowed us to become fat in the first place. The need for instant gratification is one of our greatest problems. Like anything worth achieving in life, good health requires hard work - and takes time. If we are not willing to work to reach that objective, we only have ourselves to blame, not those who tempt us.

The National Rifle Association has the rather annoying catch phrase that "guns don't kill people, people do." Well, chocolate cakes don't make people fat, people eating chocolate cakes make people fat. We can't blame chocolate cake for our muffin tops. We are the problem, and therefore only we are the solution.

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of "Calorie Wars" (July 2011) and "A New Moral Code" (2010). Learn more about Jeff at