If you are what you eat, Americans are large Slushees

Life for our prehistoric brethren, said renowned social philosopher Thomas Hobbes, was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Sadly, so were several of my grade-school teachers – but at least they taught me the importance of good nutrition, both in the classroom and by reverse example.

Of course, one thing prehistoric hunter-gatherers didn’t have to deal with was obesity. Did they have lots of good information and well-intentioned classroom instruction to teach them how to eat? No. What they did have was shortages of the kinds of foods – fatty, sugary, salty, and simple-carb-rich – that we love. The reason we love them, of course, is that throughout more than 99% of our evolution, craving such foods was a good survival strategy. Now, in an age when these foods are ubiquitous, desiring them too much is a sure path to poor health outcomes.

Today, we have more good nutrition information (much of it promoted by the federal government) available to us than ever before, but obesity rates continue to skyrocket. Indeed, obesity studies warning about the adipose Armageddon that awaits us come out as regularly as Hollywood rehab stories, but the problem, seemingly, remains intractable.

Most recently, a study published in the Lancet concluded that if obesity rates continue on their current trajectory, half of Americans will be obese by 2030. Currently, only (ha, ha) a third of Americans are obese. If the study’s projections hold true, 65 million more adults would be obese by 2030, possibly leading to 6.8 million more cases of heart disease and stroke, 7.8 million more cases of diabetes, and 500,000 more cancer diagnoses, all of which would add $66 billion to the nation’s health care costs.

And to that I say – so what else is new?

A bit harsh? Well, yes. But how else should one react to the same doom-and-gloom story that’s been repeated ad nauseam over the course of two decades? It’s like reading a headline saying, “Charlie Sheen Still on Course for Bizarre, Alcohol-Related Death in Reno Hotel Bathroom.” I get it. But what’s going to change?

Well, of course, we need to change our behavior. Duh. To that end, we could follow the gentle exhortations of the USDA-supported www.choosemyplate.gov, an adorable little website that I’m confident no one with a body mass index above pi had ever seen until I visited it earlier this afternoon.

Here’s the sage advice you’ll see at the site:

Balancing Calories

  • Enjoy your food, but eat less.
  • Avoid oversized portions.

Foods to Increase

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains.
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk.

Foods to Reduce

  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals – and choose the foods with lower numbers.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Great advice, but in order for it to work, the government must depend on 1) people finding the website, 2) people not shorting out their keyboards with an ill-timed Funyun/Yoo-Hoo spit-take upon reading it, and 3) the government getting serious about health outcomes by discontinuing subsidies that actually make unhealthy foods more appealing in comparison to healthy ones.

I got back on this high horse a couple of weeks ago after watching the documentary Food Inc. Among the people the film profiled was a family whose father was diabetic. The movie showed the family trying to make healthy food decisions by purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables from the grocery store, but these folks soon realized that on a calories-per-dollar basis, it made more sense to buy fast food. Ultimately, the choice came down to paying for the father’s diabetes medication or buying decent, nutritious food.

So how can this be? Why are the unhealthy choices so often the economical ones?

Turns out it’s not a mistake. The government – yes, the same government that tells us to eat more fruits and vegetables and cut down on sugary drinks – is doing its darndest to make those same sugary drinks cheaper while ensuring that fruits and vegetables are losers in the marketplace.

The Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group (WISPIRG), which is campaigning against this madness, sums it up nicely:

“Today, U.S. agriculture policy artificially makes poor eating habits an economically sensible choice: Agriculture subsidies drive down the cost of commodity crops (including corn and soybeans) while prices for fruits and vegetables (grown with relatively little government support) have increased nearly 40% in the past 20 years.

“Low growing costs for corn and soybeans make sugars and fats some of the cheapest foods to produce …. While the cost of high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soybean oil has gone down, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that since 1970, obesity rates in 6- to 11-year-old children have quadrupled.”

So in large part, American kids (and adults) are getting fat because of government decisions that encourage people to make unhealthy choices. Oh, but at least there’s a little-noticed government website to tell them not to. It’s as if your mother had stuffed the cupboards with nothing but Twinkies and Doritos and then slipped a USDA nutrition pamphlet into one of her old Nancy Drew mysteries in the hopes that you’d stumble across it while in the grip of a temporary sugar psychosis.

Among the other absurdities you’ll see on the WISPIRG site: Last year, the government spent $12 million on subsidies that helped Domino’s market “cheesier” pizza. Oh, and while the price of fresh fruit and vegetables has increased by 40%, the price of soda – which you could almost consider a staple food by now – has decreased by 20%.

So raise a glass and be healthy. Just do your best not to spill your Mountain Dew Code Red into your bag of fried pork rinds.

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.