Swallowing a Simplistic Notion

March 31, 2002

WASHINGTON D.C. -- In my wildest imagination, I never thought I would have to challenge the arguments of George Will for their simplistic and naïve assumptions, but in his column "Supersize Menace" (2/28/02), Mr. Will has swallowed the position of the very same "food fascists" which he calls the "killjoys in our midst."

By ignoring the multi-faceted and complex reasons for obesity among some Americans, Mr. Will has himself become a victim of the "culture of victimization" that blames others for difficulties instead of taking personal responsibility. Instead of seeking scapegoats, it is important to set the record straight on this issue.

It is worth remembering the words of former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop: "Obesity represents the consequences of a mismatch between energy intake and energy expenditure."

Caloric intake should not be considered separately from physical exertion. Yet, quite surprisingly and alarmingly, Mr. Will ignores the notion that a host of other factors contributes to whether someone is obese. He gives credence to author Eric Schlosser, who writes in Fast Food Nation that the rise of obesity rates coincides directly -- and only -- with the growing popularity of "fast food."

Dieticians remind us that all foods can be part of a healthy diet and that good nutrition includes a diet that contains an average daily intake of 30 percent of the calories from fat. And all reputable experts agree that one has to look at more than overall dietary choices, such as level of exercise, family history, genetic susceptibility and other medical conditions, to determine why some people are prone to becoming overweight and even obese.

Schlosser's view that one trend, portion size or food has caused our overweight society is naïve and simplistic. Yet by suggesting it is more than coincidence, Mr. Will buys into that notion. And in doing so, he, like Schlosser, completely ignores myriad other factors that determine whether someone is living a healthy life and discounts a tremendous number of changes in our country since the 1970s.

Think about how much time you spent on a computer in 1975 or even 1985. Chances are it wasn't that frequent, if at all. You certainly weren't surfing the Web. Things are completely different in the 21st century. Perhaps most noticeable is how poignant technology has become and how sedentary our lives have become, due in large part to the Internet, video games and a variety of video entertainment. Unfortunately, discussions of upsized meals all-too-often ignore other factors like upsized television and downsized workouts. With new technologies, there are no longer six or seven television stations but often hundreds tempting viewers to sit in one place without physical activity.

According to a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and experts at the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, the average child spends 15,000 to 18,000 hours watching television by age 17. A Stanford University study found that American children spend on average more than four hours a day watching television and videos or playing video games.

Combine with this the fact that 80 percent of children were involved in daily physical education programs in 1969, and only 20 percent are today -- and the fact that nutrition education has sadly been shelved in many schools across the country. You can see that going after fast food to solve the obesity problem is fool-hardy.

Americans love to eat out. And people certainly are eating out more today than they were in the past. Restaurants are essential to the American lifestyle, particularly as consumers are living more time-crunched lives. Yet, the average person eats out an average of four times a week. That means there are 17 other meal occasions in a week that comprise one's diet.

When customers do dine in one of the nation's 858,000 restaurants, they see that there are a wide variety of foods in a wide variety of portion sizes on the menu -- an array of foods that meet their demands for choice, value and flexibility, as well as their tastes and dietary needs. Seventy percent of adults agree that there are enough portion sizes available in the nation's restaurants, particularly for people who are watching their calories and fat consumption. Virtually all restaurants customize orders for people, such as putting sauces and dressing on the side, not adding salt, to name a few.

People seem to know they are responsible for their own dietary choices. A recent study by the Grocery Manufacturers of America found that 57 percent, a convincing majority, said that "individuals themselves" are most responsible for why Americans are overweight. Only 8 percent hold responsible external entities such as food manufacturers (5 percent), restaurants (2 percent) or the federal government (1 percent).

Restaurants recognize that America's growing waistline is becoming problematic for some Americans and the industry is committed to doing its part. Nine out of 10 restaurants are involved in charitable activity, and restaurateurs' philanthropic activities are most likely to be directed at community health programs. And the restaurant industry is actively engaged in innovative programs that encourage a healthy lifestyle, including contributing millions of dollars to support nutrition education and physical activity programs, both in local communities and on a national level.

Yet these facts aren't of interest to Schlosser because they would muddle his efforts to target an industry in the effort to sell books. The magic of Schlosser is that, in addition to pouring out sensationalized fiction sprinkled with a few facts, he identifies a villain. A villain that Americans love. Efforts to cure obesity in this country by going after popular brands and "scapegoating" an industry are short-sighted. And what's worse is that such attacks won't solve the obesity problem. People are going to continue eating foods that they love.

In order to really tackle the obesity situation in this country, government should amplify its efforts to educate people about the importance of daily exercise and nutrition education. The National Restaurant Association has long maintained that the key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle is exercise, nutrition education and balancing a variety of food choices. People are, and certainly want to be, responsible for the food choices they make.

The National Restaurant Association and its members are committed to providing the American people with an abundance of food options. Think about how absurd it would be for a restaurateur to deny a consumer choices; dictate to a customer how much of a meal to eat or not to eat; tell a customer not to finish his or her plate; or require someone to take a portion of their meal home. It would be absurd. These are individual choices made by all of us every time we eat.

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