Government Subsidizing Obesity?

by | Apr 22, 2003

Dr. Robert Atkins died last week of complications from a fall on April 8. Famous for the high protein/low carbohydrate diet that he pioneered, overweight people the world over mourn his death. [1] For many, he was their savior, giving them a workable method for controlling their weight without having to starve themselves. Although the […]

Dr. Robert Atkins died last week of complications from a fall on April 8. Famous for the high protein/low carbohydrate diet that he pioneered, overweight people the world over mourn his death. [1] For many, he was their savior, giving them a workable method for controlling their weight without having to starve themselves.

Although the jury is still out on the long-term effectiveness of the Atkins Diet or its long-term health effects, there is no question that its popularity has led to a serious reassessment of standard nutritional guidelines. [2] Even many of Dr. Atkins’ critics now concede that an overemphasis on carbohydrates in the guidelines — enshrined in the so-called food pyramid — may unwittingly have encouraged an obesity epidemic.[3]

It is just about impossible to avoid the evidence that obesity has become a serious societal health problem. The view that fast food restaurants are legally responsible for this problem and should pay damages to the obese is ridiculous, although greedy lawyers will probably keep the idea alive for many years to come in hopes of becoming rich, like those who sued the tobacco industry.

Hopefully, sensible judges and juries will throw these cases out as fast as they are filed. However, the idea that there is a correlation between fast food and obesity does have a basis in fact.

Economists Shin-Yi Chou, Henry Saffer and Michael Grossman found that the increase in fast food restaurants between 1972 and 1997 is related to the growth of obesity. But their paper shows that both fast food and obesity are really consequences of deep underlying trends in the economy. These include an increase in the number of working women and decline in stay-at-home moms, the increased amount of time devoted to work by both men and women, and the decline in smoking, among other things.

A paper by economists Tomas Philipson and Richard Posner looks at the growth of obesity as the inevitable result of technological change and economic growth. The cost of food has gone down, while the physical labor needed to buy food has also gone down.

It used to be that most work involved manual labor — working in the fields or on assembly lines — so that workers were, in effect, paid to exercise. Now, most work involves sitting at desks in air-conditioned offices or standing behind cash registers at retail establishments. As a result, much less energy is expended earning one’s living, leading inevitably to weight gain.

As time becomes more precious, people naturally spend less time on food preparation — substituting calorie-dense fast food for more healthful home-cooked meals like mom used to make. And because incomes have risen, people can afford to eat out more often.

At the same time, societal pressures to stop smoking have been effective, causing many smokers to give it up. Unfortunately, as most ex-smokers can attest to, purging nicotine from their systems changed their metabolisms so as to increase their weight.

Mary Eberstadt of the Hoover Institution notes that as more women work outside the home, they have less time to supervise the activities of their children. Instead of being told to “go outside and play,” as my mother always did, today’s unsupervised children are more likely to be found in front of a television set or video game. Instead of being told to eat an apple when children want a snack, they are more likely now to eat candy bars and drink high-calorie soda. The result is less exercise, more calories and greater obesity among children, who often go on to become obese adults.

Finally, some government policies have been implicated as encouraging obesity. Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute notes that food stamps, school lunches and other aid programs for the poor encourage the consumption of high-fat, high-calories meals. Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute points out that restrictions on sugar imports encourage domestic food manufacturers to use high-fructose corn syrup, which may be more fattening than old fashioned sugar.

One of the curious consequences of these trends is that the poor are now more likely to be obese than the wealthy. Indeed, obesity is now a problem in developing countries where starvation was the norm not too many years ago, according to the World Health Organization. The poor live on low-cost but highly fattening carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta, while the rich can afford the Atkins Diet, which is based on eating costly meat, fish and other high-protein foods. [4] The former are also more likely to engage in sedentary lifestyles, while the latter are busy burning calories at expensive gyms or on their own high-tech exercise equipment. And the rich can afford the time to eat slow food instead of fast food.

Throughout most of world history, obesity was a sign of wealth and thinness a sign of poverty. In the future, the opposite may be the case.

Publishers’ Note:
There are many inaccuracies in Bartlett’s article which we point out below. Bartlett is right in blaming government policies, but not in praising Robert Atkins’ “Science”.

[1] Low carbohydrate diets advertised centuries earlier: “The first known diet book was published in 1864 by an English casket-maker, William Banting, after he became alarmed because he could no longer tie his shoes and had gotten so fat he had to walk down the stairs backward.His book, Letter of Corpulence, called for low-carbohydrate foods and daily alcohol, and sold 58,000 copies.”–John McDougall, M.D.

[2] Actually the reverse is true, writes Joel Fuhrman, M.D on The Atkins’ Cancer Revolution:

After significantly increasing your risk of developing cancer in years to come, what about your heart?

The Westman study, funded by the Atkins Center (with a long-term funding arrangement) and interpreted to the media by Atkins and his employee spokespeople, is another example of how money buys influence at the expense of the unsuspecting public. This short-term study showed a moderate degree of weight loss for about 80% of the initial participants and an average of 10 mg/dl (or 5%) decrease in LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.11 It was heralded to the media as proof that the Atkins diet is safe for the heart. It is well established that blood fat levels fall as body fat decreases. With any method of weight loss we will see drop in cholesterol levels. But, in spite of taking fish oils and other supplements known to reduce cholesterol, this study showed an unusual resistance to the expected fall in lipids we see with other methods of weight loss. Television networks repeated aired interviews with Atkins his representatives to interpret a study paid for by the Atkins’ institute.

In contrast, an independent, peer-reviewed, extremely comprehensive study on the effects of individuals following an Atkin’s approach studied heart function with before and after blood flow evaluations with sophisticated medical tools including myocardial perfusion imaging, echocardiograpy and serial blood work. The study showed the blood flow to the heart diminished by an average of 40% after one year on such a high saturated fat, high protein diet and increased inflammatory markers that predict heart attacks. In contrast, a low saturated fat diet given to the control group improved blood flow to the heart by more than 40%. This study clearly illustrated a high protein diet is too dangerous for anyone to consider, even for a short time. Of course this study was ignored by the media as it wasn’t promoted by the Atkins organization high profile publicity department. It has also been found that ketogenic diets can cause dilatation of the heart muscle and cardiomyopathy that is reversible if the diet is stopped in time. Many readers may remember Dr. Atkins himself had a heart attack about a year ago caused by a cardiomyopathy. Of course, the spin was that it had nothing to do with his diet and was due to a virus.

[3] “Carbohydrates in their simple and refined forms do raise insulin levels and as a result when combined with fat, as they are on the Western diet, they promote obesity. One definite improvement in the diet made by advocates of the low-carbohydrate regimes is their consistent recommendation to avoid sugar, white flour, milk, ice cream, cakes, pies, soft drinks, and low-fat diet products which contain large amounts of highly-refined carbohydrates. Also to their credit they all do recommend a high intake of healthful green and yellow vegetables, like asparagus, cauliflower, and onions. But they fail the dieter by restricting healthful complex carbohydrates, like rice, corn, beans and potatoes, and by recommending butter, eggs, meats and other very high-fat, high-cholesterol, and/or high-protein foods.”–John McDougall, M.D.

[4] Typically the poor, in poor countries, tend to be less obese. It is not until the adopt the diets of “King’s and Queens” on a daily basis that they become fatter. “You don’t have to be a nutritionist or doctor to figure out the truth. Look around the world. If carbohydrates were bad for people, then the Japanese living in Japan on a rice-based diet would be fat and sickly. When they move to the US and switch to a lower-carbohydrate, higher-fat and -protein diet they would become thinner and healthier. Is that what you see? To design a diet that will keep you healthy, young-looking, and trim all you have to do is look around the world and observe what thin, healthy people eat.”–John McDougall, M.D.

“There is a simpler, more healthful answer to obesity: eat the foods that thin people around the world eat; for example, the healthy people of Asia who thrive on high-carbohydrate, rice-based diets. The Japanese eat a diet abundant in rice and vegetables with only small amounts of animal protein and have a very low incidence of heart disease, breast, colon and prostate cancer and the world’s greatest longevity.”–John McDougall, M.D.

The proper solution is for government to get how of the food and health business (both in regulating what we eat, and in subsidizing what we eat) and leave that up to the free-market.

Bruce Bartlett is a Senior Fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA).

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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