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The food police

Christie Pesavento | Tuesday, March 16, 2010

No doubt many of you are reading this column while munching away on the delicious cuisine offered at North or South Dining Hall. What is it that you are eating? Cereal? Fries? Pizza? Some fro-yo, perhaps?

Moreover, as an independent, intelligent young adult, you consciously chose certain foods from the various options available based on criteria such as taste, nutritional value, freshness, etc. You probably did not rely on others to make the decision for you.

Like the majority of restaurants and grocery stores in the United States, Notre Dame’s dining halls and restaurants offer foods ranging widely in health benefits. Some health-conscious people choose to eat only foods that are high in nutritional value and limit their calorie intake, while others disregard their health and consume whatever they desire in unlimited quantities. Still others try to find some sort of balance between the two extremes.

The important point to take away from the circumstances outlined is that we are all given a choice in regard to what and how much we consume. Furthermore, these choices have consequences, and since the individual is responsible for what he or she decides to eat, the individual is also largely responsible for the health consequences that result from these cumulative decisions. Although genetic makeup and predispositions also play a significant role in one’s health, the individual has a considerable capacity to increase or decrease the likelihood of developing certain health problems through dietary choices.

Not everyone, however, is content with this state of affairs. Pointing to increasing trends in a number of preventable conditions, most notably obesity, health advocates are ratcheting up their rhetoric in order to foster a sense of urgency among the public that something must be done to protect people from themselves.

One such advocate is former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who contends that obesity is the “fastest-growing cause of illness and death in the United States.”  His statistics indicate that obesity has reached epidemic proportions, with nearly two-thirds of Americans being classified as overweight or obese, represents a 50 percent increase from just a decade ago.

“Unless we do something about it,” says Carmona, “the magnitude of the dilemma will dwarf 9/11 or any other terrorist attempt.”

Dr. Clyde Yancy of the American Heart Association elaborates on the public impact of the epidemic.

“Obesity is depleting our nation’s pocketbook and devastating the health and wellness of millions of Americans. Left unaddressed, the obesity epidemic will undermine our country’s health, reduce our productivity and threaten our economic security,” he said.

First Lady Michelle Obama, who has adopted the cause of ending childhood obesity, even linked Americans’ expanding waistline to national security.

“This [obesity] epidemic,” she stated, “also impacts the nation’s security, as obesity is now one of the most common disqualifiers for military service.”

With health experts and political figures alike warning of dire consequences that will befall the nation if nothing is done to curb the rising obesity rate, it should come as no surprise that some government officials have all but declared a war on obesity. Activists and bureaucrats have proposed various solutions to the problem that range from relatively harmless educational campaigns and mandatory nutritional labels to more invasive proposals like taxing sodas, imposing zoning restrictions on fast food restaurants and prohibiting the marketing of junk food to children.

The most recent tactic politicians have employed to fight the battle of the bulge involves banning certain food additives that are thought to contribute to obesity.

In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law in July 2008 that prohibits food manufacturers and restaurants from frying foods using oils, margarines and shortenings that contain more than 0.5 percent trans fat per serving. Those that violate the law face up to $1,000 in fines.

Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg revealed the National Salt Reduction Initiative, consisting of a set of guidelines for restaurants and food processors to reduce the amount of sodium in their foods by 20 percent over the next five years. While these guidelines are currently voluntary, efforts have already been made to make them mandatory. State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz introduced legislation earlier this month that would “prohibit restaurants from using salt when preparing customers’ meals,” and levy a $1,000 fine on restaurants each time one of its chefs uses salt to cook.

The knee-jerk response of many political leaders to perceived social crises, as these examples demonstrate, often involves implementing more laws, more control and more coercive force. As a result, individual choice and freedoms are permanently eroded while the government’s intrusion into our daily lives steadily increases.

Politicians have no business dictating what we can and cannot eat, and limiting our choice of food ingredients does exactly that. Yes, obesity is a problem, and yes, it does contribute significantly to the overall cost of health care. But paternalistic policies are not the answer. When the government can control something as elementary as the food we choose to consume, there is virtually no aspect of our lives left that remains out of its reach. And that, my friends, leads to what C.S. Lewis once referred to as the worst sort of tyranny, “a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims.”

Instead of relying on government-run solutions, Americans should turn to education and the free market in order to fight obesity. Dieting and nutrition cookbooks are widely available at bookstores everywhere. Many restaurant chains and food manufacturers have introduced healthier options into their menus and range of products. McDonald’s, for example, now offers yogurt parfaits and salads. Campbell’s has created a line of Healthy Request soups that are low in fat, cholesterol and sodium.

In January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data indicating that obesity rates have encountered a plateau, with numbers remaining relatively constant for at least five years for men and close to 10 years for women and children. While hardly representing definitive proof of progress, these figures offer a sign that the obesity epidemic has halted its expansion without government intervention.

Christie Pesavento is a senior who is majoring in political science and sociology. She can be reached at cpesaven@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.