Bioethicist Daniel Callahan wrote in a recent article that he thinks we should take an “edgier” approach to tackling the problem of obesity in America. He thinks we should start using a campaign similar to the anti-smoking campaigns that would “shame” overweight people in the social sphere as a way to encourage them to lose weight and become healthier. According to Callahan,
Only a carefully calibrated effort of public social pressure is likely to awaken them to the reality of their condition. They have been lulled into oblivious-ness about their problem because they look no different from many others around them. [Read more in this Huffington Post article]
He claims the reason he quit smoking was because he was criticized, forced to smoke outside, and his taxes were raised. Essentially, the social pressure got to him (or perhaps the inconvenience?), and he quit.
I’d like to point out, first of all, that there are numerous differences between obesity and smoking:
1. Smoking is not only bad for the individual, but it affects everyone else around the smoker. Obesity, on the other hand, is a mostly personal, individual issue. Although there could be some minimal societal consequences, in general, a person being overweight has no real bearing on my life or health.
2. Smoking has one very specific action, and one very specific product that is involved in the negative consequences. Being or becoming overweight, however, can have multiple causes, and is not easily prevented or controlled by taxing one type of product.
3. Although I agree that obesity and the related health issues is becoming a huge issue in our country, I also think it’s a much more complicated situation to “fix” than smoking is/was. It involves so much more than simply quitting one particular behavior (smoking a cigarette, for example). Although I’m not discounting the difficulty of trying to quit smoking, it is a complete lifestyle change to curb obesity. Not only the individual’s lifestyle, but our lifestyles as a society as well. Which brings me to my final point…
4. We have to make major cultural changes to solve the problem of obesity in our nation. It has become an issue far beyond simply being motivated and having the willpower to lose weight.
People who are overweight know they are overweight already. Plastering images of overweight or obese people on billboards or in other public places, with the clear intention of making people with similar body types feel ashamed of themselves, won’t even begin to solve the problem. We have a bigger national problem — we don’t know how we should eat. We are bombarded with information about how we should eat, what diets we should try, what kind of exercise we should get. Then we are further slammed with advertisements for highly processed foods, soda, and alcohol.
When we go to the grocery store, there are so many choices that often, it’s easier to simply grab something that “looks” good, rather than take the time to find out what’s in it. Even if you’re relatively educated about nutrition and the things we should be eating, it can often be difficult to discern what is healthy and what isn’t. Even if you mostly stick to the produce, meat, and dairy sections, you still have to choose between “regular” and “organic.” Which is better? Is organic really necessary? Do I really need to spend the extra money?
Once we figure out what we’re going to buy from the grocery store, we have to decide who is actually on our side when it comes to nutrition. I doubt it’s the marketing and advertising companies who make their products appear “healthy.” I also doubt the food producers are on our side. As long as they’re making something edible, they know we’ll buy it. The doctors and nutritionists I’ve had experience with haven’t been able to give any great answers with respect to diet. Vague responses like you should probably get in a couple more servings of fruits or vegetables a day or try eating a bit more protein and fiber, and less fat aren’t all that helpful. What exactly should I eat? Not to mention, what works for one person may not be the right choice for someone else.
As you can see, there’s so much more to this national problem than there is to getting people to quit smoking. The solution to the “smoking problem” was fairly obvious: get people to quit smoking. There are only a couple of options for doing that. Losing weight is completely different, and a much more difficult project to undertake. There’s not a clear starting place, first of all. You can’t just quit “cold turkey” — you still have to eat. You could start exercising regularly, but if someone is truly overweight or obese, you can’t just start by running 10 miles. Even if a person has made the decision to make a change in their lifestyle, eating habits, or exercise patterns in order to lose weight, they still have to figure out how to do that. How on earth will seeing images everywhere of other obese people help you figure out how to start, and how to stick with it once you do start? It won’t.
I don’t have a solution for the problem. Motivational advertisements, or educational advertisements might be helpful. But ultimately, it’s a personal decision that must be made by each individual. Our society today is so much different than it was even 30 years ago, far less active with far more food choices that are easy, but not necessarily healthy. Our societal expectations have changed drastically — we want quick and easy. Frankly, there’s also a ton of money in the food industry — restaurants, new products, more exciting flavors — and it gets more and more difficult to keep yourself from falling into the trap we’ve created for ourselves. We demand bigger and better, quicker and easier, more flavor and less nutrition, and the food industry meets our demands.
At this point, it’s hard to know if we even know anymore what we were really meant to eat to begin with. Though we’ve adapted to be able to eat a lot of the “crap” we’re offered, we weren’t ever supposed to eat the way we do today. Unfortunately, until we’re not willing to eat the stuff we’re presented with, we’ll continue to have this problem.