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Berginski: Arguing over obesity doesn’t work

By Staff | Jun 27, 2014

For days now, First Lady Michelle Obama has been decrying House Republicans for trying to undo the new school lunch program.

In the fight against childhood obesity, a USDA rule (which the first lady helped to push) mandated in 2012 requires schools to reduce the levels of sodium, trans and saturated fats in meals and to offer vegetables, fruits, skim milk and whole grains. Which would be all well and good if students didn’t throw produce in the trash or tweet their loathing of the cafeteria fare, if some anecdotes are to be believed. (If I believed every single anecdote I ever read/heard, I’d be on a deserted island, far from human contact, right now.)

However, critics have argued that school lunches alone do not a fat kid make, and that activity levels and what kids eat and drink after school play a role too. Critics also argue the USDA and Obama don’t know what children need, their parents should.

Didn’t we, as a society, just get done arguing whether or not obesity is a disease? (Considering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has figures on it, it practically is.)

The problem with arguing over obesity is three-fold: it solves nothing, it also sometimes devolves into a semi-politcal, anecdote-based argument, and it can also ignore biology.

In scouring the Internet for material on this column, I cannot tell you how many discussions in the comment sections of obesity-related and the school lunch program-related articles have brought up the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) and how wrought with fraud, abuse and waste it supposedly is. But for every anecdote of someone on food stamps who shouldn’t be or uses food stamps to buy junk food or nonfood items, there’s always someone who genuinely needs it.

It is true that obesity rates are slightly higher with regards to those with low income. A 2007 Economic Research Service study found that among the non-elderly female population, 1-2 years in the SNAP program equaled a gain of three pounds, or a 0.5 percent increase in body mass index. A 2010 Harvard School of Public Health study found that, when adjusted for participation in other programs, demographics and food insecurity, obesity rates for SNAP recipients were 30 percent higher than those not in the program. Then again, organic produce is expensive compared to the frozen, packed full of sodium and preservatives foods, or even the high sugar or high fat foods.

And if SNAP doesn’t get mentioned in comment sections, do you know what does? One-size-fits-all “solutions” based on individual experience and age, even though everyone knows one-size-fits-all isn’t always the best approach. A lot of these “solutions” include diet and exercise, which don’t always work for some people.

Let me explain that last sentence further. Some who argue also ignore genetic factors, like, for example, an individual possessing a mutated version of the Mrap2 gene that only causes him or her to gain weight, even if he or she ate less than he or she normally would. Or, for another example, the FTO gene. That gene, if mutated, can be linked to greater consumption of high fat and high calorie foods, as well as increased appetite, according to a Time article. Other biological factors also ignored, either because they’re unknown or omitted, include leptin (which tells the body whether or not to eat), ghrelin (which can make fatty foods look good) and neuropeptide Y (which manipulates one’s appetite, triggering eating).

This column isn’t about solving the obesity problem once and for all, nor is it defending being fat. (I am fat and I don’t defend it.) I’m just tired of hearing, reading and seeing arguments and discussions about it bearing no fruit. A better fruitless argument would be whether Coke is better than Pepsi.

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