Commentary: Is society to blame for making us fat?

The Sacramento BeeMay 19, 2012 

Over the weekend, on a family day trip to a Bay Area amusement park, it was stunning to see so many people in one place who've lost control of their weight.

There were obese people of all races and ethnicities, but most poignant of all were the kids who virtually waddled as they walked.

Sweat poured down their backs as they lugged their bodies around as if they were old. It was a heartbreaking and timely experience.

Everywhere you look, obesity is in the news.

On Monday and Tuesday, HBO aired a four-part series called "The Weight of the Nation." You can see it free right here: http://theweightofthenation.hbo.com.

I had just written a column about my own battles with obesity when the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Medicine released a controversial report challenging old assumptions on why people are so overweight.

The heart of this issue is personal responsibility.

We assume that people are obese because they lack willpower. It's an epidemic. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 42 percent of American adults will be obese by 2030.

"When you see the increase in obesity you ask, what changed?" Shiriki Kumanyika, a Pennsylvania doctor, said to Reuters last week. "The answer is, the environment. The average person cannot maintain a healthy weight in this obesity-promoting environment."

The debate spurred by the institute's findings and HBO series could reverberate in agriculture-rich, tax-averse California.

Medical experts argue that you can't lay all the blame on overweight people, not when sugar-sweetened drinks are marketed voraciously to kids. And when farm subsidies effectively discourage farmers from producing enough fresh fruits and vegetables – or so the argument goes.

Reuters wrote: "The (Institute of Medicine) panel argues that people cannot truly exercise 'personal choice' because their options are severely limited, and 'biased toward the unhealthy end of the continuum.' "

As a Mexican American child of California, I grew up with lard in my veins – and soft drinks instead of water, butter instead of margarine. I learned to gorge myself on platters that were far bigger than I needed.

I ate so much that eventually I couldn't tell when I was hungry anymore because I ate all the time. I learned this at home, at school, on television. By the time I became obese, nothing could stop me – not even friends and loved ones who tried.

In my case, I took action as an adult when I decided I didn't want to be obese anymore.

Will taxing soft drink companies and changing farm policies make people healthier? I don't see it, but given the epidemic, I'm willing to listen to the argument.

Are you?

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