Assumptions routed in battle of the bulge

J. Justin Wilson Senior Research Analyst, Center for Consumer Freedom
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It’s almost an American ritual: putting together a big spread of comfort foods to eat during the Super Bowl. But if you listen to anti-food activists, those bacon-wrapped franks, cheese-drenched nachos, and bleu cheese-dipped Buffalo wings aren’t comforting, they’re deadly. Listening to the scaremongering headlines, you might think that even just one night of football feasting will make you fat, then kill you.

But a recent study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) casts doubt on their over-simplified “demon foods” model. Researchers found that being overweight or even mildly obese is actually linked with a lower risk of death. This is actually something we’ve known for some time: the causal relationship between excess weight and death isn’t clear-cut. When it comes to longevity, love handles aren’t a smoking habit.

But while the flab factor is scientifically murky, the effects of fitness, physical activity and healthy habits on longevity and health are much better understood. Keeping fit and practicing good habits extend life, regardless of weight. A study by researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina found that not smoking, exercising regularly, eating enough fruits and vegetables, and moderating alcohol consumption each reduce the risk of death for adults of any weight.

And for those trying to lose weight, the experience of successful weight losers in the National Weight Control Registry provides even more support for using physical fitness as a strategy. While a study of participants by researchers from the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Diseases found that no particular diet proved important to successful weight maintenance, “continuing physical activity and regular checks on body weight” did.

While scientific evidence places an emphasis on physical activity, government action concentrates on putting everybody on a restrictive diet. Last year, New York City banned large soft drinks in restaurants. Cities and states across America are proposing taxes on soft drinks and other foods. Britain’s Labor Party has even proposed banning certain breakfast cereals.

Hide the nachos. Tellingly, government measures to put people on a diet have to be crammed down our throats. A recent Associated Press poll found about 60 percent of people opposed taxes on foods and about three-fourths of Americans balked at New York City-style soda portion prohibitions.

The results of government-imposed dietary restrictions won’t be pretty. Governments assuming responsibility for weight loss and maintenance is a recipe for failure. A study in the journal American Family Physician found that individuals’ “passive reactions to problems” and “less assumption of responsibility in life” were associated with weight-loss failure. Turning over responsibility to the government to police our diets certainly leads to both.

Rather than a city- or state-sponsored diet, we need a new approach, one that emphasizes lifestyle physical activity as a path to better total health, not a single-minded obsession with diet and weight. A study by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) researchers found that children who lived near fitness areas and playing fields had lower body mass indexes than those who didn’t.

An additional advantage to shifting approaches to the “calories used” side of the consumption-use imbalance is that people can find physical activities they like. The world’s least effective weight loss program is one a person gives up on or openly defies because a politician rammed it down his throat. But if people find a way to get moving that is enjoyable, they might stick to it, and by so doing improve their health and lose weight.

Perhaps the solution to the effects of our football-induced overconsumption is to toss the ball around before a game. Running pass routes might just prove more effective than writing a regulatory rulebook.

J. Justin Wilson is the senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.

J. Justin Wilson