Indeed, overeating has become a critical national issue. According to Dr. Julie Gerberding, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “If you looked at any epidemic—whether it’s influenza or plague from the Middle Ages—they are not as serious as the epidemic of obesity in terms of the health impact on our country and our society.” Data from the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that 30% of U.S. adults 20 or older are obese—that is, over 60 million people-- and another 35% are overweight.
Health officials have long maintained that weight issues lead to significantly more health problems, not to speak of the high financial cost required to deal with them. According to the CDC, being obese, or just overweight, increases the risk of numerous serious ailments including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis and some cancers. Other studies have described a link between obesity and depression.
Despite this evidence, our march toward obese superpower status only seems to quicken. What other country in the world could offer a competitive tour, like the USTA or PGA, that consists of winning big prize money for eating the most grilled cheese sandwiches, asparagus, pulled pork, tacos, matzo balls, hot dogs or fried chicken wings? What are the reasons for this modern-day, biblical-proportioned plague?
Professional and academic studies emphasize greater food availability at ever-lower prices as primary causes. Many studies also point to continuous replacement of physically intensive labor by desk work, and decreasing levels of exercise in our leisure activities.
These factors no doubt contribute significantly, but it seems to me that increased availability of food is not in itself the primary cause of obesity. Rather, it seems that the ubiquity of food provides an easy anodyne for coping with widespread and profound emotional hunger. Problems in family stability, a harshly competitive society, and an overly fast-paced life have been often-cited reasons for a kind of hunger that medical, religious and civic institutions cannot seem to abet. These stress-related problems have led to a rampant consumerism that demands “more” of everything, and “more” now rather than later. Because of food’s connection to our survival and the people we were mostly dependent upon as young children, eating becomes a primary vehicle for satisfying a hunger that has little to do with survival or even eating enough to live very well.
The answer to reducing our obesity problem is not simple. We are all familiar with the nostrum of eating less and exercising more, but its truth has had little effect. A friend who counsels people on the gamut of weight-related and substance abuse problems told me that getting people to sustain weight loss is more difficult than having them kick a drinking or drug habit.
What else then? Certainly a vigorous national education campaign, emphasizing the connection between emotional hunger and overeating (as well as the obvious dangers to health that overeating can cause) could be quite helpful. Some efforts have been made along these lines, but they have lacked the energy and intensity of the anti-smoking campaign, and have not led to decreased obesity rates; on the contrary, they continue to rise.
Restraining food purchases and sales through regulations and taxes might have some effect, but, like other supply-control measures I don’t think they would work very well. What is most important is for all of us to come to grips with what there is in our family lives, other personal relationships, professional activities and social institutions that contribute to our compelling need for food, despite the obvious dangers. This can be a painful process, but hopefully, we as individuals and as a society can tolerate this kind of inquiry, and, by understanding obesity’s deeper causes, gradually deal with it. (Baltimore Sun op-ed, 10/8/2006).