Sir, please, back away from the cupcake.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

We're Getting Fatter, Sicker and Going Broke

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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What is the greatest crisis the U.S. faces? Illegal immigration? Nope. Deficits? Probably not. ISIS? Putin? Hardly.

I submit to you that it’s our epidemic of fat.

Obviously, obesity is enormously costly, because it leads to health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. More than a third of Americans are obese, and the health costs reach into the hundreds of billions. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 100,000 Americans developed cancer in 2012 due to obesity. Furthermore, obesity is associated with an even more insidious scourge: depression.

But it isn't just the nation’s pocketbook that is suffering from this public health crisis. In a recent article, Vanessa Wong of Bloomberg Businessweek reported that obesity is damaging the U.S.’s military preparedness:

The No. 1 reason people can’t join the military is that they’re overweight or obese, says a group of retired military leaders who are fighting for improved childhood nutrition. Under the name Mission: Readiness, they estimate that more than one in five young Americans is too heavy to enlist in the armed services...

Mission: Readiness representatives and Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed how efforts to excuse schools from meeting USDA school food nutrition standards by special interest groups and some members of Congress affect the military. The group has been advocating the removal of junk foods from schools and the imposition of better nutritional standards in school lunches.

Ah, “special interest groups.” In this context, that refers to food companies -- especially the beverage makers that pack America’s soft drinks with huge amounts of sugar. Relentless lobbying by these companies has been hugely successful, blocking every attempt to steer children toward healthier food, and obfuscating the link between sugar and health problems.

But big business isn't solely to blame for the obesity epidemic -- culture plays a role as well. Remember former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s modest attempt to limit sales of large-sized sugary soft drinks and the outraged howls from libertarians that followed? (Bloomberg is majority owner of Bloomberg LP, publisher of Bloomberg View.)

Meanwhile, some liberals have turned toward “fat acceptance” as the next civil-rights movement, despite the fact that accepting a deadly health condition doesn’t seem like the kind of modern, healthy society liberals should want to build.

Beyond these cultural issues, the U.S. is just set up to be uniquely vulnerable to fat. Our sprawling cities depend on cars and don’t offer many opportunities for walking, leading to a highly sedentary lifestyle. Our locally managed public schools are unlikely to coordinate on a curriculum for teaching kids healthy eating, much less enforce healthy school-lunch menus or ban soft-drink machines. And our huge corn industry is the natural producer of high fructose corn syrup, one of the most dangerous kinds of sugar.

Add this all up, and it means America is fat-land. Go to any store and look at the “low-fat” products on the shelves. They will be full of added sugar. Look at the products labeled “sugarless,” and they will be chock-full of fat. Many of the foods American health-food enthusiasts love to eat -- yogurt and granola, for example -- are packed with sugar. And just look at the nutrition bars in the “health” section of your grocery store -- most will have a huge percentage of your daily recommended intake of saturated fat.

What this means is that a majority of Americans spend their entire adult lives in a desperate, losing struggle against fat. We spend billions of dollars on diet products. We starve ourselves with Paleo and other diet fads, only to see the pounds creep back on as soon as the diet is finished. We buy gym memberships and castigate ourselves for never using them. 

It isn't enough to simply say that the U.S. has an obesity problem. We are drowning in fat. It’s time to wake up and recognize the seriousness of the problem. Only then can we muster the national will to actually take steps to slim down the national waistline.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net