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How the U.S. Manufactured the Obesity Epidemic

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Another casualty of U.S. capitalism continues to haunt us -- or rather, weigh us down. The obesity epidemic is very much like the opiate epidemic in that they're both issues of consumption. Consume too many opiates and you're likely to die of an overdose. Eat too much, particularly too much of the wrong types of foods, and you're likely to die of cancer.

The Guardian reports that obesity can cause 12 different types of cancer, according to new findings from the World Cancer Research Fund. "As more countries adopt 'western' lifestyles, moving less and eating more junk food, the number of new cases of cancer is expected to rise," says The Guardian's health editor Sarah Boseley.

How is the U.S. to blame for obesity? We didn't invent capitalism, nor did we invent the urge to binge on Cheetos and Hostess products and Netflix.

What the U.S. government did do is subsidize foods that contribute to obesity. These subsidized foods include corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock. It's not the ear of corn, the whole soybean, or the whole grain of wheat, it's the way companies chemically manipulate and process these foods that causes obesity. The foods become empty calories. Companies combine these cheap, processed, subsidized foods with sugar, synthetic ingredients, and preservatives to create dangerous cocktails (read: drugs). Kids can buy food-drugs off the shelf as soon as they're old enough to walk and talk.

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that, compared with people who don't eat a lot of government-subsidized foods, people who eat a lot of them are 37 percent more likely to be obese and have a 14 percent higher risk of unhealthy cholesterol levels.

Again, that's because of the way many companies package subsidized foods. Your average grain of wheat ends up in a loaf of bread absolutely devoid of nutritional benefit. Once they enter your system, the processed carbs turn to sugar and empty calories. If you're a company looking to get the biggest return on investment from all that wheat you purchase, it only makes sense to convert it into a bread product that people will want to buy again and again. People love sugar; sugary products sell well because sugar is addictive; therefore, package sugar in bread form, sell it, and you'll have an addictive product that will keep people coming back for more stimulus.

The dangerous consistency of modern bread has sparked the low-carb diet for children , which is the equivalent of saying, "keep kids off drugs." The diet posits that kids can get all the carbs they need from fruit, vegetables, and dairy. Yet vegetables and fruit are not subsidized by the government, even though they form a huge portion of the government's dietary guidelines . If you're not wealthy enough to afford fruits and vegetables for your kids, afford a bag of Wonder Bread, some Jif peanut butter, and jar of grape jelly chock full of high fructose corn syrup.

The prevalence of legal, edible drugs we call "food" is part of the reason that the U.S. ranks 26th out of 29 of the world's wealthiest countries when it comes to the health of our kids . Over 30 percent of our kids are overweight or obese, and only 27 percent of high schoolers met the government's 2008 guidelines for exercise.

This isn't discounting agency and autonomy. Parents choose what to feed their kids. In my early thirties, I did social work for an extremely poor family. The parents spent the majority of their hard-earned cash to feed their kids premium food from the local co-op. Parents like this are a minority in America. The parents I'm speaking of lived within walking distance of the co-op in a small town where pretty much everybody lived near a grocery store. But throughout the rest of America, plenty of poor parents live in food deserts or food swamps.

The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reports that "low-income and racial-ethnic" people are more likely to live in food deserts and food swamps, and have higher rates of obesity than rich white people. A food desert is an area where there are no grocery stores available within one mile. A food swamp is an area inundated with unhealthy food options, such as fast food and convenience stores. Even if there's a grocery store available in a food swamp, it's easier to afford the cheap, processed food options, and it's faster. If you're poor, working multiple jobs, you don't have a lot of time and money to feed your family the healthy stuff.

This is a country awash in cheap, unhealthy, subsidized foods that contribute to a costly obesity epidemic. How did we get here?

It all started with the Great Depression. The origin of farm subsidies was Hoover's Farm Board, which said that if wheat prices went below 80 cents and cotton prices went below 20 cents, the federal government would step in, buy the crops, store them, and sell them later. This resulted in a huge loss for the government because most farmers started growing wheat and cotton, which resulted in an excess the government had to buy up and get rid of at a loss.

Then, Roosevelt stepped in to get America out of the Depression with the New Deal. He supported the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which paid farmers not to produce some crops, and set prices at a pre-Depression rate. That act was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court, but was replaced by the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, which paid subsidies for certain crops out of general tax revenue. Crop insurance also came into play.

Farmers got hooked on subsidies thanks to the Farm Board and the New Deal. The subsidies continue to this day, meaning there's a lot of cheap wheat, corn, and soybeans on the market. In turn, companies find cheap, easy ways to turn profits on subsidized crops. The food you see in "food swamps" -- in convenience stores and fast food chains -- that food exists because the U.S. government and a capitalist system incentivize companies to make it. These companies have autonomy, but telling a company like Nestle to reinvent its business model is like telling a bully not to take a school-sanctioned shortcut to the front of the lunchline.

Here's the ironic thing: the New Deal was enacted by a Democratic president. It was a Democratic big government way to end the Depression, and it worked. Yet now the poor, racial-ethnic Democratic voter-base is breaking itself on a Democratic idea. What's to be done? Stop subsidizing huge monoculture legacy farms. Let them fail. In turn, small farms will step in to sell us the whole foods, and natural laws of competition will drive down prices for all.

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