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May 11, 2012

Taking America Back

By Veena Trehan

America has seen what may be the most rapid (non-war) deterioration of public health in history. Today about 2/3 of our population is overweight, in just 18 years more than 1 in 10 will carry 80 extra pounds. Yet a generation ago, we were slim, unknowingly Jedi Masters of our health. Let's take America (and this slogan) back.


A March study found only 1 percent of US adults meet seven cardiovascular health metrics that are the norm in babies (not smoking; exercising; having normal blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol and weight; and eating a healthy diet). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maps from 1985 to 2010 show each year our country getting fatter. And the CDC predicts 42 versus today's 36 percent will becoming obese (very overweight) by 2030, and 11 rather than 5 percent will pack on 80 or more pounds.

A March study found only 1 percent of US adults meet seven cardiovascular health metrics that are the norm in babies (not smoking; exercising; having normal blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol an

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These stunning declines in public health finally provide an appropriate use for the popular slogan. It's time to take America back.

The statistics and a glance around reflect a modern-day tragedy of the commons. Garrett Hardin's 1968 essay described private herders whose cows overgraze public commons to devastating effect. Similarly corporations'  low quality food products -- and government complicity -- ravage millions today. These private actors also don't pay skyrocketing costs (now $190 billion in health care and another $150 billion in lost productivity) as they shirk blame, saying one can't attribute weight gain to individual products and casting doubt on the science. 

Meanwhile politicians avoid productive debate and action as carefully as they might sidestep E. coli-laced poop from a grain-fed cow. Many champion "personal choice." Are we to believe 1 in 3 Americans by 2050 -- including many children -- will choose diabetes, convinced it is the hip "choice of a new generation"? ( Diabetes, Pepsi marketers, duke it out). Clearly we're also to ignore the tens of billions spent on weight loss products or believe the overweight buy these products as charity for the aging celebrities shilling the pills.

Actually our government is involved across the food lifecycle through subsidies, inspections, labeling requirements, advertising regulations, and tax policies. But while other countries have significantly slowed or stopped rising obesity by taxing sugary and fatty foods more , our congressmen may as well be lying in expensed-steak-induced heart attacks for their championing of our interests .

They rotate from employment, to the budget, to rising health care costs while ignoring the elephant in room of obesity-related disease and disability. Instead they take counterintuitive steps of seeking to limit food stamp eligibility (planning mass starvation?) and battling the Affordable Care Act. First Lady Michelle Obama exercises with a passion she rarely musters for more important fights against toxic food and soda. And the government buckles to industry pressure, shelving voluntary interagency guidelines for marketing food to kids.  

Thus the most rapid act of collective forgetting and miseducation in American history. Earlier we stayed slim with minimal effort, unknowing Jedi masters of the store and stove. Now we need to recreate this time before epidemics of cancer, heart disease and obesity brought on by the proliferation of unhealthy food. These food must be made expensive, unappealing and scarce. What we eat is no longer obvious or palatable; t he government must verify and require labeling of feed substances, farm conditions, medicines, pesticides, and genetic modification close to the point of purchase . Government resources, advertising and schools must dominate mindshare with a message to eat food proven healthy and nutritious, and shun the tainted and processed newcomers recently emerging as dietary staples. 

We must take America back.

Back to a time of empathy and sense. When we gave a pregnant woman a seat as we knew with heft came disease and pain. As we give more frequent and intense health care to them, so too should we provide regular services -- nutrition counseling and monitoring  -- to the 2/3 of adults and 1/3 of kids now overweight. In fact, our deterioration in health suggests broadly overseeing the entire population.

Back to a time of pride and progress. When beliefs in American superiority motivated us to win the space race and complete the Manhattan Project. As the fattest nation now, we may not be able to become the healthiest in the near term. But global leadership in labeling, taxing and regulation could lead to achievements more solidly in the public interest than our endeavors of the past.

Back to a time when buying food and cooking was perceived as "real work". When home cooking was more than a restaurant slogan. When Moms weren't sued when their children were obese. Instead, they were celebrated for supporting their families through the culinary arts of combining fresh whole foods.

Back to a time when religion informed more of our food choices. Adopting Jews' prohibition against eating meat with cheese might slim down menus and diners, preparing Ezekiel's bread of coarse grain and pulse and embracing many religions' seasonal (or lifelong ban) on meats and fish could do even more. Plant-based diets ward off obesity and chronic disease, asserts "The China Study", and they're often cheaper too.

Back to a simpler and similar time. In 1985, America was not a farming society (just 3 percent of Americans were in agriculture) and genes were almost the same.  We are currently bombarded with health claims yet worse off than many poor from earlier decades. Earlier impoverished farmers who grew "organic" vegetables, caught wild fish and pasture-raised cows appear today as pioneers of health and sustainability. 

Back to a time when food was fuel, energy for activities or work. "One should eat to live, not live to eat," said the playwright Moliere. Yet too often today we delight in the spectacle of artificially bright colors; the crunch of nutritionally poor and processed foods; or the toxic combination of sugar, salt and fat.   

Back to a time when restaurants served authentic cuisine. Before bacon fat and artificial syrups flavored drinks, before Americanized Mexican food swam in cheese, before many pizzas became tasteless imitations of Italian gems. Many of us zestfully indulge on international vacations without gaining a pound, here we painstakingly select dining entrees and supermarket foods to stay lean.

Back when food was a safe source of energy rather than a ticking time bomb. "Supersize Me's" Morgan Spurlock gained 25 pounds and developed liver disease after eating McDonalds for a month, prompting the question, "Is food that trashes your body truly "food'"? Recent studies linking daily diet soda consumption to stroke and a daily 3-ounce portion of red meat to premature death only underscore the question.

Back before food was a science experiment performed by technologists and explained on the news, before meat grew in petri dishes and salmon was genetically modified and supersized.

Back to a time when the government and the system promoted food safety. When "everything but snout" was a relic of Upton Sinclair's investigative journalism in a meatpacking plant rather than the daily reality of school lunches of pink slime. When chicken nuggets everywhere came free of petroleum products and salmon didn't eat corn unless it personally walked to the field and shucked it.

Back to a time when drugs treated sick people. Now they prevent disease in crowded factory farms, manipulate animals' behavior, or justify food myths promoted by corporations. A recent story described chickens' intake as including feathers, banned antibiotics, Paxil, caffeine, and arsenic, extreme steps in the search for greater profit. People are also prescribed daily medications -- that sometimes prove harmful -- as doctors fail to truly protect their patients' health. They choose to dole out drugs rather than engage in the poorly compensated work of helping change toxic diets.

Back to a time when pop culture promoted the public interest. Popeye gulped spinach in his popular comic strips and cartoons decades ago. Today in Tyson Foods ads toddlers proclaim their dislike of asparagus, string beans or mushrooms, delighting instead in chicken nuggets. (At least a farm tour sequel has dramatic potential). Young kids can't distinguish between advertising and reality and with 4,400 mostly unhealthy food ads targeting the average 2 to 7 year old, food companies bank on impressionable audiences.

Back to a time when we drank little or no soda. Now about 25 percent of teens drink it daily and heavy use has been linked to violent behavior. Until the 1950's Coke was sold in 6.5 ounce bottles; drinking skyrocketed with supersized drinks, aggressive targeting of the Boys & Girls Club of America and public schools, and government lobbying on labeling and taxes. Making soda harder to buy, more expensive, and more like junk food would slash consumption.

Back to a time of compassion. Now we cuddle our puppy Snookums while condemning Michael Vicks for dogfighting. Yet we sentence animals more intelligent than canines to life in factory farms where they are deliberately injured, inhumanely crowded, and brutally slaughtered. Who's torturing animals now?

Back to a time when government resources promoted public health. Subsidies originally protected small farmers, today 63 percent go for cattle feed or livestock. Less than 1 percent support fruits and vegetables comprising half the recommended plate of food.

A grassroots food revolution has already started with local farmers' markets and organic food stores spreading nationwide.  The social media that has promoted global political rallies also helped garner 1 million signatures for GMO labeling (even if the FDA's recount is shameful). Still the vision is clear: one of good health through a culture valuing naturally raised whole food. It must be pursued by government, schools, and society with even greater vigor and effectiveness than food corporations' recent efforts. The past can be more than prologue. As a template for the future, it can help secure one of life's necessities, promoting the health and happiness of us all. 

Submitters Bio:
Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.