The Global War on Obesity

Those unprepared for the coming war on obesity should note that in addition to our nation’s actual wars—Vietnam, Iraq, Iraq the sequel, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and the war on terror—we have had a number of figurative wars in recent history. We have fought wars against poverty, drugs, and smoking, at least until drugs won the drug war and until we gave up on poverty, as the widening income gap and lack of improvement in the real (inflation-adjusted) incomes of the poorest Americans demonstrate. The “war on smoking,” however, has been among our more-successful figurative wars. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control estimate that 22.8% of the U.S. adult population smoked tobacco habitually in 2002, down from 25.7% in 1991 and 33.2% in 1980. Consequently, those planning the “war on obesity” are modeling it after the “war on smoking.” A study released on Tuesday suggests that food, like tobacco, may be addictive. The U.S.-based study, led by addiction experts, including the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, exposed volunteers to food while monitoring their brain metabolism through Positron Emission Tomography, or PET scans. The researchers found that the brains of normal people lit up when the subjects were exposed to their favorite foods. Moreover, according to the study, the regions that showed the most increased activity were the areas associated with addiction. The patterns of increased metabolism resembled those observed in drug addicts. As a article reporting on the study put it, “Chocolate, BBQ addiction may be real.” Clearly, those of us who do not habitually photosynthesize, including all mammals, are dependent on food. We might all be said to be “addicted” to food. Personally, I must confess I am calorically-dependent, as I eat four times a day, not counting snacks, and have been consuming food, including carbohydrates, for most of my existence. Evolutionarily speaking, those genes that led the organisms to which they belonged to become “addicted” to food were more likely to survive than those genes that existed within organisms that starved. Hunger, then, is a withdrawal symptom. All this talk suggests the opening shots of a battle against obesity. The White House announced a campaign against obesity two weeks ago, pushing for improved nutritional labeling and health education. Commented Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, “[the White House initiative] reflects our commitment to reversing this tragic obesity trend, in which far too many Americans are literally eating themselves to death.” Actually, it appears that far too many Americans are eating food that they have bought. If they were eating themselves to death, they would not be gaining weight in the process. More seriously, critics allege that the White House initiative does not go far enough or is, at best, a token effort. Perhaps, then we will soon see Surgeon General’s warnings on food, as on cigarettes. (Warning: Consuming more food than you burn will cause you to gain weight. This follows from the law of conservation of mass.) In the mean time, “food addicts” are growing increasingly angry—and it seems there is a fat chance that improved labeling alone will accomplish much. The solution likely involves some good public health policy—a move away from the “food pyramid,” perhaps—that has been lost in the rhetorical noise. In the meantime, the “Global War on Obesity” (as a recent UK newspaper headline put it,) reminds us that war is not only a lousy card game. It is also a tired public metaphor.