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The Terrifying Truth About America's Obesity Epidemic

"Weight of the Nation," a new four-part HBO series paints a grim picture of our health prospects -- and our children's.

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Another obstacle is our increasingly sedentary way of life. Physical activity is crucial to helping us achieve and maintain a healthy weight; it not only burns calories but also reduces stress, which can lead to weight gain. But while our calorie consumption's crept up, our level of physical activity has plummeted. Seventy-five percent of us now drive to work--a 300 percent increase since 1960. In 1969, 42 percent of kids walked or biked to school. Now, more than 80 percent of them are driven to school. Fewer than 5 percent of adults meet the minimum guidelines for physical activity, and one in four adults gets no physical activity at all.

Our bodies weren't designed to handle this combination of excess calories and chronic inactivity. "Weight of the Nation" reveals that heart disease is even turning up in children now. In fact, as one medical expert notes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease--"a disease we had never even seen before"--shows up in the autopsies of 13 percent of all children and 38 percent of obese children.

One of the few hopeful statistics in the series is this: only 7 percent of healthy children grow up to become obese. That's all the more reason it's so unconscionable that we're ignoring our childrens' brains and bodies' most basic needs. Lobbyists repeatedly torpedo efforts to improve our school lunch program. The food industry bombards kids with ads and apps enticing them to consume all kinds of fatty, sugary foods and beverages. Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, denounces this practice as "powerful, pernicious and predatory," but industry apologists defend it under the banner of free speech.

We keep our kids cooped up in classrooms all day, even though we know they need to get outside and play. Currently, only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools provide daily physical education. One policy maker who tried to increase the number of hours of physical education in Texas, Susan Combs, offered this grim warning:

"Obesity will crush the United States, and we will fade in the rearview mirror in oblivion. We could have done something different, we should have done something different, and we lacked the moral fiber and love for our children to do the right thing."

"Weight of the Nation" floats the notion that it's not too late to turn things around. But we're fighting our own biology as well as all those virulent vested interests. As a young overweight woman profiled in the series notes, "We don't crave broccoli."

But it's worse than that. We not only don't crave broccoli, we marginalize it. Our agricultural policies do little or nothing to support the farmers who grow it. Court Justice Antonin Scalia posited that mandatory broccoli consumption might be the logical extension of President Obama's healthcare reforms. All this hostility towards a perfectly delightful, delicious and nutritious vegetable is just further proof that we need a sea-change in our attitudes about food. How about starting by declaring an end to the crucifying of crucifers?

 

Kerry Trueman is the co-founder of EatingLiberally.org. You can follow her on Twitter.

 
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