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Treat Obesity as a Collective Responsibility

November 16, 2011 By Aaron Sinner, Hindsight Community Fellow

A central tenet of conservative philosophy is “individual responsibility.” In many ways, individual responsibility is an important ideal: Who doesn’t like the sound of taking responsibility for our own lives and actions, and accepting the consequences of our decisions?

Unfortunately, for many conservatives, “individual responsibility” has become code for “you’re on your own.” Having pushed a logical concept to its ideological extreme, radical conservatives now use the tenet as an attack on government and on collective problem-solving.

But the fallacy of conservatives’ focus on the individual over the community becomes clear in many respects. The United States’ obesity epidemic is one great tool for pointing out the failure of an ideology built solely on individual responsibility. After all, what could better embody individual responsibility than the personal control one has over one’s own weight?

Yet the data points to a different story. First, note there is a statistically strong correlation (greater than 0.3) between the percent of a state’s population that is obese and the percent lacking a bachelor’s degree. Strong correlations also exist between a state’s obesity rate and its poverty rate, as well as a strong inverse correlation (when one goes up, the other goes down) between obesity and median household income.

These stats demonstrate that outside factors weigh heavily on whether a person is obese or not. More persuasive still is research indicating a pattern of weight gain shared by individuals with up to three degrees of separation. Or as Rachael Combe summarizes the findings of Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, “[I]f your friend’s friend’s friend gains weight, it increases your risk of getting fat—and the closer the degree of separation between you and the person beefing up, the more likely you’ll pack on some pounds as well.”

The conclusion comes from a 2007 study reexamined earlier this year, and once again suggests any individual’s weight is largely influenced by factors outside of that person’s control.

The definitive nail in the coffin comes from a pair of studies conducted by Dr. Albert Stunkard in the 1980s and ‘90s. Stunkard’s work built on research by Dr. Jules Hirsch showing an overweight person who has lost significant weight is functioning in a permanent state of starvation and by Dr. Ethan Sims demonstrating that if a normal-weight person bulks up significantly, he or she can effortlessly lose the weight within months. Stunkard’s work, meanwhile, focused on adopted children. His first study found that “adoptees were as fat as their biological parents, and how fat they were had no relation to how fat their adoptive parents were.”

Take a moment to let that sink in. Parents’ influence on their children’s weight is limited purely to genes and has nothing at all to do with upbringing.

His next study, focused on pairs of twins separated at birth, reached similar conclusions: “70 percent of the variation in peoples’ weights may be accounted for by inheritance, a figure that means that weight is more strongly inherited than nearly any other condition, including mental illness, breast cancer or heart disease.” Despite a mantra that individuals need to eat less and exercise more, America’s obesity epidemic grows out of modern circumstances exploiting inherent biological traits.

In today’s world, even one’s own weight is the result of a complex web of biology and relationships, both of which have overwhelming influence compared to personal choice or discipline. Furthermore, not only do the causes of obesity cross individual boundaries, but so do obesity’s consequences.

The most direct impact of obesity on the non-obese comes through health insurance premiums. Both public and private health insurance work by distributing the costs of care across all beneficiaries in the form of regular payments. By spreading around risk, health insurers can help guarantee no individual’s costs are too high.

However, when many obese people enroll—with averaging lifetime health costs 30% greater than that of individuals of normal weight—everyone’s premiums go up as the average price of care per person climbs. In fact, obesity has been credited with causing 25% of the growth in U.S. health spending over the last couple decades. 

The problem extends beyond the health sector, too—the National Business Group on Health estimates businesses lose $13 billion annually due to obesity-related costs ranging from medical fees to decreased productivity to missed work. That’s almost $150 the average American family must spend every year for the obesity-related increase in production costs of goods and services. No matter how you slice it, we would all benefit from a slimmer society.

Minnesota has an obesity rate of 25.3%, well over twice as high as its 10.2% rate just 20 years ago. To really address our obesity epidemic as a state and as a nation, we need to stop viewing weight as an individual responsibility and instead recognize the far-reaching social causes and consequences of weight gain. The sooner we recognize we’re all in this together, the sooner real progress can be made.

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  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    November 22, 2011 at 10:15 am

    One thing society can do is to force fast-food restaurants to offer real—not faux, such as “salads” with more fat than a hamburger—low fat, low sugar meals. 

    Pizza restaurants could use low-fat cheeses, at least for customers who request them.  All restaurants, no matter how small if independent or how large a chain they may belong to, could offer real veggies and fresh fruits.

    And customers could be informed that fresh veggies on a meat sandwich actually taste better than mayo and/or butter while adding moisture and texture.

  • Ginny says:

    November 22, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Food manufacturers, restaurants, and the media need to take some responsibility too, and they could alter their practices without too much difficulty. Restaurants could not only use better quality and lower fat and salt in their food, but make smaller portions. Many of us take home half of our meal when we eat out. Many others just discard it. In the face of worldwide issues of food distribution, this is obscene.
    The media start indoctrinating children before they can talk with their offers of junk food and sweet foods that add no nutritional benefits, but add to the obesity problem.
    And education: I see people in my neighborhood, children, usually, who walk out of a neighborhood grocery store with a filled, bulging plastic bag holding pop, candy bars, potato chips, and other fatty non nutritional “foods.” I think that they are not educated and that they probably live in a culture where that doesn’t seem like a problem.