Sam Uretsky

Obesity Epidemic Raises Health Costs

The food snobs are right, but that’s no reason to listen to them. Health care costs are going up, partly because health care is expensive, but partly because more people have chronic conditions that call for more treatment. A lot of this can be traced to the obesity epidemic, which is fairly dramatic.

According to the Centers For Communicable Disease Control (CDC) “In 2010, no state had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%. Thirty-six states had a prevalence of 25% or more; 12 of these states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia) had a prevalence of 30% or more.”

Obesity leads to a collection of medical and physical problems, starting with type 2 diabetes, but expanding to include heart disease, some types of cancer, liver disease, and bone and joint problems.

There’s no single or simple reason for the obesity epidemic, just a lot of partial reasons that affect a few people, but taken together become a national challenge in both health and healthcare financing.

A bad diet is too common a cause. Faced with rising prices and lower incomes, some people are consuming more fats and starches.

Beyond that, television and magazines have largely turned cooking into a spectator sport. There are some valuable shows on Food Network and Public Broadcasting, but they’re competing with Iron Chef, Top Chef, Chopped and Cupcake Wars.

Watching any of these competitions is on a par with watching the ice-skating championships at the Winter Olympics – it’s wonderful, but not the sort of thing a rational person would try.

In a lot of regions, home cooking has been in decline since WW II led women to work outside the home. This was wonderful for society, leading to improvements in gender equality (read Gail Collins’ America’s Women — it goes into detail and explains a lot) but some of the skills formerly dumped on women have simply been lost and have to be recovered.

Basic cooking techniques have, for many people, given way to over-processed convenience foods and take-out. For a lot of people, junk food has the false allure of seeming to be fast, easy and economical. The easy part is probably true, but overly processed foods, foods high in fat and sodium and low in fiber carry the hidden costs of long term health problems – bad for the people who rely on these meals on a regular basis, and bad for Medicare and Medicaid.

Michelle Obama deserves great credit for her work with the White House garden, using it as a starting point for a crusade against childhood obesity. As long ago as 2000 the CDC was warning about the appearance of type 2 diabetes in children. This is the type of diabetes which is linked to obesity and had rarely been seen in children in the past. The CDC reported “As obesity is currently on the increase in several industrialized or industrializing countries, a similar increase in type 2 DM [diabetes mellitus] in children may soon emerge worldwide, and this will require preventative measures.”

So far, the best preventive health measures are the easiest – walking and cooking. Walking is an effective exercise and doesn’t require special equipment or a gym membership.

Cooking, generally, reduces costs and increases consumption of fresh foods which are more healthful than hyperprocessed foods.

Rachael Ray is reviled by the food snobs, but her message – get into the kitchen, this is really fast and easy – may prevent thousands of heart attacks and strokes every year. Jacques Pépin has a PBS show where things routinely go wrong – proving you don’t have to cook like an Iron Chef to eat well. Mark Bittman (New York Times and PBS) repeatedly demonstrates that you can make a low cost, healthful meal in a tiny kitchen with thrift store pots and pans.

Politicians may be beyond help when it comes to reducing the deficit – but some things can be done without government intervention. For starters, there’s roast chicken and broiled bluefish.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2011

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