A problem too big for self-discipline?

January 13, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Pediatricians are generally good at making nice with children, but those at the American Academy of Pediatrics might send a lot of terrified kids running for the exits. The organization has just put out a statement urging schools to banish sugary soft drinks in an effort to keep students from enjoying themselves.

No, that's not true. It's really an effort to keep them from getting fat, or at least fatter. The AAP thinks this action is imperative because, it says, one of every six American children is overweight.

But it's hard to believe the change would make much difference. After all, it wouldn't cause kids to like low-fat milk more, or Mountain Dew less. Those who can't get their sugar at school may just drink more of the forbidden stuff at home. Or they may bring their own. Or they may just indulge in other fattening treats.

The approach proposed by the AAP hasn't worked in Sweden, where the government goes to great lengths to keep kids lean. Swedish kids are systematically protected from the temptations of vending machines in schools and TV commercials aimed at getting them to buy things such as fast food. They also enjoy access to all sorts of subsidized sports meant to keep them active. Yet "the number of kids who are overweight has tripled in the past 15 years - roughly the same rate as in other European countries," reports The Wall Street Journal.

The problem kids have, in America as well as Sweden, is the same problem adults have: Food keeps getting cheaper, more abundant and more tempting, and the amount of physical activity required of us keeps diminishing.

Gluttony and sloth are two vices that most people, for most of human history, didn't have to worry about: Food was too scarce and the demands of survival too great. But today, most people have to make a conscious effort not to eat too much and exercise too little. So the extra calories we ingest stay with us.

Our marvelously productive economy has made it easier for us all to consume more of everything. As W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm noted in their 1999 book Myths of Rich & Poor, the average person had to work an hour and 11 minutes in 1970 to pay for a large pepperoni pizza, compared with 50 minutes today. At the same time, whatever work that average person does is less likely to burn a lot of calories.

Of course the answer is simple: Americans should eat less and move more. But "simple" doesn't mean "easy." We've all known for a long time what we need to do, and it hasn't altered behavior enough to matter. Human beings are designed to like stuffing ourselves with tasty foods. We're also programmed to conserve energy. Today we live in a society where most of us can do both as much as we want - which is a lot.

It may be futile to think we could all acquire the strength to overcome these relentless instincts. In recent years, it's true, the use of tobacco and alcohol has declined, suggesting we're capable of doing what's best for us. But that achievement only dramatizes the challenge posed by obesity. We can all live without beer and cigarettes. None of us can live without food and rest.

So we may have to put our hopes in other possibilities. One is to concoct new low-calorie foods that taste sinfully rich. If people can't stop themselves from scarfing French fries or ice cream, the only way to fight obesity may be to give them French fries or ice cream that won't make them fat. Or maybe the pharmaceutical industry could invent a pill that will allow us to eat whatever we want without harming our bodies.

These remedies may sound like a ridiculous response to a malady that can be solved through self-discipline. But for many people, advising them to eat less and exercise more is about as effective as advising them to grow taller. Scientific and technological advances caused the problem, and scientific and technological advances may have to fix it.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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