Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Things I’ve Noticed Along The Way

Obesity in the America: what if we reframed it as an issue of national security?

The past months have taken me abroad a lot.  Whenever I travel, especially outside the US, my sensitivities for observation are heightened.  Entering China a few years ago for the first time introduced me to a reality of smog far worse than warnings had prepared. Shanghai was particularly jaw dropping as my first experience of noon-time black sky on a clear weather day.  That experience caused a shift in the way I think of Los Angeles – even on a bad California air day.

Travel also affords encountering people, in my case hundreds of thousands in just the past twelve months … on sidewalks, hotels, restaurants, streets, in trains and airplanes, and at airports.  The noticing??  Not really new news - people living outside the US are definitely thinner than we Americans, and in surprisingly large numbers.  In fact, the difference was so stark that I had a hard time believing my eyes when I first noticed it.

Passing back across US borders can be jolting.  The past year has included numerous walks through those final steel doors after the questioning eyes of Immigration and Customs officials have turned to gaze elsewhere.  And when I do pass into the airport lobbies the body sizes of We The People is often alarming. 

I’m not hitting a new drum.  The news abounds with the fact that obesity in the US is a problem.  But the reality of actually experiencing it gives pause. When you leave the US long enough you can get used to seeing so much thinness (by trainload, busload, sidewalk load, bicycle load, truck load) that you can forget what it’s like back home. You can also forget just how large our food is portioned out with such regularity.

I decided to do a bit of research.  Here’s the skinny on what I’ve found so far.  Thirty six percent of adult population of the US is obese, so say numerous valid reports.  A few months ago on a trip to Petaluma’s Bounty Farm (in the small town where I live) I found myself listening to a concerned nurse addressing the amount of sugar actually contained in one soft drink.  I had heard about the data, but until I actually saw her produce a pile of sugar stacked aside a twelve-ounce can of soda the numbers didn’t really mean anything to me.  Now those numbers do.

From 1950 to 1960 our national statistic was 9.7% adult obesity.  By 1970 the percentage had grown to 11.3%.  1994 placed it at 23%.  Today we’re at 36%, and the forecast is that by 2030 we will hit a staggering 42% adult obesity level. 

Another interesting statistic has to do with the amount of food we waste.  Reports of mid-2011 placed our national waste – food thrown away unconsumed – at 25%, and calculated at approximately 200 lbs of food per person wasted per year. Last week an NPR program reported data showing we’ve now hit 40% waste.  Interesting: we’re discarding a higher percentage of food, and simultaneously growing larger plumper bodies.  Hmmmm?

Back to the original question:  Should obesity in the USA be reframed as a national security issue rather than a health issue?

I’m of the mind that we may want to consider thinking of it from this perspective.  Why?  At least three immediate reasons come to mind:
#1 – A casual observation of the political dancing we do here in the US, especially the past few years, indicates that hot topic health related issues wind up producing gridlock.

#2 – Most of the US – certainly our politicians, regardless of party affiliation – would shake in our boots if we were thought to be embracing weak national security, especially since September 11, 2001. We believe and promote the notion that it’s better to be strong than weak.  Actually, being strong is a pretty good idea in a world wrestling with its predatory tendencies.  America measures her strength using yardsticks of national defense and national security.  And - according to our Constitution - we the people have a right, ACTUALLY A RESPONSIBILITY, to protect ourselves, fellow citizens and our liberties.  Most of the world agrees with that notion, by the way.

#3 – Individuals unable to muster the physical stamina to care for themselves in the most basic ways are forced expend increasing amounts of time, energy and money in order to find and secure others who will do that for them.  The statistical tendencies show us that our pool of weaker bodies is growing, while our pool of strong bodies is diminishing. 

Powerful technologies, some say, provide security, hence the need for physical stamina isn’t all that important.   Really?  History speaks otherwise.

Look again.  From 1950 to 1960 with 9.7% adult obesity, about 90% of us could be counted upon to answer some kind of minimal call to action – but it’s even less that that when considering other “health related reasons”.  But let’s forget that for a moment and continue the count down. By 1970 with obesity at 11.3%, that call could be answered by 88%.  By 1994 those able to answer the call had dropped to 77%.  And if the predictions are accurate, then by 2030 our collective capacity will shrink to 58% able to take some kind of effective action.

What do you think?  If the issue of Obesity in America were reframed to include seeing it through the lens of national security might we be able to understand it in a way to reverse a trend and solve a problem?  Leading, by the way, to a physically healthier nation.

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