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Eat, drink and watch out

Posted: May 24, 2011 9:22 a.m.
Updated: May 25, 2011 5:00 a.m.

NEW YORK -- Once upon a time, Ma would say: "Sit up and eat your vegetables." Pa said: "Don't talk with your mouth full."

Other common utterances included: "Go outside and play." And, "After you finish your chores."

Families may not have been happier -- and family dinners may have been daily rituals of tiny tortures (the ennui that passeth all understanding) -- but neither were the words "childhood obesity" part of the vernacular.

Fat kids (can we say that?) have always been among us, but obesity was not the plague it is today. Nor was it necessary for the federal government to instruct families about how and what to eat. We all knew the pyramid scheme of nutrition. I seem to remember it tacked to school bulletin boards, just beneath the portrait of George Washington.

This isn't nostalgia speaking. And though I tried to provide family dinners most nights when the kids were small, I told my son when he left for college: "You're gonna miss my takeout."

Then again, it's no mystery why kids are fatter these days or what is required to fix the problem. Eat less; move more; listen to your parents -- if you can find them.

Hold the Nobel. Really.

Bless Michelle Obama for trying to get the word out that eating vegetables and playing ball are, as Martha Stewart would put it, "good things." I'm as willing as anyone to be cynical about such insights -- and hated nanny statism before it was cool. Yet the message is important and someone has to say it. Who better than the mother in chief?

But maternal advice is one thing and a government-enforced nutritional mandate is another. Trans fats are now outlawed in places; spuds in school lunches are the latest target.

Personally, I wouldn't touch a trans fat if you wrapped it in gold and sprinkled it with diamonds, but this is because I can read, comprehend, digest, recall and act on the free will allotted to all sentient adults. In the absence of willpower among some, should trans fats be forbidden to all? Where exactly does one stop drawing that little line?

The questions of when and whether the government should intervene in matters of personal taste are not harmless. As government becomes more involved in health decisions, as inevitably will be the case under the Affordable Health Care Act, government necessarily will become more involved in personal nutrition issues.

The same strategy that created pariahs out of smokers now is being aimed at people who eat unattractively. It isn't only that you're hurting yourself by eating too much of the wrong foods; you're hurting the rest of us by willfully contributing to your own poor health and therefore to the cost of public health. Fat is the new nicotine.

Once the numbers crunchers start quantifying the cost to society incurred by people who eat too much ($100 billion a year, according to one estimate), you can be sure that not-such-good-things are coming your way soon. Think Nurse Ratched in an apron.

The stats are alarming, to be sure, especially regarding children. The rate of childhood obesity has doubled for preschool children in the past three decades. About 9 million children over age 6 are considered obese.

The issue isn't only about spuds in the school lunches, though overconsumption of high glycemic carbohydrates has to be factored into any calculation about obesity. At least as significant, if not utterly crucial, are poverty and shattered families, which often go hand-in-hand. Also significant are the high cost of healthy food (rent "Food Inc." for an overview) versus cheap, fast food. Our drive-through culture, which applies to relationships as well as mealtimes, is the real enemy of fitness and health.

Thus, it seems clear that the real solution to obesity isn't more government regulation but more personal responsibility. I know, sheer genius. This now-dusty notion is the impetus behind the recently launched "Together Counts" campaign, created by The Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a coalition of 160 organizations. Essentially, it's a private effort to encourage families to become healthier by spending more time exercising and eating together.

Once upon a time we called this "life," but we post-modernists apparently need a little help with the basics. At minimum, we need a website: www.togethercounts.com.

Whatever works, I reckon, but, fuddy-duddily speaking, more chores and fewer gadgets -- and married parents who torture their kids with rules -- probably would do the trick as well. As with most problems, the solution is family.

 

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