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Government's place in the kitchen

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Esther Cepeda
October 20, 2011
— Whenever I write about what role the federal government might play in curbing obesity, people get incredibly upset about what they see as unwarranted state intrusions into private lives.

I'll spare you the furious, all-caps missives. But more than concerns about the government's general inefficiency or the feared loss of individual freedoms, the most common battle cry I hear is that diet and weight-related health issues are none of the government's darned business.


Republican strategist Karl Rove trotted out this same, tired claim in a recent Wall Street Journal column bemoaning liberals' "politics of condescension" -- their lack of faith in people's ability to make the best decisions for themselves.


Rove wrote: "The Democratic nanny-state vision even holds that parents can't be trusted with their kids' breakfast. In an effort funded by Mr. Obama's stimulus, 'voluntary' guidelines will go into force by 2014 to prohibit the use of animated characters like Tony the Tiger to market breakfast cereals. Advertising restrictions will target even peanut butter and jelly."


I think Karl Rove is a smart guy, and I agree with much of the rest of his column, which champions unfettered markets as the best path to economic prosperity. But he's dead wrong about government and food.


For starters, parents cannot, in fact, be trusted with their kids' breakfast -- the obesity statistics prove it.


Nationally, about 16 percent of all children 10 to 17 are not just overweight but obese, according to the Trust for America's Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report "F as in Fat." Other studies have found that almost 10 percent of infants and toddlers carry excess weight, and more than 20 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 5 are already overweight or obese.


Even parents who believe they're instilling moderate eating habits by forgoing sugary caricature-driven cereal bombs may pat themselves on the back, thinking they're feeding kids healthy food, when that isn't always the case.


Cheerios, the top-selling cereal in America, has as many carbohydrates in just one cup as do three Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies, plus almost 10 percent of an adult's recommended daily sodium intake and very little fiber to show for it. "Healthy" foods such as flavored instant oatmeal and dessert-like yogurts aren't much better.


And we could debate those examples because any meal can be healthy or unhealthy depending on what else is included in a day-to-day diet. But that's how nutrition is: Daily food choices aren't simple or intuitive, and their healthiness isn't completely predictable. In the last few weeks, what health-conscious eater hasn't seen headlines about listeria outbreaks traced to cantaloupes and lettuce and worried about the safety of all the fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator?


Certainly the value of the intersection of government and food is clear to those who avoided typically healthy options that might have made them sick if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wasn't on the watch.


We know adults are in bad shape, too. In September, the British medical journal Lancet estimated that half the United States will be obese by 2030 unless government interventions prevent it.


Since April 2010, military experts have been warning about citizens who can't get into the armed forces because they are "too fat to fight." Earlier this month, during the annual Association of the U.S. Army gathering in Washington, Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, told attendees that approximately 15 percent of active-duty troops and 30 percent of reserve units are undeployable because of medical reasons. The most pervasive problems are injuries to muscles and bones resulting from one out of every four Army recruits having low iron and poor bone density - hello, malnutrition -- and recruits overall having the highest body mass index in Army history.


Is this, too, none of the government's business? Be real, it's obviously in the country's best interest for government to take an active role in keeping its citizenry healthy.


Whether that means blocking lobbyists from exerting their influence to make food stamps an accepted payment method at fast-food restaurants or making fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains more affordable -- or taxing junk foods -- government has a legitimate role to play in our eating habits.


If the Karl Roves of the world would stop comparing efforts to educate parents about high-fat, high-sugar foods to government meddling, this country might be quicker in getting down to the business of fighting off our bipartisan obesity epidemic.


Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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