Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Empire Strikes Fat

Every time I spend a couple of weeks outside the United States I am stunned on returning by how many seriously overweight people there are in the country. We fat people are everywhere to be seen. At a time when the country's politicians are pondering health care reform and looking for ways of cutting back on constantly rising costs, it is painfully obvious that one starting point would be do to put more effort into educating the public about all the diseases associated with obesity. Education is a place to begin, but clearly more than education is required. This is an area in which Americans need a government that interferes in their personal lives and limits their misspent, squandered and abused freedom.

As obvious as the oversized people in the United States are the oversized servings put before them in restaurants. In Europe or Asia, a fairly common size for a serving of a soft drink is 200mL (about 7 fl. oz.) On the campus where I teach I frequently see students walking around with 16 ounce or even 32 ounce containers filled with sugary soft drinks. It is not uncommon for restaurants in the United States to offer as many free refills of a large container of Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola or Dr Pepper as a customer can drink. A European or Asian can expect to pay approximately the same for a standard serving of Coca-Cola as an American pays for a serving several times as big. The same thing can be said about coffee and about solid foods. Europeans and Asians pay about the same for a standard serving as Americans pay for a much larger standard serving.

According to the McDonald's website, a McDonald's Happy meal consisting of a cheeseburger, small french fries and 8 ounces of 1% chocolate milk adds up to 700 calories. According to the Nutrient Facts website, chocolate milk has 157 calories, so if you are on a diet, you might want to replace 240 mL of chocolate milk with 240 mL of Coca-Cola, which has only 97 calories according to a page on the Coca-Cola website. On the other hand, going for a double cheeseburger, a large serving of French fries and a 16-ounce Coke will bring the caloric intake up to around 1134—about the same as five slices of vegetarian pizza or 100 spears (38 cups) of broccoli or 10 large apples.

It is not only the people and the servings of food on their tables that are oversized, but also their vehicles. The majority of automobiles on European and Asian roads are fuel-efficient compacts and sub-compacts. In some countries, the number of automobiles on the road is considerably smaller than the number of bicycles, motorbikes and scooters, not to mention pedestrians who get from one place to another with no vehicle at all.

Americans eat and drink too much for their own good, they drive too much and they walk too little. Is there any way to coax them into eating and drinking less and walking more? One fairly obvious answer is to follow European and Asian examples. Make prices much higher. Imposing heavy taxes on sugary and fatty foods would discourage their consumption. Levying at least a 200% tax on a McDonald's Happy Meal ™ while leaving fruits, vegetables and whole grains untaxed would go a long way to helping people make better food choices.

As for exercise, Americans are not at all likely to volunteer to drive their unnecessarily big cars less as long as fuel prices are as ridiculously low as they are in the United States. The price of gasoline in most European countries is about triple the price in the United States, while Canadians pay about $1 per gallon more than Americans. Mexicans pay about the same as Americans, despite the fact that the minimum wage in Mexico about 55% of the minimum wage in the United States. According to Nation Master website, a starting salary for a school teacher in Mexico is around $10,465 per year, in contrast to $25,707 in the United States. A starting salary for a school teacher in the Netherlands is $25,896. What this means is that a Mexican school teacher has to work 2.5 times as much as an American to earn enough money to buy one gallon of gasoline, while a Dutch school teacher has to work three times as much to earn the cost of a gallon of gasoline.

If fuel prices in America were comparable to those in Europe, Canada and Mexico, there is no doubt that Americans would walk more and be more healthy (while, as a bonus, contributing much less to greenhouse gases that cause climate change). The best way to achieve those prices is to levy substantially higher taxes. The effect would be to make Americans less prone to expensive obesity-related illnesses, which would bring down health costs. It is time for Americans to consider the advantages of being a physically and morally healthy nation instead of a degenerate empire of lazy and sick fat cats. The extra revenue raised by those taxes could then be used to fund a government-run single-payer health-care system providing universal coverage. It would make living in the United States a little more like living in a civilized country.