The Obesity Epidemic in the Time of Trump

It’s no secret that the American obesity epidemic is a crisis of epic proportions. Despite the Obama administration’s Task Force on Childhood Obesity and Let’s Move! campaign, obesity rates have steadily increased since the beginning of the decade. According to the most recent report by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 39.8% of American adults and 18.5% of children are now considered obese.

The Trump administration inherited this public health crisis and will continue to battle it for at least the next three and a half years. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has already been criticized for halting the implementation of strict Obama-era standards regarding the amount of sodium, whole grains, and sweetened milk present in school cafeterias, as well as for denouncing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps.

Additionally, President Trump’s Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has been condemned for pushing back the compliance date of the new Nutrition Facts Label requirements, which many see as a large concession to major food lobbying groups. The aforementioned actions are typical of right-leaning governments, and result in a proclivity towards industry self-regulation as the primary method of combating the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, the food industry cannot always be counted upon to act in the best interest of the American population if a more profitable option exists.

In 1968, research began by Procter & Gamble (P&G), a large consumer goods corporation, to develop a compound that could deliver fat to premature babies. This chemical, eventually named Olestra, failed at its intended job but was found to have a large potential as a substitute in foods. It’s essentially the phony version of dietary fat — it behaves identically to the real analogue, yet evades digestion by the body.

P&G saw a massive market potential for a food additive that could render even the worst junk food “healthy.” Unfortunately, Olestra had some rather serious health setbacks — it limited the absorption of essential fat-soluble vitamins and caused severe gastrointestinal (GI) distress at relatively low concentrations. Despite these caveats, P&G continued to lobby the FDA to give Olestra the green light for use in the American food supply. After millions of dollars and several decades of research, the FDA finally approved Olestra in 1996, contingent on the fact that all products containing the compound warned consumers of its potential gastrointestinal effects.

Only four years passed between Olestra’s market launch in 1998 and the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s declaration that the chemical’s existence was “one of the biggest blunders at the FDA.” Furthermore, a 2011 study by Purdue University actually linked Olestra with weight gain — the very ailment that it was marketed to avoid.

This is just one example of industry’s tendency to prioritize its own profits over the health of consumers. After countless years and dollars spent to push Olestra to market as a way of aiding in weight loss, the side effects of an under-researched and over-idealized chemical rendered it useless and left the American public worse off than it was before. In this vein, the Trump administration’s inclination towards industry self-regulation is alarming and unlikely to result in any tangible progress towards alleviating the obesity epidemic.

The proper way to regulate the food industry likely lies somewhere in between this approach and one characterised by red tape and government mandates. At the end of the day, the federal government has a duty to advocate for the health of all American citizens and act to remediate the negative effects of the obesity crisis. Likewise, large food corporations operate as traditional businesses and have the ultimate goal of gaining a profit. These two facts are often opposed and necessitate the existence of a neutral advisory body that is beholden to the American consumer, not to industry representatives or government officials.

This hypothetical committee may be housed within a government department or as part of a separate contracted agency but must be strictly non-partisan in order for it to operate effectively. It should consist of experts in nutrition, food science, public health, and related fields and should exclude political appointees and those deemed to have conflicts of interest with the food industry. These panel members should hold the responsibility of overseeing scientific research regarding the health and safety of proposed food groups, additives, and nutrients, and most importantly, communicating them to the public.  Furthermore, it must receive adequate funding in order to successfully launch these campaigns to reach the vast majority of the American population. Industry is profit-motivated, and consumers who are armed with the most up-to-date nutrition knowledge will exert market pressure on companies to modify their food products in ways that benefit the health of all.

Industry will likely oppose this proposal vehemently — especially those with large amounts of lobbying power including the beef, dairy, and egg sectors. However, this committee will almost certainly be more palatable than actual legislation — industry is typically averse to government regulation, yet their modus operandi is not conducive to products that will contribute to the overall well-being of the American public. Similarly, government agencies that have longstanding relationships with lobbying groups and trade associations may also push back against this committee if it is perceived as an infringement on their power. Despite their hesitations, it still remains an indisputable fact that the federal government is at least partially responsible for the health of the American people and should act accordingly.

Clearly, past approaches to combating the American obesity epidemic have not succeeded. This public health crisis is equally recalcitrant in other nations around the world, including the UK, Australia, and many members of the EU. This very notion necessitates an innovative, and perhaps radical, tactic that can ameliorate one of the largest crises to date. A non-partisan and scientifically-based advisory committee for matters of health and nutrition offers immense promise to aid in this battle, and could be pitched as a middle ground between industry self-regulation and government intervention that would act in the name of the American people. Opposition is likely to arise from all parties involved, but desperate times call for desperate measures — and the nearly 40% obesity rate amongst American adults is certainly cause for concern.

Sabrina KimComment